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"Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness" --Pascal

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) by Charles Mackay

"“Unreason” has an uncanny power to fascinate and seduce."--The Seduction of Unreason (2004) by Richard Wolin

 This page Irrationality is part of the publication bias list of the Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia, presented by Alfred Jarry.
This page Irrationality is part of the publication bias list of the Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia, presented by Alfred Jarry.

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Irrationality is thinking, talking or acting without regard of rationality. Usually pejorative, the term is used to describe thinking and actions which are, or appear to be, less useful or logical than the rational alternatives.

Irrational behaviors of individuals include taking offense or becoming angry about a situation that has not yet occurred, expressing emotions exaggeratedly (such as crying hysterically), maintaining unrealistic expectations, engaging in irresponsible conduct such as problem intoxication, disorganization, or extravagance, and falling victim to confidence tricks. People with a mental illness like schizophrenia may exhibit irrational paranoia.

There is a clear tendency to view our own thoughts, words, and actions as rational and to see those who disagree as irrational.


Types of behavior which are often described as irrational

Types of behavior which are often described as irrational include:

These more contemporary 'normative' conceptions of what constitutes a manifestation of irrationality prove difficult to empirically demonstrate because it is not clear by whose standards we are to judge rational or irrational behaviour.

Why does irrational behavior occur?

The study of irrational behavior is of interest in fields such as psychology, cognitive science, economics, game theory, and evolutionary psychology, as well as of practical interest to the practitioners of advertising and propaganda.

Theories of irrational behavior include:

  • people's actual interests differ from what they believe to be their interests.
  • mechanisms that have evolved to give optimal behavior in normal conditions lead to irrational behavior in abnormal conditions.
  • In situations outside of one's ordinary circumstances, one may experience intense levels of fear, or may regress to a Fight or flight mentality.
  • people fail to realize the irrationality of their actions and believe they are acting perfectly rational, possibly due to flaws in their reasoning.
  • apparently irrational decisions are actually optimal, but made unconsciously on the basis of "hidden" interests that are not known to the conscious mind
  • an inability to comprehend the social consequences of one's own actions, possibly due in part to a lack of empathy.
  • Some people find themselves in this condition by living "double" lives. They try to put on one "mask" for one group of people and another for a different group of people. Many will become confused as to which they really are or which they wish to become.

Factors which affect rational behavior include:

  • stress, which in turn may be emotional or physical
  • the introduction of a new or unique situation


Irrationalist is a wide term. It may be applied to mean one without rationality, for their beliefs or ideas. Or, more precisely, it may mean someone who rejects some aspect of rationalism, variously defined. For example religious faith may be seen as, in part, a rejection of complete rationalism about the world; this would be contested by some religious thinkers, in that the rational is a debatable term. On the other hand, it might be considered irrationalist to buy a lottery ticket, on the basis that the expected value is negative.

In philosophy

Greek philosophy established a fundamental differentiation between logical "true" assumptions of the universe and irrational "false" statements or mere opinions based on emotion or sensorial experience. The German cultural historian Silvio Vietta has shown that Greek philosophy thus founded a dual cultural system based on rationality as the domain of philosophy and science versus "irrational" emotion and sensuality as domains of literature and art. Since the irrational emotions as stirred up in literature threaten the rationality of human beings, Plato expelled poets from the state.

In the later history of philosophy this opposition of rationality and the irrational was renewed as a methodological differentiation by Descartes, but reversed by Pascal in his statement: “Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point” (“The heart has its reasons which reason does not know”). Pascal thus asserted a specific rationality of the "irrational" emotions. The philosophy of Sensualism (John Locke, among others) underlined the importance of the senses as the source of human perception and cognition.

Kierkegaard gave some remit to irrationality in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, where he claimed that 'Subjectivity is Truth'. Rather than allowing reason to do our choosing for us, Kierkegaard argued that irrational leaps of faith could be more useful, as they were more authentic (although, he never used the word 'authentic'), and thus gave more meaning to life. Objectivity, like reason, was opposed to subjectivity, and thus could not be said to give any meaning to anyone's life. Although he never dismissed rationality in its entirety, Kierkegaard argued that we could not allow rationality to make our decisions for us. In this, and to some degree, he offers a vindication of irrationality.

In literature

Much subject matter in literature can be seen as an expression of human longing for the irrational. In Romanticism irrationality was valued over the sterile, calculating and emotionless philosophy brought about by the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

The Dadaists and Surrealists later used irrationality as a basis for their art. The disregard of reason and preference for dream states in Surrealism was an exaltation of the irrational and the rejection of logic.

Mythology nearly always incorporates elements of fantasy and the supernatural; however myths are largely accepted by the societies that create them, and only come to be seen as irrational through the spyglass of time and by other cultures. But though mythology serves as a way to rationalize the universe in symbolic and often anthropomorphic ways, a pre-rational and irrational way of thinking can be seen as tacitly valued in mythology's supremacy of the imagination, where rationality as a philosophical method has not been developed.

On the other side the irrational is often depicted from a rational point of view in all types of literature, provoking amusement, contempt, disgust, hatred, awe, and many other reactions.

Intentional irrationality

Irrationality is not always viewed as a negative. Dada and Surrealist art movements embraced irrationality as a means to reject reason and logic. Projects such as the Experimental Research into Certain Possibilities of Irrational Embellishment of a City where proposed in the interwar period.

In science fiction literature, the progress of pure rationality is viewed as a quality which may lead civilization ultimately toward a scientific future dependent on technology. Irrationality in this case, is a positive factor which helps to balance excessive reason.

In psychology, excessive rationality without creativity may be viewed as a form of self-control and protection. Certain problems, such as death and loss, may have no rational solution when they are being experienced. We may seek logical explanations for such events, when in fact the proper emotional response is grief. Irrationality is thus a means of freeing the mind toward purely imaginative solutions, to break out of historic patterns of dependence into new patterns that allow one to move on.

See also

Related terms

absurdism - bohemianism - counter-enlightenment - Decadent movement - Dionysian - dream - fantastic - fascism - id - instinct - irrealis - romantic love - mental illness - nonsense - panic - phobia as irrational fears - Romanticism - Symbolist cultural movement - Postmodernism - unconscious

Further reading


Friedrich Nietzsche - Georges Bataille - Sigmund Freud - Henri Bergson



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