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Revisiting the rational choice and rationality debate in the social sciences: Is theory possible without rationality?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-38
Number of pages11
JournalInternational Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2007


Not only from outside economics, scathing criticisms of the rational choice and rationality assumptions on which much of the economists' models are based have also come from within economics and have constituted a major source of disagreement among economists. Especially, the Austrian school of economics and philosophy distinguishes itself from mainstream economics on this basis. Various theories such as critical realism, holism, Marxism, historicism, functionalism, semiotics, or the praxeology of the Austrian school, have appeared to be alternatives to rational choice and a heated debate have waged on which should be seen as representing a more realistic paradigm of the study of acting human subjects, interacting with others and their environment. The aversion to rational choice stems from its alleged orientation to subjective rationality, instrumental rationality, mechanistic, logical and mathematical formalism, utility maximization etc. Pushed to extreme, rational choice posits a distorted picture of reality that is both mechanistic and destructive. But the same accusations could well be levied against each of the theories that seek to replace rational choice. This paper takes the radical position that the alleged distinctions between rational choice and its rival theories are more imagined than real. Using a metaphysical hermeneutic deconstruction of the conceptualization of "theoria", this paper shows that the modern theory ("theoria") of knowledge takes as its foundational axiom, the agency of the subjective intellect which presupposes rationality: Rationality is inseparable from theory and both are articulated in the scientific method. We argue that a true alternative to rational choice must therefore, be in effect, an alternative to the scientific method, which as Heidegger pointed out, is itself the "theory of the real". The paper therefore, explores the essentiality of rationality in the modern conceptualization of theory and argues the impossibility of any modern theory to escape from subjective rationality of science insofar as it remains a theory - a theory of the real. So far as the scientific method is not simply a method, but the modern "theory of the real," constructed in the aftermath of Cartesian and Kantian Copernican Revolution, any theory of science, whether relative to the "social" or the "natural," qua theory, is necessarily scientific, methodic and turns on subjective rationality. Therefore, the distinction among competing theories of social science on the basis of rational choice and mathematical formalization have but little validity. We argue in this paper that any distinction worth making in epistemology of science should be between the primeval "theoria" of the pre-Cartesian and pre-Kantian metaphysics of being and the post-Cartesian and post-Kantian epistemology of science.

    Research areas

  • rational choice, rationality, scientific method, social scientism, theory

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