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Two pictures of practical thinking

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Abstract

INTRODUCTION In her influential attack on “modern moral philosophy” Elizabeth Anscombe writes, “If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modern fashion about ‘moral’ such-and-such he must be very imperceptive if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don't come together in a proper bite.” One of the principal sources of the sense of misalignment that Anscombe so vividly describes is that Aristotelian ethics is keyed to a conception of the nature and proper tasks of practical thinking that differs strikingly from the conception that frames Kantianism and most other positions in modern philosophical ethics. On the Aristotelian view, the most ethically valuable sort of practical thinking is a continuous activity that accompanies and completes those activities it guides and that forms an essential constituent of those activities. Modern theorists, by contrast, tend to picture practical thinking as a discrete and occasional process that precedes and initiates action. We can neither arrive at a full appreciation of the ethical thought of the ancients, nor offer a complete account of ethical excellence in practical thought, unless we begin by retrieving the unfamiliar conception of practical thinking that frames Aristotle's inquiry into ethics. This essay is intended as a sketch of some of the main contours and consequences of this project of conceptual retrieval.

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My project is to reconsider the Kantian conception of practical reason. Some Kantians take practical reasoning to be more active than theoretical reasoning, on the grounds that it need not contend with what is there anyway, independently of its exercise. Behind that claim stands the thesis that practical reason is essentially efficacious. I accept the efficacy principle, but deny that it underwrites this conception of practical reason. My inquiry takes place against the background of recent Kantian metaethical debate — each side of which, I argue, points to issues that need to be jointly accommodated in the account of practical reason. From the constructivist, I accept the essential efficacy of practical reason; from the realist, I accept that any genuinely cognitive exercise of practical reason owes allegiance to what is there anyway, independently of its exercise. I conclude that a Kantian account of recognition respect enables us to accommodate both claims.
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