Practical Reason

I think the introduction of rational ethics by Plato and Aristotle was the greatest single event in the history of talking animals on our planet, marking the threshold of a kind of historical cultural adulthood. Before that, there were traditional values; codifications of traditional values into law; and attempts by some people to impose their will on others; but there was no ethics as free and open inquiry into what is right.

Two millenia later, Kant took the next big step, and explicitly argued for the primacy of practical reason. This means that the kind of reasoning involved in rational ethics comes first in the order of explanation, before so-called theoretical reason.

Recently, Brandom’s highly original account of responsibility has closed any remaining gaps, making it possible to explain anything at all in terms that put ethical reasoning first. (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.) This also further refines Kant’s concept of the autonomy of reason, allowing for a stronger interpretation that eliminates the last vestiges of a dependency of ethical reasoning on anything external to it. It allows the primacy of practical reason to be fused with the autonomy of reason, resulting in a new kind of completeness of ethical reason.

Of course, any talk about a completeness of ethical reason presupposes a very broad construal of what ethical reasoning is (see also Reasonableness; What and Why; Context). It also requires that we be very careful to avoid taking its completeness in the wrong way. It presupposes a kind of epistemic modesty as a feature of rational inquiry.

Rational ethics stands in contrast to tradition, but as Hegel might remind us, much of the content of tradition turns out to be broadly rational after all, if we disregard its epistemic shortcuts.

The true antithesis of rational ethics is the subordination of values to a supposedly sovereign will — be it the will of God presumed as known; the expressed will of some individual; or a will attributed to an institution like the state, or to a social group. Such appeals to arbitrary will end the possibility of inquiry and dialogue. (See also Euthyphro; Authority, Reason.)


I usually think of judgment as a process of interpretation or a related kind of wisdom, but at least since early modern reformulations of Aristotelian logic, “a” judgment has also traditionally meant a logical proposition, or an assertion of a proposition.

An older, but still post-Aristotelian notion is that what the early moderns called a judgment “A is B” should be understood (on the model of its surface grammar) as the potentially arbitrary predication “A is B”. Such a potentially arbitrary predication by itself does not contain enough information for us to assess whether it is good or bad. The predication model was associated with a non-Aristotelian notion of truth as simple correspondence to supposed fact.

L. M. De Rijk, arguably the 20th century’s leading scholar on medieval Latin logic, developed a very detailed textual argument that the understanding of logical “judgments” in such grammatical terms is actually an unhistorical misreading of Aristotle. In the first volume of his Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology, De Rijk concluded that Aristotle’s own logical or semantic use of “is” or “is not” should be understood not in the traditionally accepted way as a “copula” or binary operator of predication, but rather as a unary operator of assertion on a compound expression — i.e., on the pair (A, B), as opposed to its two elements A and B.

I also want to emphasize that Aristotle himself did not admit simple, potentially arbitrary predications as “judgments”. The special form of Aristotelian propositions makes them express not arbitrary atomic claims as is the case with propositions in the standard modern sense, but two specific ways of compounding subclaims. Aristotle’s two truth-value-forming operations of combination and separation (expressed by “is” and “is not”) limit the scope of what qualifies as a proper Aristotelian “judgment” to cases that are effectively equivalent to what Brandom would call judgments of material consequence or material incompatibility (see Aristotelian Propositions). What the moderns would call Aristotelian “judgments” thus end up more specifically reflecting judgments of what Brandom would call goodness of material inference.

Proper Aristotelian “judgments” thus turn out to express not just arbitrary predications constructed without regard to meaning, but particular kinds of compound claims that can in principle be rationally evaluated for material well-formedness as compound thoughts, based on the actual content of the claims being compounded. (Non-compound claims are just claims, and do not have enough content to be subject to such intrinsic rational evaluation, but as soon as there is some compounding, internal criteria for well-formedness come into play.)

