Jordan, Escher, and the “Janus Face” of Rationality

Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time. Through his first decade with the NBA, Jordan’s success was based on physical pounding—he dominated the paint by driving to the basket. As he got older, however, his amazing agility and athleticism began to wane, and he had to reconsider how to maximize his performance based on this new reality. To do this, he adjusted his approach and “redefined” himself by working on his post-up game. He then began to gradually compensate by acquiring and perfecting new skills and techniques, such as his legendary bump and fade-away jump shot, which became his trademark.

Jordan’s early career exhibits an “instrumentally rational” approach to his game, as he used the most effective means required to perfect a particular goal—his drive to the basket. Later in his career, however, as the driving strategy could no longer lead to success, he took a “critically rational” approach, putting his entire strategy into question. As a result, he went through a process of innovation, turning toward a new post-up player strategy and incorporating new techniques such as the fade-away. Once he had a handle on this new approach, he could again dominate the court.

It’s easy to say that in both instances, Jordan thought rationally about his style, but what does “rational” actually mean? Over the centuries, philosophers have distinguished between more than 20 different meanings for the term…

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