Reasoning from the inside

In this note, I want to look at the distinction between theoretical reasoning and practical reasoning and their relationship to subjectivity and agency, two concepts which focus attention on significant aspects of introspective individuation.

Theoretical reasoning is the reasoning of an observer and comes to a conclusion in an explanation. The term theory comes from the same Greek roots as the term theatre, and conveys an idea of spectatorship, a level of detachment from what is being observed. Practical reasoning, on the other hand, is the reasoning of an engaged participant and comes to a conclusion in a course of action. Where theoretical reasoning is characterised by generality and exteriority, practical reasoning is characterised by particularity and interiority.

The goal of theoretical reasoning is explanation and understanding. It seeks to understand entities and events; how systems are constituted and how they evolve through time.  It is concerned with the construction and application of conceptual models; the relationship between hypothesis and evidence; the adequacy requirements of confirmation and calibration of the level of support that evidence gives to hypothesis. Theoretical reasoning fails through lack of application, arbitrariness and the absence of testability.

Practical reasoning, on the other hand, is concerned with determining a course of action. Like theoretical reasoning, it is concerned with conceptual models, hypotheses and evidence but these are focused on an specific situation. It seeks a lucid understanding of the predicament and an adequate response to it and can fail though a lack of either insight or imagination.

This doesn’t preclude the possibility that practical reasoning may be hypothetical, a sort of dry run or trial of ideas of what we might do were we in a particular predicament, in order to be better prepared and to arrive at a clearer idea of the basic principles involved. But such hypothetical reasoning lacks the testability that initiating an actual course of action supplies.

The particularity of practical reasoning originates in and is closely tied to the individuation of entities and events. Individuation carries with it a specific location in space and time and therefore a set of specific relationships to everything else. There is not just the individuation of the agent but also the individuation of every participant and bystander. Coded into language, individuation is adverbial. It is the where, when, why and how things are. Individuation contrasts with individuality, which is adjectival and is concerned with what things are, how close to, or variant from, type something is.

Most significantly, there is a continuity grounded in personal identity through time between the present self that is making the decision, the past self that gained the experience on which the decision is being made and the future self that is committed to live the course of action that is subsequently initiated.

For an agent, individuation is manifest as the singularity of any course of action. Because practical reasoning is tied to agency in this way, practical reasoning is always reasoning from inside a particular predicament. In contrast, theoretical reasoning tries to escape the specific standpoint in order to find an understanding that is independent of any particular perspective.

There are a couple of related antitheses which I think can be misleading in this context. One is the antithesis between subjective and objective.  What we mean by objectivity is that the application of a conceptual model to a target domain is independent of any observer. Objectivity implies the same for any observer or, what amounts to the same thing, independent of any observer. It is the view from anywhere which is also the view from nowhere.

However, the relationship between concept and target is not something that exists in nature. An observer, a theorist, is needed to apply one to the other. For this reason, the theoretical perspective is a kind of imagined place-to-stand. In this sense the view from the outside is a construction built through the processes and procedures of an intellectual discipline. It is arrived at by identifying and eliminating what belongs to subjective projections.

Subjectivity, on the other hand, is concerned with the subject of cognizance. The meaning of the object remains the same but the significance is relative to the point-of-view and motivations of the observer. The subject object distinction is frequently regarded as a dichotomy but subjectivity supplies something additional and is therefore complementary to objectivity, not in conflict with it.

Since the outside view is an imaginary standpoint which cannot actually be occupied, it has to be synthesised through the aggregation of many singular points-of-view. This connects the subject object distinction to a second related antithesis, the public private distinction.

The view from the outside is necessarily a public construction and therefore transparent. Appeals to a privileged standpoint or to information that is only available privately are not acceptable in theoretical reasoning.

The motivations and grounding for practical deliberation, on the other hand, are frequently opaque and based on inside information and private intentions. Practical reasoning becomes public reasoning when it moves to justifications and mitigations. This is because the target audience for these is always a public of some kind, though not necessarily the same public each time.

Even so, when it comes to public advocacy and the practical reasoning of an institutional entity, practical deliberation is also public reasoning. Deliberative assemblies of one kind or another: councils, corporations, courts and parliaments; are all engaged in public practical reasoning.

The distinction between the transparent and the opaque doesn’t therefore align with the distinction between practical and theoretical. It is not essential to practical reasoning that it should be opaque from the outside. Practical reasoning would not turn into theoretical reasoning if it were conducted entirely in public. This implies that the interiority of practical reasoning isn’t privacy so much as it is reasoning from the inside of a predicament and living from the inside the course of action that is the outcome.

The time dimension of action is also the basis of instrumental reasoning. Very abstractly, instrumental reasoning is a process of mapping the current state of a system to possible future states based on a knowledge of how the system components behave, how the system might evolve, and how it might be possible to intervene to steer the evolution of the system in a particular direction. Instrumental reasoning is used to map the state of a system at the start of a period to the desired state of the system at the end. It is a concerned with interventions in the course of events in order to arrive at a particular future state.

Instrumental reasoning has a purchase as a consequence of the continuity of identity through time. We care about the success of instrumental reasoning because we care about the future. This is the second component of interiority. Not only are we concerned with the current predicament but also, as a consequence of personal identity through time, the way in which the course of events is going to unfold.

A course of action is initiated, then sustained, or perhaps endured, and then brought to a close. A period of time of time is occupied.  A course of action will unfold and a period of time will be experienced. The individuation that is the basis of personal identity through time means that the present self is uniquely and inescapably related to the future self.

Instrumental reasoning is neutral with regard to what the end state should be. Instrumental reasoning isn’t in itself sufficient to come to a conclusion because it doesn’t include the reasoning which decides what the purpose of the course of action should be; why this period of time is to be occupied in this way. In other words, instrumental reasoning doesn’t supply the evaluations that drive practical reasoning.

Where do these come from. There has been a longstanding belief that, as Bernard Williams put it, it should be possible to direct one’s life through a distinctively philosophical approach that is abstract, general, rationally reflective, and concerned with what can be known. Williams didn’t think this was possible, at least with the idea of rationality embodied in contemporary philosophical thinking.

I agree with that, but I think it is possible to develop a broader conception of rationality that embraces both the generality and outwardness of theory and the particularity and inwardness of practice.

Bernard Williams: Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. 1985 Fontana