So, fortuitously, modern use of the term “judgment” for these ends up having more substance than it would for arbitrary predications. For Aristotle, truth and falsity only apply to what are actually compound thoughts, because truth and falsity express assessments of material well-formedness, and only compound thoughts can be assessed for such well-formedness. The case for the fundamental role of concerns of normativity rather than simple surface-level predication in Aristotelian truth-valued propositions is further supported by the ways Aristotle uses “said of” relations.

Independent of this sort of better reading of Aristotle, Brandom in the first of his 2007 Woodbridge lectures points out that Kant also strongly rejected the traditional analysis of judgment in terms of predication. Brandom goes on to argue that for Kant, “what makes an act or episode a judging in the first place is just its being subject to the normative demand that it be integrated” [emphasis in original] into a unity of apperception. This holistic, integrative view of Kantian judgment seems to me to be strongly supported by Kant’s discussion of unities of apperception in the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, as well as by the broad thrust of the Critique of Judgment.

Thus, a Kantian judgment also has more substance than the standard logical notion, but while an Aristotelian “judgment” gets its substantive, rational character from intra-propositional structure, a Kantian judgment gets it from inter-propositional structure.

Logic as Semantics

I think of logic in general as mainly concerned with the perspicuous rendering of distinctions for use in reasoning, rather than with the arbitration of truth based on some other presumed truth as a starting point.

An emphasis on this expressive or semantic role was, I think, what led Aristotle to insist that what modern people call logic should be viewed as a tool (organon) and not a “science”.

The great scholar of Latin medieval logic L. M. De Rijk, in his major study Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology (2002), recommended replacing references to Aristotle’s own “logic” with references to semantics, or investigation of meaning.

Hegel contended that traditional metaphysics should be replaced by a kind of “logic” that addresses meaningful content.

Brandom has given us an unprecedentedly thorough and clear account of the conditions that make meaningful content possible in the first place.

On the formal side, type theory and category theory provide a new, unified view of logic, mathematics, and formal languages that fits very well with this “meaning before truth” perspective.

Self, Subject

Once again, I’d like to dwell on the subtlety of the relation between empirical “me” and transcendental “I”. As usual, for philosophical purposes I want to advise that we hold off on identifying the two in the way that we commonly do when immersed in living our lives.

A contentful self exists on the empirical side. There are biographical and psychological facts about it. Each such “me” is unique. I take the primary referent of this “self” to be our developed emotional constitution, or Aristotelian hexis. When immersed in living our lives, we often say “I” in common-sense reference to this contentful, factual self, but this is very different from a transcendental “I”. Each person who says “I” for “me” in this common-sense way says it differently, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to a different “me”.

A transcendental “I” is a contentless symbolic index for a constellation of values and commitments, i.e., what we care about and what we believe, our Aristotelian ethos. Here, what is of interest is not the content of a contentful, factual self (“us”), but rather the content of what we care about and what we believe. Transcendental “I” refers to the identity of an ethos or unity of apperception. Thus anyone who in some context cares about the same things and believes the same things says “I” transcendentally in exactly the same way in that context, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to the same ethos.

(I’m using the common vocabulary of reference and identity here to keep things simple, but the usual caveats apply. Reference and identity are actually derivative notions, not primitive ones, but there is no philosophical harm in using them in a simple way anyway, provided we avoid tacitly assuming they are primitive.)

What identifies us as individuals is the empirical “me”, but what plays the role of an ethical subject or subject of knowledge is the paradoxically intimate but anonymous transcendental “I”. (See also Transcendental?; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; and many articles under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Historically, tight theoretical identification of ethical subjects and subjects of knowledge with empirical individuals is associated with the rationalization of practices of blaming, especially when translated into a theological context.


Some people have argued that a fundamentally ethical notion of practice is not sufficient to ground a full, well-rounded account of the varieties of human activity. I used to be one of them, but no longer.

Judgments of utility may on the surface seem mainly to involve various sorts of calculation, but ultimately they involve considerations of what is better or worse for the realization of some purpose.

