The Practical Domain: Agents and Actions The Theoretical and the Practical Domain



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1. The Practical Domain: Agents and Actions
The Theoretical and the Practical Domain Right at the opening of the Introduction to his Critique of Judgment, Kant elaborates on the customary and entirely correct division of philosophy - «insofar as it contains principles of rational cognition of things by means of concepts» - into theoretical and practical.1 A brief survey and discussion of Kant’s main claims in this text may serve to introduce a view of practice that could be the right framework for an account of actions, agents, and reasons. Firstly, to make good philosophical senses of this division, Kant requires that the principles which lead to it should be established as standing one in «opposition» to the other and (with a view to this) that the concepts which «refer the principles of this rational cognition to its object» should be «specifically distinct». The concepts, which ground «distinct principles of the possibility of their objects» are only two: the concept of nature and the concept of freedom. One should draw the distinction of theoretical and practical philosophy accordingly. The concept of nature makes possible knowledge according to principles a priori: knowledge of space and time and of the empirical world on a priori grounds, according to necessity and law. The concept of freedom, which from the theoretical standpoint yields only a negative principle, «of mere opposition», without grounding any cognition at all, establishes by contrast «ampliative principles for the determination of the will». These principles, right on this account, «are called practical». What this means, shortly, is that the concept of freedom makes it possible to establish a certain kind of principles for willing and acting, which are on a par with the lawfulness of nature but to not have epistemic import. Thus, there are different concepts, with different roles and different epistemological implications, which justify the division of philosophy into theoretical and practical. Notice that Kant’s use of ‘cognition’ (Erkenntniss) and related words requires careful handling. Often – not always, but often – ‘cognition’ and related words to not stand for doxastic and epistemic conditions, states, or faculties (for belief, knowledge, and so on) but for a more general capacityand exercise of conceptual thought (also ‘representation’ can have the same role). In this sense, talk of the division of «principles of rational cognition (Vernunfterkenntnis)» into theoretical and practical, or of «theoretical cognition» is perfectly consistent. Kant wants to draw a distinction within discursive, conceptual and inferential thinking; the very circumstance that practice is located and understood in terms of this distinction is the important lesson that I want to draw from this text. In fact, what I am pressed to say is precisely that Kant, by drawing the distinction between practical and theoretical philosophy, places them at the same level as species of the genus of conceptual thinking, intellectual and rational thinking. The opposition of their principle is within this common genus. I will come back conclusively to this.

Secondly, Kant immediately introduces a complication in the distinction between theoretical and practical philosophy, by drawing a further distinction with regard of practical principles. To put it shortly, not all sorts of practical principles define and require a special distinction within philosophy. There is more to Kant’s distinction than reference to the will and its principles. The point is that the will, per se, is «one of the many kind of natural causes in the world, namely that which operates in accordance with concepts» (the fact that the will operates in the natural world will have it importance). Now, the relevant concepts, and the corresponding rules and engagements of the will, in their turn belong to the concepts of nature or to the concept of freedom. In the first case, we have what Kant calls «technically practical» principles, in the second we have «morally practical» ones. Only in the second case a conception, a philosophical account of the principles of the will and of their objects require a special part of philosophy. In the first case, the objects and the principles by which they are conceived are the same in character with those of theoretical philosophy. This area of practical thinking, therefore, is in fact within the theoretical part of philosophy – a somewhat singular circumstance. Kant’s position in this regard is complex – in fact, it is one point in which his views threaten confusing our understanding of practice. What is exactly the difference between principles of the will according to the concept of nature and principles according to the concept of freedom? Notice that it not a difference about whether the will operates within nature or not. For one thing, the will, as we have seen, is a natural cause. For another, both knowledge and practice – either technical or moral practice – refer to and are about «the set of objects of possible experience, insofar as we take them as nothing more than mere appearances». That is, theoretical and practical, strictly practical principles, address and apply to the empirical world, to nature. Therefore, it is not in the character of the will or of what will refers to that the we must look for difference between willing in accordance with the concept of nature and willing in accordance with the concept of freedom.



