What is Rationality?

Brad C. Anderson

Knowledge is knowing how and knowing about.[1][2] We gain knowledge by applying various forms of rationality. We use rationality to measure and analyze our environment,[3] and then to justify our actions.[4] More than this, rationality is the basis of social interactions, for we expect people to behave reasonably.[5][6] We expect the same from organizations and the managers who run them.[7][8][9]

As the previous chapter on values discussed, Western education is founded on principles of instrumental-rationality.[10] We subsequently believe rationality is the logical process through which we learn objective truths.

In the above example, however, researchers used rationality to justify why physicians should adopt their medical innovation. Physicians, however, used rationality to justify why they chose not to. Where, then, is the objective truth?

Rationality takes many forms. Some of these forms aspire to apply logical processes to uncover objective truths, though others rely on different approaches. Because the world is complicated, we need many tools to navigate its complexities. The multiple forms rationality takes are the tools we have at our disposal to make sense of a messy world. The next section introduces these varied forms.


“Discovery” by Brad C. AndersonDeveloping organizational and managerial wisdomKwantlen Polytechnic University is licensed under “This work” is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / A derivative from the original work


Key Takeaways

  • Rationality
    •  Is used to measure and analyze our environment
    •  Is used to justify our actions
    • Is the basis for social interactions
    • Takes many forms

  1. Grant, R. M. (1996). Toward a Knowledge-Based Theory of the Firm. Strategic Management Journal, 17(S2), 109–122.
  2. Grant, R. M. (1996). Prospering in Dynamically-Competitive Environments: Organizational Capability as Knowledge Integration. Organization Science, 7(4), 375–387.
  3. Townley, B. (2008). Reason’s Neglect: Rationality and Organizing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  4. Taylor, C. (1985). Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Boden, D. (1994). The Business of Talk: Organizations in Action. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  6. Giddens, A. (1994). Reason without Revolution? In R. J. Bernstein (Ed.), Habermas and Modernity (pp. 95–124). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  7. Joullié, J.-E. (2016). The Philosophical Foundations of Management Thought. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 15(1), 157–179.
  8. March, J. G. (2006). Rationality, Foolishness, and Adaptive Intelligence. Strategic Management Journal, 27(3), 201–214.
  9. Townley, B. (2008). Reason’s Neglect: Rationality and Organizing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  10. Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


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What is Rationality? Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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