Volume 6, Issue 1, 2007
Philipp Dorstewitz, Shyama Kuruvilla
Rationality as Situated Inquiry
A Pragmatist Perspective on Policy and Planning Processes
Rationality bashing has become a popular sport. Critiques have quite rightly challenged models of rational planning that follow a linear progression from predefined ends to achieved goals. There have been several alternative theoretical and empirical developments including incrementalist projects, network
theories, critical communication approaches, and heuristic models.
Notwithstanding critiques of linear models of policy-making and planning, rationality as a general idea remains an important reference point for designing and evaluating policy-making and for orientating planning projects. We suggest that the concept of rationality needs to be revised rather than abandonedand this article discusses how rationality in decision making may be reconstructed.
We first review and critique some of the main preconceptions of rationality in policy-making and planning. We then discuss the nature and purpose of rationality from the perspective of John Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy and in light of contemporary theoretical and empirical analyses. We position rationality as a procedural standard of excellence that evolves and informs practices in the context of problematic situations. We propose that a theory of rationality, as a guide for planning and policy, should be developed for application in concrete problematic situations and at the same time should play a normative role and be orientated to moral, socio-historical, and ecological considerations. Dewey’s pragmatist theory is a promising source for such considerations.
In this article we identify four ‘pillars’ of pragmatism to support such a revised rationality construct: (i) situationality, (ii) normativity, (iii) philosophical via media between foundationalism and relativism, and (iv) democratic inquiry. We discuss the application of a pragmatist rationality, that we refer to as ‘situational transactive’ rationality, using a model of decision making that builds on current understandings in planning and policy science. Finally, we discuss some of the possible advantages and challenges of undertaking such a pragmatist revision of rationality.