Reason in its Practical Application

Philosophers' Imprint 13:1-17 (2013)
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Is practical reason a cognitive faculty? Do practical judgments make claims about a subject matter that are appropriately assessed in terms of their agreement with that subject matter? According to Kantians like Christine Korsgaard, the answer is no. To think otherwise is to conflate the theoretical and the practical, the epistemic and the ethical. I am not convinced. In this paper, I motivate my skepticism through examination of the very figure who inspires Korsgaard’s rejection of cognitivism: Kant. For as I read him, Kant does not construe the distinction between theoretical and practical reason in terms of a distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive faculties but in terms of two distinct applications of a single faculty of reason, which is through-and-through cognitive. Thus, practical, no less than theoretical, reason cognizes a subject matter, and so practical, no less than theoretical, reason is straightforwardly subject to familiar epistemic standards of truth, warrant, and knowledge. Of course, even if I am right about Kant, this does not show that Korsgaard is wrong about reason; and I will offer no direct argument against her position here. Nonetheless, I believe that reflection on Kant’s true view, with its careful treatment of and respect for both the practicality and rationality of reason, should perhaps lead us to rethink what it means to be a rationalist in ethics.

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E. Sonny Elizondo
University of California, Santa Barbara


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