24 Nov 2010 2:30pm - 4:30pm CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge


Prof Lorraine Daston (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)


NB: This paper will be pre-circulated as a basis for the discussion after a short introduction by the author. Please contact the organisers if you would like to be added to the distribution list.

This paper is about how Enlightenment reason became Cold War rationality. To tell this story in its entirety would require volumes, encompassing everything from the history of philosophy since the Enlightenment to the rise of the modern bureaucracy to the development of the computer (and perhaps also the cookbook). In its distilled version, however, the history of Cold War rationality is the history of rules that could be executed with minimal discretion and deliberation and with maximal speed and efficiency. In stark contrast to reason, rationality aspired to be mindless. In the two decades following the close of World War II, human reason was reconceptualized as rationality. Philosophers, mathematicians, economists, political scientists, military strategists, computer scientists, and psychologists sought to define new kinds of norms for “rational actors”, a deliberately capacious category that embraced business firms, chess players, the mafia, computers, parents and children, or nuclear superpowers. What made both the generality and the immateriality of rational actors conceivable was the implicit assumption that whatever rationality was, its essence could be captured by a finite, well-defined set of rules that could be applied unambiguously in specified settings – without recourse to the faculty of judgment so fundamental to traditional ideals of reason and reasonableness. Cold War rationality – the constellation of attempts to formalize reasoning in game (and later decision) theory, artificial intelligence, operations research, cognitive science, and the study of strategy and conflict from circa 1945-1981 — was about following rules.


Open to all. No registration required.

Part of the Science, Technology and Bio-Social Studies Forum (STBS) seminar series. 
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