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Journal cover: Journal of Management History (Archive)

Journal of Management History (Archive)

ISSN: 1355-252X
Merged into: Management Decision

Online from: 1995

Subject Area: Management Science/Management Studies

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Be rational! But what does it mean?: A history of the idea of rationality and its relation to management thought

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Title:Be rational! But what does it mean?: A history of the idea of rationality and its relation to management thought
Author(s):Mark R. Rutgers, (Department of Public Administration, Faculty of Social Sciences, Leiden University, The Netherlands)
Citation:Mark R. Rutgers, (1999) "Be rational! But what does it mean?: A history of the idea of rationality and its relation to management thought", Journal of Management History (Archive), Vol. 5 Iss: 1, pp.17 - 35
Keywords:Ethics, Organization theory
Article type:Research paper
DOI:10.1108/13552529910249797 (Permanent URL)
Publisher:MCB UP Ltd
Abstract:An ancient, and most influential, concept in management thought is the idea of rationality. Criticism with regard to a rational approach to management seems to focus on the importance of value issues. It is argued in this article that from a historical-philosophical perspective values and rationality are not simply each other’s opposites, but closely related. The article sketches the conceptual development of the idea of rationality in philosophical thinking. The adopted focus is to consider the major changes in the meaning of the idea of rationality, and the kind of criticism the idea has encountered. Schematically, the article approaches the conceptual development of a current-day comprehension of “rationality” by using four episodes: ancient thinking towards wise leadership; the Greek idea of logos; the nineteenth century modernist belief in positivism; and the twentieth century “postmodernist” debate which culminates in Habermas’ “communicative” rationality. An assessment of the meaning of rationality in management thought is undertaken by an initial appraisal of the roots of management thought prior to the emergence of rationality as an idea. This illustrates the often neglected normative basis of management thought, and stresses the importance of managerial “values”. It enables a perspective on the ancient Greek development of meaning for logos, which is the classical precursor for modern day rationality. By appraising the development of rationality as a particular conceptual type, rather than a specific philosophical idea, the non-normative approach adopted in modernist management writings emerges as being a severely constrained concept. From a philosophical perspective, a reduction of rationality to some kind of “goal-oriented” action is inadequate. This is because rationality and valuation have traditionally been, and remain, closely linked. As such, the three Es of goal-rationality (economy, efficiency, and effectiveness) acquire a counterpart that refers to value-rationality - ethics.

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