Ricoeur on Practical Reason

I just found a nice essay on practical reason in Ricoeur’s From Text to Action (French ed. 1986). An account of practical reason must confront “the two great classical problematics of ‘meaningful action’, those of Kant and of Hegel” (p. 189). As Ricoeur himself notes, though, his account has a “greater affinity” (p. 191) with Aristotle’s accounts of choice and practical wisdom than with Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Like Aristotle, Ricoeur wants to assert “no break between desire and reason” (ibid).

Practical reason for Ricoeur “must deserve the name of reason, but it must maintain certain features irreducible to scientifico-technical rationality” (p. 188). (I think design in engineering — while it must have a strong technical basis — already goes beyond purely technical concerns, insofar as key criteria of its “goodness” lie in the broad pragmatics of use of its products in real-world contexts.) What Ricoeur has in mind here is that practical reason inherently involves concrete judgments of value that cannot be reduced to calculation.

He adds that practical reason is critical rather than speculative. I would also add that common sense, practical reason, and Reason with a capital “R” all work mainly by material inference, which is concerned with meaning and values from the ground up.

There is a syntactic ordering of reasons-for-acting as relative ends and means, but Ricoeur dislikes Aristotle’s talk of “practical syllogisms” as sharing the same formal structure with theoretical ones. I think Aristotle is right about the formal structure, but Aristotle would agree with Ricoeur that this much narrower kind of reasoning is very far from encompassing practical reason as a whole. Practical reason or wisdom in Aristotle crucially includes processes of judgment behind the formation of the propositions used in syllogisms (and canonical Aristotelian propositions codify material inferences).

Ricoeur emphasizes that practical reason involves interpretation, normativity, and resolution of “opposing normative claims” (p. 195). He commends Aristotle’s definition of virtue for joining together psychological, logical, normative, and personal components. Aristotelian practical wisdom “joins together a true calculus and an upright desire under a principle — a logos — that, in its turn, always includes personal initiative and discernment” (p. 197). There is an “epistemological break between practical reasoning and practical reason” (p. 198).

In the Critique of Practical Reason “Kant, it seems to me, hypostatized one single aspect of our practical experience, namely, the fact of moral obligation, conceived as the constraint of the imperative” (ibid). Though I think Kant tempered this in other places, I am very sympathetic to the thrust of Ricoeur’s criticism (and Brandom’s tendency to follow Kant on this in some contexts has evoked a mixture of criticism and apologetics from me; see, e.g., Necessity in Normativity; Modality and Variation). Ricoeur also says that “by constructing the concept of the practical a priori after the model of that of the theoretical a priori, Kant shifted the investigation of practical reason into a region of knowledge that does not belong to it” (p. 199). I thoroughly agree with Ricoeur that there can be no science of the practical, but here I would also follow Brandom in noting that while the practical cannot be reduced to the theoretical, theoretical reason itself is ultimately subordinate to practical reason (taken in a more Hegelian than Kantian sense).

Ricoeur here follows an old-school reading of Hegel’s Geist as a sort of objective mind directly embodied in the State, and correctly points out how such a notion has great potential for abuse. He prefers the “hypothesis of Husserl, Max Weber, and Alfred Schutz” (p. 205) that would ground communities — including things like the State — in relations of intersubjectivity. (I would note that Brandom’s nuanced and multi-dimensional grounding of Geist and normativity in a vast ensemble of processes of mutual recognition over time provides a convincing, original “deep” reading of Hegel that meets Ricoeur’s criterion of grounding in intersubjectivity, while avoiding what seems to me the very crude and implausible notion of an objective mind that would somehow be capable of being definitively embodied in the State. Any such notion of definitive embodiment of objective mind also involves huge confusion between potentiality and actuality.)

“One must never tire of repeating that practical reason cannot set itself up as a theory of praxis. We must repeat along with Aristotle that there is knowledge only of things that are necessary and immutable…. [P]ractical reason recovers a critical function by losing its theoretical claim to knowledge” (p. 206; emphasis in original).

Finally, he wryly observes that “practical wisdom, in situations of alienation, can never be without a certain madness on the part of the sage, since the values that govern the social bond have themselves become insane” (p. 207). (See also Ricoeur on Justice.)