Judgments of fact may also appear on the surface to be value-neutral, but ultimately they involve questions of what it is reasonable to believe, which also involves judgments of value.

What about physical operations? Physical operations always implicitly involve questions of how to proceed, and answers to these questions involve judgments of utility and judgments of fact, both of which involve judgments of value. (See also Practical Judgment; Choice, Deliberation; Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness; Meta-Ethics as First Philosophy; Normative Monism.)

Freedom Without Sovereignty

Talk about freedom tends to be terribly ambiguous. Do we mean freedom from compulsion, or freedom from determination, or freedom resulting from some positive power? Do we mean anything other than complete unfreedom, or a super-strong total freedom, or something in between?

As to the last question, we ought at least to avoid claiming we are subject to an overly strong unfreedom, without claiming we possess an overly strong freedom. There is an Aristotelian mean here waiting to be clarified.

A first step toward such a clarification is to recognize that freedom ought not to be understood as implying something like sovereignty. Sovereignty is a kind of unconditional, total, exclusive authority or power over a domain. I want to say that nothing in the real world really does or ought to work like that.

Historically, theories of sovereignty trace back to the absolute and arbitrary power attributed to the Roman emperors. The modern concept of sovereignty originated in arguments for absolute monarchy, e.g., by Jean Bodin in the late 16th century. In later political thought, the notion of sovereignty was transferred to the state as an institution, or in Rousseau’s case to a supposed general will of the people.

Modern notions of individual unilateral rights, while in many cases referring to things that ought to be protected and respected more than they are, are a bad theoretical basis for good ethical concern. The notion of unilateral rights is implicitly grounded in a notion of sovereignty of each individual over a certain domain. At best, rights are a safeguard against failures of mutual recognition and Kantian respect for people, which ought to come first.

Similarly, we need to think about responsibility in ways that do not presuppose that we must have some kind of sovereignty in order to be responsible. (See also Free Will and Determinism; Choice, Deliberation; Kantian Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?; Freedom and Free Will; Desire of the Master; Independence, Freedom; Ego; Euthyphro; Strong Omnipotence; Tyranny.)


Standard notions of intentionality as a mental state involving representations of objects go back to the medieval Iranian philosopher Avicenna (980 – 1037). Discussion of Avicennan “intentions” was common in the Latin scholastic tradition, but disappeared in the early modern period, only to be revived by Franz Brentano. In his 1874 work Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Brentano characterized intentionality as having to do with mental states that are directed toward objects that are themselves mental representations, and argued that intentionality is the defining characteristic of mind in general. Edmund Husserl later attempted to separate a logical concept of intentionality from empirical psychology, and made it a central theme of his phenomenology. Intentionality is widely discussed among analytic philosophers as well.

A main focus of Brandom’s Making It Explicit was to develop in great detail a novel concept of intentionality that is linguistic, social, and normative, rather than mental in the usual sense. Intentionality for Brandom is rooted in normative social practices and dialogue rather than psychology. Representation is treated as something to be explained, rather than as an unexplained explainer. The objects Brandomian intentionality is concerned with are not objects of mental representations, but objects of normative social practices and dialogue. Accepting Brentano’s thesis that intentionality is the defining characteristic of mind, this gives us a concept of mind that is mainly ethical, linguistic, and social (see Mind Without Mentalism).

I think the kind of hermeneutics implicitly practiced by Aristotle throughout his work was concerned with real things, but primarily as objects of normative social practices and dialogue, and only secondarily in a more direct way. Aristotle also said that intelligence comes to us “from outside”. I read him too as working with a primarily ethical, linguistic, and social notion of mind (see also Aristotelian Subjectivity). Plato’s Forms were also explicitly nonpsychological. Even Augustine’s “inner man” has nothing private about it, but rather participates in an ethical community of the spirit that tends toward universality.

An ethical-linguistic-social view of intentionality also gives us a good way of talking about all the practical, real-life concerns of human subjectivity, without the bad theoretical baggage of referring all those concerns to a supposedly sovereign individual Subject or Ego.