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This is a semantic-linguistic discussion on the word "rationale" that I post because it points out the complexity of language.  We assume that if we know the dictionary meaning we have nailed down a word, especially if it's the same in multiple sources with no sneaky alternative definitions.

This is based on a discussion today while walking our dogs with a bright politically astute man who was born and educated in Germany-about fifty years old.  We have wide ranging discussions, and I was sharing a book I'm reading called "Golden Holocaust" about the carnage caused by the cigarette industry.  I pointed out to him that the regime that sponsored the earliest investigation of the smoking-cancer link was the Nazis, but the damning epidemiological and biological evidence they amassed was easily dismissed after the war-- along with anything to do with that murderous regime. (actually we had no qualms about picking up on their advances in rocketry)

He was aware of the general cancer research actually supported by Hitler directly, based on the principle that to take harmful substances was depriving the Reich of a useful individual, and it was that which was unacceptable. It could thus be said that this was the rationale for such research during the third Reich.

Our conversation today was on something different, the illusions within our own country.   We drifted to our own reverence for all things military and other American truisms, and then got onto how these are endemic and bi-partisan.  At that point we drifted to what is called , Operation Iraqi Freedom"  the official name of the invasion and occupation of this country.  I told Huber that our rationale for this war was that it would trigger a spirit of democracy that would transform the Arab middle east.  

His response was clear, "that wasn't the rationale for the war!"  We each repeated our contentions and we seemed do be disagreeing on the word, not that the explanation that by destroying the dictatorship of one country it would change the entire region.  I told him that the word "rationale" means a justification, an excuse for an action that is really a cover for the underlying reason.  He said that he didn't understand it that way, and thought that I was saying that spreading democracy was a rational belief, based on the root of the word.  It was this that he was disputing.

I then told him that it is an understandable confusion, but given his erudition I decided to check out the word in the dictionary to be sure I was correct.  And thus this Dailykos diary and the following poll in the extended section:  

Here's the full poll, and since I can't cover all the bases fill in one, and give an explanation if you want.

The definition of the world "Rationale" as used in the above example:

The reason for a course of action
The rational basis for a plan or program
Can be either a genuine or cover explanation
An disingenuous explanation for an action
A rationalization to give cover for the real reason

This is the time to fill in the poll, and then return the discussion

More time

More time

OK now my comments and I hope to see others that follow.

All the dictionaries give a definition of either of the first two poll choices, "the rational reason for an action."  The closest to acknowledgement of my usage is one dictionary with a long list of synonyms that includes the word, "excuse."  

I write this diary to illustrate how we tend to think that words live in isolation, that we can understand a message outside of the context,  the purpose, the speaker and the audience.  And thus, with the decline of reader attention span, and the response of demanding ever more shorter communications we lose the ability to investigate meaningful issues in depth.  I see it as a real problem.


"Rationale" means:

42%20 votes
14%7 votes
38%18 votes
4%2 votes
0%0 votes

| 47 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Fascinating. I understand it to mean (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arodb, SoCalSal, linkage, koNko

    either a real or a cover explanation for an action.

    By the way, I have read the Golden Holocaust. Excellent, if extremely long, book. I was aware of the Nazi research into smoking before I read the book--part of it I think had to do that Hitler abhorred smoking and would not permit it in his presence and, as both the book and your friend point out, anything that harmed the population was frowned upon.

    Interesting conversation, thanks.

    Pope Francis: the Thumb of Christ in the eyes of the Pharisees.

    by commonmass on Wed Jan 29, 2014 at 06:49:46 PM PST

    •  I think that's correct about the poll choice... (4+ / 0-)

      In the context of our discussion, talking about cynicism and how absurd the belief that democracy was as easy as getting rid of a single dictator, I had used the term with certainty that I meant a cover story, not even believed by those who wanted the war.  

      But my Nazi example of the reason for their cancer research was using the word as meaning the genuine cause.  What I found surprising is that none of the dictionaries gave the ironic meaning.  But, perhaps it's because any word with the right context, or tone of voice, such as the prosecutor cross examining the defendant with, "O.K. please by all means, give us your explanation why you were in that house."  

      This doesn't mean that "explanation' needs to have a second ironic meaning.  The word "rationalization" as for a terrible policy such as lets say the practice of lobotomies, as being necessary and needed to prevent self destructive behavior.  Sure, but it also prevented what we now see as teenage rebellion.  So, rationalization does have the second ironic meaning in dictionaries.

    •  Ditto (0+ / 0-)

      In other words, in simple terms, the explanation offered.

  •  Before getting to "rationale," (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    what do you mean by "we" here:

    We assume that if we know the dictionary meaning we have nailed down a word, especially if it's the same in multiple sources with no sneaky alternative definitions.
    It's pretty ambiguous, to my reading.
  •  Context is everything. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arodb, Garrett

    "Reason" or "rational" are basically interchangeable terms, so the first two are really one. I picked 2. Rationale = rational (equals reason-based).
    In our society, in our usage, we're not as strict, precise, and the 3rd answer is more accurate. Because the 3rd answer allows the possibility of the 4th and 5th, it opens up the possibility that our usage might shift the meaning into 4 or 5. Our tendency to doubt others would be at the root of that issue.

    You can't make this stuff up.

    by David54 on Wed Jan 29, 2014 at 07:08:24 PM PST

    •  good point... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      David54, gzodik

      if two individuals were discussing an issue in good faith, let's say about a third person whose effort they respected, even if it turned out to be wrong, then the word could be used to mean simply the reason.

