i dream of being possible

enlightenment rationality and why satificing is one of my favourite terms

One might have noticed that my username in many places (and the title of this very blog!) is ‘satifice.’ I imagine that many (but likely not all) of the librarian/info professionals who read this blog know what ‘satifice’ actually means.

In any case, I recently got into a discussion with Lane Wilkinson on enlightenment values and rationality, so I suddenly feel like making a post about why ‘satificing’ is my absolutely favourite information/library term (since this is where I was introduced to it). When I was tweeting I was responding to the blurb of Libraries and the Enlightenment:

Contemporary American libraries are products of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment—the intellectual and political movement that emerged in 18th century Europe—consolidated various scientific and political ideals into a worldview advocating scientific discovery and experimentation, reason as a touchstone of truth, intellectual freedom to study and publish, skepticism about received traditions, individual liberty, political and social equality among all persons, democracy, and toleration of diverse opinions among other beliefs.

This is, of course, but one facet of enlightenment thinking. I partially tweeted about one problem with accepting this received and largely canonical view of the enlightenment:

No more constant iterations of dysfunctional and broken systems. Or not more iterations of systems designed for inequity. source

Of course, I was somewhat wrong in the sense that the systems and institutions built on enlightenment values are ‘broken,’ rather it can be seen as very successful, since it is absolutely critical to understand that, in the above paragraph where it is written “individual liberty, political and social equality for all persons,” during the time of the enlightenment, pretty much only white men were actually ‘persons.’ Everyone else? Not a person. So, yes, the system is functioning according to plan (such that the individuals with the most liberty, political and social equity are… drum roll… white men):

Scholars have been aware for a long time of the curious paradox of Enlightenment thought, that the supposedly universal aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity in fact only operated within a very circumscribed universe. Equality was only ever conceived as equality among people presumed in advance to be equal, and if some person or group fell by definition outside of the circle of equality, then it was no failure to live up to this political ideal to treat them as unequal. source

I mean… just look at this quotation from David Hume (tw: for anti-Blackness and discussion of slavery):

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences…. [T]here are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly. source

The enlightenment was also the same era of colonialism, Indigenous genocide(s), scientific racism, misogyny, and so on, inasmuch as it was the ‘age of reason1.’ This is one of the reasons why I resist and reject the enlightenment’s valuation of ‘rationality,’ since I’m pretty much not capable of rational thought according to their formulation of the notion.

This is the, um, sociological and/or ethical reason to reject enlightenment values.

I also mentioned that one of the reasons I didn’t buy into it was the fact that the underlying philosophy of mind for enlightenment’s ‘rationality’ is based on a large web of factually incorrect assumptions about how the mind works and how it impacts human behaviour.2

Which brings us to the notion of ‘satificing’:

Satisficing is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met. source

This is contrasted with ‘optimal decision’ making:

An optimal decision is a decision such that no other available decision options will lead to a better outcome. source

The latter is clearly derived from a philosophy of mind and a notion of rationality heavily influenced by enlightenment values, since

The problem of finding the optimal decision is a mathematical optimization problem. In practice, few people verify that their decisions are optimal, but instead use heuristics to make decisions that are “good enough”—that is, they engage in satisficing. source

Thus, most people don’t actually make optimal decisions. In part it is an issue of time (searching through every viable alternative for the optimal one is to resource and time intensive to be feasible). In today’s age, it is particularly difficult if you have access to the internet, since your options for deciding a certain thing can ridiculously large.

For library science, satificing generally means that information seekers usually will settle for ‘good enough.’ Indeed, this is largely how I sourced this blog post. Just Google a few terms, pick something that is ‘good enough’ and go from there. Ideally, I should have done a proper lit review and carefully assessed all available sources.

Satificing is why Google has been so successful. I know that they often get lauded for having search results that return (usually in the first few hits) the ‘perfect’ result, but in reality we don’t actually know this when we click a link or two from the first page and then stop looking. These decisions can never be considered ‘optimal’ because we haven’t assessed all of the available links.3 Instead, they are pretty great at finding the ‘good enough’ source.

When I talk about grounding libraries in something other than enlightenment values, this is one of the things that I mean.

How would our institutions change and transform if we shifted from being grounded in an archaic and factually incorrect notion of human rationality and behaviour, to something grounded in, well, how people actually behave?

Could it lead to giving up on discovery? How would it transform collection development? Or, better yet, change institutional and professional values?

It is hard to say because libraries, like many other institutions based on enlightenment values, are incredibly resistant to change. Despite the fairly clear evidence that after hundreds of years trying to implement them, they have largely failed to live up to their own ideals.4

  1. This is the sort of thing I was talking about in my “Locating the Library in Institutionalized Oppression” post. The ‘scientific ideals’ mentioned in the quotation about libraries as institution of enlightenment include things like scientific racism. 

  2. Also, one thing that often seems to be elided from discussions of enlightenment rationality, is the fact that most of their constructions of the concept are purposefully normative and proscriptive, rather than attempting to be descriptive. Rationality and reason weren’t really about how they thought people actually thought, but how they ought to think. 

  3. I mean, searching for ‘enlightenment racism’ nets over 2 million results. And this is, of course, not even accounting for the fact that Google’s algorithm creates ‘personalized’ results or the fact that Google doesn’t, in fact, search all available information on a subject. You’d probably need to hit up a few different search engines, a bunch of academic databases, library catalogues to even get close to being able to access most available information on this subject. 

  4. Indeed, if the enlightenment were living up to its ideals, it would have removed itself years ago because of its alleged commitment to empiricism and other scientific values. We could consider much of the modern world a large sociological experiment in implementing enlightenment values in society, economics, and politics. We can also see that, for the most part, we’ve only made incremental steps towards liberty and equality for all persons. It isn’t enough. At this pace, maybe it would take another 400 years to get to the ‘ideal’ place, except that enlightenment values have also got us to the place of widespread environmental devastation, so it is entirely possible that we don’t have 400 years to transform our society and its values.