Aristotelian (and Other) Conceptions Of Reason


Jan van Ophuijsen


1 & 2


This tutorial is intended to explore ideas that are central to a new line of research that Jan van Ophuijsen is developing, which he presented at the first Philosophy Lunch Lecture on September 13. Here is a sketch of the central idea:

  • Aristotle defined the human as the ‘rational animal’ (animal rationale) or, more precisely, ‘living thing endowed with reason’ (zôion logon ekhon). The notion of reason or rationality (hereafter: R/r) as our defining trait has permanently shaped our common self-understanding at least in the western tradition. It is also widely regarded as central to philosophy.Yet it is far from clear how Aristotle’s definition should be interpreted.
  • Not only is it unclear how Aristotle meant his definition to be interpreted, it also remains highly controversial what is the right way to conceive of R/r in general. Contemporary philosophy in English has been gravitating towards instrumentalist or ‘naturalist’ conceptions of R/r, attempting to reduce phenomena of R/r to the entities and facts of physics. (We will label such conceptions Humean.)
  • Yet a growing minority accords R/r its own authority by positing special objects of R/r irreducible to matter or to empirical data, and/or by regarding R/r as an indispensable, decisive faculty in setting goals, or by treating R/r as normative anyhow. They will construe ‘having reason’ as ‘having reasons’, plural. These may be reasons either for belief or for action (amounting to ‘theoretical reason’ and ‘practical reason’ respectively), but either way they are a different thing from causes, and (as far as mortal beings are concerned) an exclusively human asset. Following Kant, they press the distinction between what is in fact (de facto) and what is by right (de iure). By contrast, Humeans will tend to construe reasons as motives on a par with other causes or as rationalizations, and stress continuities between human, animal and artificial intelligence.
  • On a range of conceptions of R/r from the Humean to the broadly Kantian, Aristotle is usually taken to lean towards the Kantian end. Accordingly, proponents of conceptions of this less reductionist type regularly invoke Aristotle as an ally.
  • Key issues to assess are
    • The extent to which conceptions of R/r can appropriately be attributed to or otherwise associated with Aristotle, and
    • What ways exist for developing such conceptions. In this sense, we can speak of Aristotelian conceptions, plural, rather than of “the” Aristotle’s conception, since there is a family of ingredients to be evaluated in terms of their philosophical potential, their extraction from a long tradition and their foundation in Aristotle’s text.

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