The difference Kant introduces is one of the grounds or reasons for willing and for acting. Such grounds, if conceived by way of the concepts of nature, are «natural incentives», like those deployed in instrumental conduct, or in prudence and self-control. These incentives and their application to the circumstances define principles or rules, according to which the causality of will is determined, which have the character of rules or precepts. The theoretical character of this kind of practical thinking, therefore, consist primarily in the fact that the grounds which determine the will have an empirical, sensible character and a natural causal explanation. Their individuation and explanation makes appeal to our knowledge of nature. The same holds of the corresponding rules. Like natural laws, they are sensibly conditioned. Morally practical principles have a supersensible ground, one that is not sensible, therefore not natural, a natural object or a natural fact. Because of this, they define a special practical part of philosophy. Kant’s view that properly practical thinking requires a supersensible, non-conditional, non-natural ground is controversial – to say the least. (It is more controversial than Moore idea of the non-natural good, precisely because is framed in deontological, explicitly practical terms, rather than in terms of value.) One could suggest that Kant is mistaking (in a way Moore did not, perhaps) the distinct and irreducible content and character of moral principles or values with their separation from sensible, empirical grounds of action and assessment. There is perhaps a weaker reading of Kant’s point about the morally practical special part of philosophy, which can be of help in reformulating his concern about the theoretical and practical distinction. The reading is that the technically practical principles are not thoroughly practical – that they do not make available a complete understanding of practice. The reason of this is that this technical or theoretical understanding of practice does not indicate the nature of the changes that practical engagement makes to the world, that is, how changes brought about by acting differ from changes taking place by non-practical conditions. Kant’s mistake, so to say, would be to regard this point about the essence of practice with a point about its moral character and worth. This is admittedly very speculative. But this reading gets some support from Kant’s identification of the supersensible character of the ground of moral, strictly practical, cognition, with the concept of freedom and the principles it implies (rather than, say, some absolute and objective value). This concept, which stands in opposition to the theoretical concept of nature, is in some way distinctly practical. Therefore, there is a way – by stressing things more than a little bit – to read Kant’s restrictions of the special practical part of philosophy as expressing a strong and very determinate conception of practice, rather than a strongly and very determinately moral one.2

Thirdly: Now that the distinction between theoretical and practical thought or cognition is to some extent clear, we can proceed to identify and discuss their important structural, constitutive sameness, their common nature. Let us assume that there is an irreducible sense in which some concepts and some principles are practical. It does not matter, for now, how we are to conceive of this character. Perhaps the minimal Kantian sense: «being through one’s representations the cause of the reality of the objects of these representations»; the rational interest in the existence of some object, could do. Of course, with the qualification that this sense in which thought, cognition, commitments, are practical should be thorough; should define a special conceptual kind, not merely correct or integrate another, already given one. To see how the difference in concepts – theoretical and practical, nature and freedom – is consistent with practice and knowledge sharing the same logical and normative constitution, we must look at Kant’s complicated but interesting discussion of the concept of domain. This is introduced by means of a (somewhat involute) geo-political metaphor. Concepts with application to objects on an a priori basis have a field [Feld]:

The part of this field within which cognition is possible for us is a territory [Boden] (territorium) for these concepts and the requisite faculty of cognition. The part of the territory in which these are legislative is the domain [Gebiet] (ditio) of these concepts and of the corresponding faculty of cognition. Thus empirical concepts do indeed have their territory in nature, as the set of all objects of sense, but no domain (only their residence [Aufenthalt], domicilium); because they are, to be sure, lawfully generated, but are not legislative, rather the rules grounded on them are empirical, hence contingent
The point is that there a practical domain (Gebiet, ditio) just as there is a theoretical one:

our cognitive faculty as a whole has two domains [NB this], that of the concepts of nature and that of the concept of freedom; for it is a priori legislative through both. Philosophy is also divided accordingly into the theoretical and the practical


