Home > Book Review, Philosophy, Secular > Notes On Nicholas Rescher’s ‘A System Of Pragmatic Idealism, Vol. II’: Values – Rationality And Cultivation Hierarchies.

Notes On Nicholas Rescher’s ‘A System Of Pragmatic Idealism, Vol. II’: Values – Rationality And Cultivation Hierarchies.

Rescher’s ultimate goal in this work is to outline the significance of values and evaluation in his overall theme of philosophical idealism, but more than this he focuses on values because of their centrality to understanding, both of ourselves and the world we live in.

[His book] It’s key thesis – which is argued pragmatically from various angles and points of departure – is that rationality as such and in general is bound up with the theory and practice of rational evaluation. A rational being must view in the light of this rationality not only its beliefs but it’s values as well. Valuation is an inherent part of the life of reason – moral evaluation included. For such a perspective to make sense it must show that value is not merely a matter of taste… Evaluation must be acknowledged in its objective, rational mode as dealing with facts of the matter (albeit evaluative rather than descriptive facts). (Rescher, 1993, Introduction)

And it’s in this section that the focus of this particular blog will be, after all the ‘subject/object split’ has been a problem for philosophers for centuries, made even more problematic when we move from the realism of simply coming to know what exists external to us (which has its own problems), to the axiological nature of ‘what values should be interpreted from what exists?’ Rescher’s project aims at discovering how one might go about combining two seemingly in-congruent positions, (1) the claim to objective (one might assume this to mean transcendent, or perhaps absolute) values and valuation, and (2) the subjective versions of such. But, how can a theory of rationality, especially regarding something as seemingly relative as values, claim to be transcendent to the subject perceiving such? What is a value, but what we make it to be, based on our specific cultural, historical epoch (as Foucault might say, see here and here)?

Rescher begins broadly with rationality, which he describes as the “intelligent pursuit of appropriate objectives – of proceeding in what we do with cogent reasons.” (p.3) As such to him rationality has two aspects, and its in these differences that we can see the germ of how one might separate the relativism of the subjects particular valuation from the overall process of valuation that applies to us all.

  1.  The personal/private/particular: to Rescher at this level of rationality what is rational or not turns on what is so for the agent, “duly considering his or her own personal situation and circumstances” (p. 3). More than this however this level also relies on a host of other subjective rules, such as: “the agent’s idiosyncratic information, experience, opportunities, capabilities, talents, objectives, aspirations, needs and wants.” (p.3) Inclusive in the list Rescher notes is not just the outward situational aspects but also the inner states related to a specific persons psychology or physiology.
  2. The impersonal/public/universal: this level relies on advisable standards that are “person indifferent and objectively cogent for anyone in those circumstances to proceed in a ‘rationally appropriate’ way…” (p.3) These standards fall at the highest level of abstraction, being general and unrestricted, meaning that what is rational for one person to do, would also be rational for anyone in the same position,

Rescher states this standard of rationality to be relatively trivial in nature, and that moreover this is how rationality is standardly conceived, but what exactly does it mean to be rational?

For a belief, action or evaluation to qualify as rational, the agent must (in theory at least) be in a position to give a “proper account” of it on whose basis others can see that “it is only right and proper” to resolve the issue in that way.” (Rescher, 1993, p.3)

To Rescher a rational act is such that a detached, intelligent observer could observe the facts of the matter (of someone else s particular choice) and be in a position to see that action as the rational thing to do even if they do not value the particular observed choice. To Rescher circumstances differ but the standards of rationality do not, and it’s in the very nature of rationality that this pertains: “It lies in the very meaning of the concept of rationality as such that if something is indeed the ‘rational thing to do’, then it must be possible in principle for anyone to recognize the rational sense of it once enough information is secured.” (p. 3) Moreover, the matter of good reasons and cogent grounds for action or belief is not something subjective, but rather is such that good reasons are good reasons for everyone, and thus objective.

It is important to note that just because there are standards of rationality, does not mean there is only one rational thing to do in a given situation, Rescher speaks of a rational resolution rather than the rational resolution to a given problem, meaning there might be a number of significantly reasonable options for a subject given a particular choice or situation.

