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Research Views: Rational and Irrational Approaches to Understanding Reading

Author(s): Peter B. Mosenthal

Source: The Reading Teacher, Vol. 40, No. 6 (Feb., 1987), pp. 570-572
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the International Reading Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20199539
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Rational and irrational

to understanding readin

Peter B. Mosenthal, Syracuse Universit

JVeu? York

I heard Daddy telling Mother

She should spank me much, much more,
Not a little tiny, bottom wack
But a smacking that was sore.
I heard Mother asking Daddy
Why he thought she should;
Since I was just like him,
It wouldn't do much good.

In Philosophy and the Modem World (Indiana University Press, 1959), Albert
W. Levi reinterprets the history of philosophy from two perspectives. The first
is "multiplicity and division." Levi notes that the Tower of Babel is metaphor for
all modern understanding. During the Middle Ages, there was a unified intellec
tual approach to understanding, because there was but one group vested with the
authority to define "understanding." However, with the breakdown of Medieval
society and the advent of science, the Church lost its control over what ques
tions were to be studied and what answers were acceptable.
The rise of science led to a multiplicity of new questions and new methods for
answering them. For each new method invented, there arose a new answer.
Scientists became strongly divided over which method was most appropriate.
Practitioners became divided over which answers were true and which were


570 The Reading Teacher February 1987

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Levi also interprets the history of philosophy from the dual perspective of
"rationality vs. irrationality." According to him, there have been two great tradi
tions underlying attempts to explain behavior: the Darwinian and the Cartesian.

Darwin vs. Descartes

In the Darwinian tradition, it is assumed that the goal of behaving is to survive.
Because this goal is biologically determined, wo/man has no real control over

adaptation-i.e., the means to survive.

The consequence of this belief is a view of a world that is "irrational." Because
nature determines both the goals and means of our existence, we have no need
to talk about purposes for behaving. Nor do we have any control over how we
accomplish our goals. In sum, because the ends and means of life are biologi
cally predetermined, understanding behavior is nothing more than understand
ing the conditioned reflexes that guide our daily thoughts and actions. In this
regard, we spank children to develop a conditioned reflex to bottom smacking;
if the reflex exists, then behavior is said to be good.
In the Cartesian way of thinking, wo/man is endowed with the intellectual
capacity to determine her or his own goal for behaving. In addition, each is
endowed with the ability to determine what are the best ways to achieve these
goals. "Rational" behavior exists when we have used reason to identify: (1) a
goal, or purpose for behaving, and (2) an optimal means for achieving this goal.
In the poem above, Mother reflects the rational approach to behavior. Rather
than endorsing spanking for spanking's sake, she questions it as a means for
altering behavior. If the goal is for the child to behave like an adult, and Daddy
is an adult, and if the child already behaves like Daddy, then why spank the
child? That's reasoning!

Freedom of choice
Levi argues that in the history of philosophy, these two perspectives have been
combined to form two principal approaches to understanding understanding. On
the other hand, philosophers representing both approaches acknowledge the
multiplicity of questions and methods that have resulted in wo/man's attempt to
understand understanding. In addition, they acknowledge the divisions that exist
among scientists and practitioners in terms of the answers they provide to these

disparate questions.

On the other hand, what distinguishes these two approaches is how philoso
phers view the problems of multiplicity and division. According to Darwinian
philosophers, such multiplicity and division exist because people have different
reflex responses to different adaptive patterns in their environment. In our mod
ern age, people assume the values of those with whom they associate; their
"primary motivation is the insatiable force of the psychological need for ap

proval" (p. 12).

In this approach, we align ourselves with a particular question, method, and

answer because this response provides us with the greatest behavioral reward.
Instead of a spanking, we get praise. This constitutes the "irrational" approach to
multiplicity and division.
According to Cartesian philosophers, multiplicity and division exist because
people have different sociopolitical goals or purposes for behaving. To behave
involves making choices; we have the freedom of choice but not from choice.
As thinking human beings, we identify individual goals. This gives rise to a
multiplicity of goals, all of which are valid in their own right.
Research Views 571

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Associated with different goals are different means. This gives rise to a multi
plicity of methods to define these goals. Different methods give rise to different
answers. Different methods and answers are appropriate for the goals for which
they were devised but not for other goals.
To understand the multiplicity and division associated with understanding, we
first must identify the goals that give rise to such differences. Next, we must
identify the best methods for defining and achieving these goals.
Before spanking, we identify that our goal is good behavior. We next define
good behavior and determine the best method for bringing it about. It may well
be that spanking as a means is unrelated to how we define our goal of good


In sum, this constitutes the "rational" approach to multiplicity and division.

Buying into Darwinism

In understanding reading, we have adopted the Darwinian approach. In our

field, there is little, if any, debate on what constitutes the goals of reading in our
society. There is little, if any, attempt to show how theories serve as definitions
of these different goals.
Finally, there is little, if any, attempt to show how instructional programs can
be systemtically developed from theories to optimize achievement of different
reading goals. Rather, we buy into the newest theories and instructional prac
tices because we have been socially conditioned to believe that "newest" is syn
onymous with "best."
We ask: "What do we teach in teaching reading?" "How do we teach reading?"
"How do we evaluate reading?" Never do we ask: "Why do we teach reading in
the first place?"
In adopting the Darwinian approach to understanding reading, we have failed
to recognize that the many definitions of reading reflect different goals; associ
ated with these different goals are different theories that optimally define these
goals; associated with different theories are different instructional practices that
optimally enable us to achieve our respective goals.
In sum, our approach to understanding reading has been irrational. We have
taken to spanking without considering why; we have taken to researching and
teaching reading without considering the sociopolitical goals of this behavior.

Opting for the Cartesian

In adopting this Darwinian approach, we have bought into the assumption that
progress in reading is somehow predetermined; because the sociopolitical goal
of reading is already set, we need not debate the merits of this goal and explore
alternatives. We perpetuate the theorists' tradition by (1) teaching researchers
how to create new descriptive and operational definitions in response to old ones
and (2) teaching teachers how to implement new reading instructional programs
in response to old instructional programs.
All in all, it is somewhat ironical. To date, many reading researchers and
practitioners have rejected behavioristic theory and practice on the grounds that
it is irrational. Yet, from a philosophical point of view, they continue to adopt a
Darwinian approach to understanding understanding. As Levi would argue,
Darwinism is behaviorism at the philosophical level.
Rather than dwelling on the Darwinian approach, future Research Views will
consider how research and practice might be conceptualized from a Cartesian
approach to understanding understanding and reading.
572 The Reading Teacher February 1987

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