Practical concepts, springing from the concept of freedom, which I propose to regard as essentially practical rather than unconditionally moral, do not simply apply to objects given independently, from a different cognitive source – they do not only have residence in a territory. Rather, they determine, by their application a priori, their own conditions of application, which in turn assign objects to them. (Notice that this assignment must be susceptible to error, if it is to make full sense of the content of these concepts: a complex point, which we will have to deal with.) The important point, for us, is the structural identity of the practical and theoretical domains. In either case, there is an a priori condition on concepts and principles. Their application and their validity does not depend on how the empirical world happens to be, but on their content and constitutive properties. In either case, the principles of cognition, of thought and reasoning, are assigned objects by the corresponding a priori concepts. (This is the same pattern as in the Critique of Pure Reason: a priori concepts apply to object by determining principles, which constitutively govern such objects.) The a priori concept of nature determines principles, the laws of nature, which in turn determine what and how objects form part of nature. The a priori concept of freedom determines principles, either moral principles or principles defining reasons, agency, and actions, which in turn determine what and how practice can be real, figure as an object in the world. Kant says this in so many words, at the start of this discussion: «the concepts that refer the principles of this rational cognition to its objects». The practical and the theoretical domains still are perfectly distinct. Kant even regards them as «different worlds [verschiedene Welten].» Because of this shared conceptual and a priori status, however, practice and knowledge, while irreducibly distinct, are not heterogeneous. A «transition» is possible «from the manner of thinking in accordance with the principles of the one to that in accordance with the principles of the other». Kant notoriously regards such possibility as asymmetrical: principles can provide a non-theoretical way of thinking of nature, but not vice versa. Still, there is a common logical ground to practice and knowledge. The idea of domain seems quite plausible, in effect compelling, when applied to knowledge. Even on Kantian grounds, there are clear senses which can be attached to claims of objectivity and necessity, with regard of knowledge, both at the empirical and at the transcendental level. We are epistemically confronted by real, independent objects, in the empirical world, and the transcendental framework of concept has a necessary hold on our epistemic outreach. To regard knowledge as a domain of conceptualized objects and necessary principles, therefore, seems promising, in its dimensions of objectivity and necessity, Other views of knowledge, with a less robust constructivist dimension, lend themselves even more naturally to be regarded as domains.

But with regard to practice, things are not so clear-cut. The concept of a domain includes an a priori conceptual framework, which individuates and unifies principle for thinking a certain set of objects and the objects that can satisfy or fail to satisfy such principles. Ultimately, what matters, in the idea of a domain, is that it makes sense to say, with regard to a certain area of thought, what are the objects that make correct or incorrect our thoughts – the contents we entertain and the attitude we take – and what are the principles that define such objects in that role. This sort of approach has often been considered unsuitable for practice, mainly for two reasons. One is that the objects of practice, so to say, are the products of practice itself. They seem to have no independent standing with regard of the actions that bring them about. Another is that practical principles seem to be contingent on the views, concerns, and commitments of agents, which are in turn expression of their subjectivity. Practice is different from knowledge precisely because it is what we make of it – this is the underlying thought. This seems to exclude any plausible talk of practical a priori concepts, necessary principles, and actual objects. This view is widespread and can be framed in many different ways. It is important that Kant’s idea of practical domain goes against it – at least, it provides a framework for developing an alternative view of practice. Also in the case of practice, the right level of analysis is that of a domain, of a system of concepts and principles which secure one’s thinking hold on certain aspects of the world; in fact, of a distinctive and rationally articulated relation between objects and a subject. Kant’s idea of a domain of practice, a practical domain, is right and important. It implies that an adequate philosophical account of action, agency, and reasons, should not and could not lower the standards regarded as appropriate for epistemic conditions. More deeply, we confront the world, in conceptually contentful modes, both practically and theoretically; in either case, we are, or can be, aware of principles of rational necessity and respond to them; in either case, we can, and in fact we must, aim to attaining different, but equally important, forms of objectivity. How to specify this framework in the practical case; how to take seriously the a priori, necessity, and objectivity of practice, is a very, very complicated question. As we have seen, Kant’s substantive proposal of identifying the practical domain in ethical terms is questionable. But the general idea that some a priori dimension is present in practice; that there is a problem of practical objectivity and normativity; that in acting, on a priori principles and in the light of practical concepts, we can provide «practical reality» to the contents of our acting – all this is right and important. We could express much of this with the help of the contemporary metaphor of the space of - theoretical or practical – reasons (Sellars, McDowell). The Kantian image, however, brings with itself further important views. For instance, that there is unity of the principles underlying both domains; that they define general modes of confronting the world; that they differ in kind but have equal normative standing and are similar in structure; that all this is a priori and, if true, necessarily true of how we act and know.3 Drawing on Kant’s idea of practical domain, I take as my starting point the idea that practice is essentially constituted by irreducible conceptual contents and by principles of our normative relations to objects. Its difference with knowledge, while radical, does not invest these structural, formal respects. Practice, no less than representation, can be a mode of normative, conceptual, and rational relation to the world.



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