Rescher recognizes all too well that the circumstantiality of reason contains “an unavoidable element of person relativity.” (p.4)

Our concrete rational commitments are indeed universal, but only circumstantially universal in a way that makes room for the variation of times, places, and the thousands of details of each individual and situation. (Rescher, 1993, p.4)

This speaks to the fact that what is rational for one to do or think hinges on the particulars of how one might be circumstanced, which will differ from person to person. Specifically Rescher notes that the subject acts rationally only when ones actions are subsumed under a universal principle of rationality that holds for everyone. (p.5)

This might seem to cloud the issue somewhat, after all, how can we have a standard of rationality that caters to the relativity of the subject, but which also pertains to us all? Moreover how can this standard have any meaning at all in light of such? Rescher answers this via his “cultivation hierarchies” in which he breaks rationality up into different “intermediate levels, or strata” of consideration in which the basic principles of rationality are broken up into general rational guidelines that eventually get more specific in nature, finally ending the particulars, which I will now share with you:

Display 1.1 Stratification Levels of the Norms of Rationality

  1. Characterizing aims of rationality. Rationality calls for the intelligent pursuit of appropriate objectives.

  2. Defining principles of rationality. The basic principles that delineate and specify rationality’s requirements. (For cognitive rationality, for example, the project at issue turns on the pursuit of truth and the achievement of correct answers to questions. It seeks “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”) These principles provide our criteria for assessing acceptability and adequacy of rational norms and standards of rational procedure.

  3. Governing norms and standards of rationality. Standards for appraising the “rules of the game” governing the rational transaction of affairs. (For cognitive rationality these norms are afforded by desiderata such as coherence, consistency, and simplicity.) These norms provide our criteria for assessing the acceptability and adequacy of our rules and practical procedures.

  4. Rules of rational procedure. Rules for the rational resolution of choices. (In the cognitive case, rules like modus ponens in deductive inference or trend extrapolation in inductive reference.) These rules constitute our criteria for assessing the rational acceptability and adequacy of particular resolutions.

  5. Rationally warranted rulings. Resolutions with respect to particular issues arising in particular concrete cases, such as: “Do (or accept) X in the existing circumstances.” (Rescher, 1993, p.8)

More simply Rescher notes it takes the format, (1): governing “finalities” (or governing principles), (2): implementing policies (guiding norms, desiderata etc), (3): methods of procedure (operating rules), (4): specific rulings. (p.8) As such from here we can use the example of medicine:

  1. Finalities (defining principles). “Maintaining health,” “curing illness and disease ” “restoring and maintaining normal bodily functioning,” “removing painful symptoms.” (Note that if these things are not at issue, then medicine is not at issue. An enterprise not concerned with any of these, whatever it may be, is not medicine.)

  2. Implementing norms, standards and criteria. “How is one to assess ‘health’?” “How is one to construe satisfactory ‘normality’?” “How is one to identify a ‘symptom’?” “Just what constitutes an ‘illness’?” (Note that for the Greeks, unlike ourselves, the idea of an illness without subject-experienced symptoms was scarcely conceivable. At this level there is already some room for variation.)

  3.  Rules and procedures. The modus operandi of medical practices – surgery or chiropractic treatment, drugs or psychotherapy, and the like. (These of course differ drastically from age to age and culture to culture.)

  4. Rationally warranted rulings. The specific interventions, prescriptions, and medical measures adopted in particular cases. (“Take two aspirin and get some rest.”) (Rescher, 1993, p.9)

Rescher notes that his strata start at the most abstract levels of uniformity and fixity, and that as we move down to the level of particular cases we gain more and more concrete detail, and with this detail brings variation.

Thus while the top-level is itself absolute and constant, there is “slack” at each step down the ladder, leaving (appropriate) room for an increasingly large element of variability and differentiation. (Rescher, 1993, p.9)

This might be enough for today’s purposes, that is to simply outline his basic thesis (and I say basic because we have barely begun to touch on it). In the next series I can delve deeper into what exactly his theory means and how he might defend it.


Rescher, N. (1993). A System Of Pragmatic Idealism, Volume II. The Validity of Values, a Normative Theory of Evaluative Rationality. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.

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