      The context was different, as I saw it in the described conversation where I meant the cover story.  Now Huber, being this is his second language, although with a doctorate, he took the root "rational" and went no further.  So the belief that Democracy would spread in the region was not rational, so he disagreed with my statement.   He concluded it could neither be rational nor a rationale as it was not a logical conclusion.

  •  Poll questions 1 and 3 (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arodb, gzodik, kurt

    are not so contradictory, both can apply. As you say, the synonyms reveal the differences in meaning.

    Synonyms for rational: logical, reasoned, sensible, reasonable, cogent, intelligent, judicious, shrewd, common-sense, commonsensical, sound, prudent; down-to-earth, practical, pragmatic

    Synonyms for rationale: reasoning, thinking, logic, grounds, sense; principle, theory, argument, case; motive, motivation, explanation, justification, excuse; the whys and wherefores

    For my part, I think of rationale as more subjective than rational. The synonyms bear that out.

    •  Thanks for the analysis.... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SoCalSal, koNko

      rationale does not have to mean a cover story, but also something more tentative.  Two of the synonyms justification and excuse were the way I was using it the conversation.

      It was pretty clear to me in the context, but this could be the subtleties that a second language does not always internalize.

  •  There's another word with the same... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gzodik, arodb, SoCalSal, Darwinian Detrius

    ...ambiguity with a very similar meaning: justification.

    Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Wed Jan 29, 2014 at 07:48:32 PM PST

    •  Yes, "justification" is clearly a cover story... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      or an attempt for an excuse.  What surprised me is that none of the dictionaries on line gave the tentative or cover usage, (see SoCalSal comment above)

      Absent efforts such as here to explore the word, this would leave a second language speaker of English not to realize this fairly common connotation.

    •  Or, as I note down-thread (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      "acquisition" as the NSA would define it, for example.

      Or to paraphrase the famous philosopher Meteor Blades:

      "Tell me what you want and I will tell you what to say"
  •  I think you are confusing (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arodb, kurt

    the meanings of words and the pragmatic contexts in which they are used. I can offer a rationale (explanation, justification, etc.) for my behavior, which may or may not be rational.

    But also, it may or may not be true, and the circumstances in which I am likely to offer a rationale make it likely that my rationale is not completely true. That is, I offer a rationale precisely when you have called my behavior into question, when you  are (at least implicitly) criticizing me (otherwise, there is no need for any justification). I offer a rationale not only to explain my behavior but also to attempt to cast it in a better light or perhaps the best light possible. In doing so, it is easy to exaggerate the beneficence, etc. of my motives.

    So, a rationale is the stated reason for a course of action, which can either be true or false (genuine or cover explanation), and because of the circumstances under which it is offered is often disingenuous.

    •  Yes, the word is defined by context. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      This diary is written to get responses such as yours, to share ideas that start with a word.  Yes, "rationale" is part of a process, perhaps a short summary of what would be in law a component of a given position in a case.  It would consist of many points that would be clarified by asking about the rationale for it.

      Wikipedia has this major article found by googling "argument or rationale" it title is argumentation theory  Just as a "lemma" is a component of a complete argument, so a rationale is an explanation that a particular group may see as dispositive or spurious.

      Here's the wikipedia definition:

      a set of reasons or a logical basis for a course of action or a particular belief.  "he explained the rationale behind the change"

      The definition does not state that it is true or false, only a set of reasons- implied should be that they are subject to rebuttal. My use in the conversation with Huber was the assumption that they are rebutted, at least between the two of us.  He thought that my use of the word meant that I was saying that it was true.

      That's what makes this worth thinking about.  It also explains the value of a group like Dkos, where by definition there are shared values so assumptions can be made that facilitate both elaboration of ideas, but also a maintenance of such common values.  Coherence of communication and groupthink are two sides of the same coin.

  •  Consider .... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

    Wikipedia: Humpty Dumpty

    Thank You,


    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Wed Jan 29, 2014 at 08:50:11 PM PST

  •  I think it's a very subtle nuance (0+ / 0-)

    Rationale, being the reason, or explanation behind a course of action, implies that it inherently follows a logical line of reasoning.

    After all, a person might say, "I put some bread in the toaster, because this baseball came crashing through my window."

    Now, that may very well be the reason why this person chose to put a piece of bread in his toaster, but I would not say that the baseball coming through his window is the rationale for that action. After all, the one does not logically follow the other.

    Now, if the person said, "I went outside and cursed at my neighbor's kid, because this baseball came crashing through my window," I would say that rationale is an appropriate term for the event of the baseball through the window followed by the person cursing at the kid.

    Now, it may not be considered a reasonable action, an adult swearing at a child, but it is reasonable in the sense that the previous action of the baseball caused the reaction.

    "In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” -Confucius

    by pierre9045 on Wed Jan 29, 2014 at 09:33:16 PM PST

  •  And then there is the corruption of words (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    As a means to an end.

    For example, the mass collection and storage of information would, by dictionary definition, be the "acquisition" of it.

    Ah, but not so fast say the NSA and Executive Branch, because, by their definitions, even information which has been collected, stored analyzed, categorized, tagged and processed into a secondary database is not "acquired" until a human reads it.

    So there you go, language is a living and fungible thing.

    Words, like mathematics in the old accountant's joke, may be defined by the desired end result.

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