The Nature of Practical Reason


Course Description:

In this class we are going to consider the role that thinking plays in human life: in our day-to-day dealings with things and with each other as well as in our conception of what we live for. This has always been a central topic of philosophy in both the East and the West, and the class will pay attention to the most important traditions in this area. Western conceptions have for a long time been dominated by the teaching of Aristotle, who treats practical thinking as a function of reason distinct from any kind of theory: orientation towards particular aims and, beyond these, towards a worthwhile life are intrinsic to it, and of its essence; practical reason is not merely the application of theoretical reason to matters practical; its teleology – inherent direction at an overall end of acting – determines the structure in which it leads from aim-conceptions to their implementation. This understanding of the nature of practical reason has been challenged by modern philosophy, most famously by David Hume. According to him, to think practically is merely the application of theoretical judgements to the question: What should I do if – or given that – my purpose is such-and-such? This position implies that, in practical thinking, truth consists in nothing but appropriateness of means to whatever ends. For the Aristotelian tradition, by contrast, such truth requires also that the ends themselves be defensible; and they are defensible only to the extent that they form part of a good life. It follows that, in this tradition the question of practical rationality is inseparable from ethical questions, and that the theory of the nature of human acting overlaps with moral philosophy. The aim of the class is to investigate whether such an understanding of practical reason can be given a shape in which it is plausible and defensible in the fact of objections.

We are going to pursue this aim by looking at dominant accounts of practical reason, in order then to examine in some detail the most important aspects of the Aristotelian conception: What is the place of reason in human nature, what are its central manifestation? What are the basic categories of rational operation, theoretical and practical? Can there be such a thing as practical inference; what could its structure be? Various problems surround the ideas of the human good, of acting for a reason (good or bad), and the teleology of thinking and acting. Further: Is motivation opposed to acting on reasons? How are technical and ethical thinking related? Must / can morality be shown to be rational? These questions will take us to topics in “meta-ethics” such as: moral knowledge (“Can norms be justified?”); practical wisdom as a virtue; conscience; the nature and unity of the ethical virtues; the possibility of moral weakness and wickedness.

Our discussion will find much to criticize in Aristotle’s account of practical reason. The question is whether these criticisms will lead us outside the overarching idea that the norms, both formal and material, of practical rationality must be understand as determined by and constitutive of human nature.

Course Details:

— Time: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8:00 a.m. – 9:20 p.m., 3/26/18-6/9/18
— Location: Harper Memorial 130

Topics Covered:

1 Dominant accounts of practical reason

2 Rationality as human nature
— Human and other animals
— Manifestations of reason

3 Reason, theoretical and practical
— Categories of rational operation
— Being guided by reasons as inference

4 Teleologies of practical reason
— The idea of human good
— Standards of sound practical reasoning
— Reasons pro tanto and omnibus perpensis
— Reason as a two-way capacity
— Freedom of choice

5 Acting on reasons
— Deliberation
— Acting and producing
— Ethical v. technical reasoning

— Calculative and non-calculative thinking
— “Backward-looking” reasons
— Motivation
— Structures of practical inference
— The conclusion: thought or deed?

6 Morality as rationality
— Normative systems
— Ultimate ends
— Explanation v. justification of norms
— Virtues as motivational dispositions

7 The virtue of practical wisdom
— Practical judgement, knowledge, truth
— Rationality and sociality
— Reasons “for us to …” (prisoners’ dilemma etc.)

8 Defects of reason
— Good and bad reasons
— Pointless – irrational – immoral
— Weakness of Will

9 Reason, emotion, and the senses