"Reflections on reflective
practice" series restructured
I had planned to complete the series
with a forth and final contribution in November. However, for the
first time in the five years since I have had a monthly or bimonthly
page, I did not manage to complete the page in due time. In the
course of writing I realized that I needed more space than expected
to introduce the final topic of how we can learn to practice practical
reason. Practical reason is an essential but difficult and (to many)
rather unfamiliar topic, and I think it merits proper introduction.
Moreover, learning to practice a philosophical idea necessarily
means to simplify and "pragmatize" it; but before simplifying
things, we need to understand them well, otherwise we risk becoming
terribles simplificateurs. To put it another way, the simplification
must come at the end, not at the outset.
felt like going back all the way and looking anew at the great contributions
to practical philosophy and what they have to tell us today. Although
I already dedicated two years of my life exclusively to studying
the greatest of all practical philosophers, Immanuel Kant, I realize
this was 30 years ago and some of his ideas might look different
to me today; furthermore, this time I wanted to approach him from
the background of the work of Aristotle, who after all is the founder
of practical philosophy and whose work on virtue ethics is currently
experiencing a certain revival of interest. And of course it would
be interesting on this basis to read Habermas again, including his
writings on discourse ethics which were not available yet when I
wrote Critical Heuristics. In short, I decided to review
the ideas of Aristotle, Kant, and Habermas, as a way to prepare
the ground for the difficult task of pragmatizing practical philosophy
for practice. You can be sure that I stick to this end; the idea
is not to turn this series into a philosophy seminar but rather,
to focus on a few core ideas that these three thinkers have contributed
and which may help us in our task. In addition, it may also be helpful
if in the course of reviewing their ideas, we get a better grasp
of the great line of thought that leads from Ancient Greek virtue
ethics to contemporary conceptions of rational ethics and on to
what I have proposed to call critical pragmatism.
you miss in my list the contribution of American Pragmatism, you
are absolutely right; I do of course regard it as an important source
for learning to practice practical philosophy, but I will deal with
it in the final rather than the preparatory essays about which I
am talking here.
series will thus expand from the earlier-planned four to seven contributions,
with the current structure of the remaining contributions looking
4/7 will offer a general introduction to the notion
of "practical philosophy" and then offer an introduction
to Aristotelian virtue ethics, the origin of all practical
5/7 and 6/7 will be dedicated to the modern conception of rational
ethics, as represented by Kant's practical philosophy and
Habermas' discourse ethics.
7/7, finally, will return to the previously planned
final topic and examine how we might "pragmatize"
practical reason so that along with "applied
science" and "personal knowledge," it can become
the anticipated third pillar of reflective professional
this clarification, I now invite you to a short reflection on a
core theme of the Christian tradition of celebrating Christmas:
hope. Of course I will take the opportunity to articulate some thoughts
about its importance for practical reason and reflective practice.
Days of hope Once
again we have experienced a year with plenty of natural and man-made
disasters, from floods and earthquakes to the flood of refugees
in East Africa and to an unending flood of dismal economic news
that started with the subprime crisis in the US, continued with
the credit crunch in many countries and has now turned into a severe
worldwide economic recession. Millions of people now have to pay
the price for the unprecedented dimension of greed and irresponsibility
on the part of a privileged small elite of people (who of course
haven't understood at all what it means to be an elite, or at least
to be paid as if they were an elite). The economic crisis
thus inevitably goes along with a moral crisis, a loss of faith
in our institutions that has taken on an unprecedented dimension,
too, and which may be far more difficult to heal and take far more
time to overcome than the financial and economic difficulties of
we have also seen some very good news in the past year, news that
give many people around the globe new hopes; I mean of course the
U.S. American presidential election. Like few elections before (I
remember the election of Jimmy Carter, which at the time spurred
many new hopes, too), this one is inspiring in many people hope
for real change; for change that will be substantial, because it
is based in a different vision of the future and of the role of
the US in it, and which also will reach out to all people and nations of
good will around the globe, because it is grounded in a different
spirit and value basis.
American president who is black (a symbol of change and source of
hope in itself), brilliant (another marked change in itself), and
breathtakingly bold in his courage and ability to reach out to people
and touch them in their hearts what more could we ask for as a
ground for hope, for believing that real change is possible? To
be sure, the pressures of realpolitik will remain the same
as ever; nobody, not even the most brilliant politician, can get
"it" (i.e., everything) right for everyone and this within
a short term of office. Some disappointments are thus almost unavoidable;
but everybody knows that and it does not diminish our hope. There
is a magic in President Obama's "Yes we can!" that
reaches deeper than the usual flood of promises before elections.
By touching something essential in the minds and hearts of millions
of people, it unfolds a real force, true impetus for change. Sufficient
reason, I thought, to deal a little bit with the nature of hope:
what exactly is it, from what sources does it nourish itself, how
does it work?
chance has it, I have had a little booklet on my shelf since last
summer, still unread, which deals with this core Christian topic
of the nature of hope. It is Pope Benedict XVI's second Encyclical
Letter, dated 30 November 2007. I am neither Catholic nor particularly
religious (although I do not mind accompanying my Catholic
wife to an occasional church attendance); but this circumstance
provides no reason for me not to listen to what a Catholic Pope
has to say on the topic. Some years ago I read a few essays written
by Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger, see, e.g., 1998) about
the relation of faith, hope, and reason, and I remember they were
philosophically well written and interesting essays. Sufficient
reason, then, to turn to this source and draw some inspiration from
it. In addition, to situate the Christian message of hope in a wider
framework, I have begun to read another booklet that I have had
on my shelf for some time, Karl Jasper's (1975) essay on the four
prophets Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. I will not
comment on this latter source here, as I have not completed my study
of it and lack the time and space to consider it here; I only mention
it for those among my readers who may not have a Christian background
and would like to turn to a different source such as this.
salvi facti sumus "In hope (or though hope) we were saved."
With this quote from the letter of Saint Paul to the Romans (Rom
8:24) begins Benedict XVI's (2007) Spe Salvi, and thereby
makes its message clear from the outset: hope is a strong force.
So strong that we cannot live without it and depend on it for what
Christians call "redemption" (salvation). If hope is such
a vital force, we need to ask and want to know, What is its source?
Or, asked in the theologically focused and accurate way in which
Benedict XVI formulates the question: "What sort of hope could
ever justify the statement that, on the basis of that hope and simply
because it exists, we are redeemed?" (2007, p. 3).
based in faith Theologically speaking, the basis
of hope is faith. Whether we think of the Christian's belief in
the teachings of Jesus or of the Buddhist's belief in the teachings
of Buddha or of the beliefs of any other of the great religions,
faith is key, so much so that hope and faith are inextricably linked.
But despite the obvious importance of religious faith, I would not
want to reduce "faith" to a merely religious and spiritual
kind of force. We encounter and need faith in different ways in
all areas of life; I am thinking, for example, of our relations
with family members and friends, professional colleagues, political
and legal institutions,
of course we also depend on faith in our own endeavors, whenever we are not just passive but engage in
some activities and projects with which we associate some hopes.
is the precise force that moves us in these different expressions
of faith in daily life as much as in our religious and spiritual
life? The most general answer of which I can think, inspired by
Spe Salvi as I am, is this: it consists in the notion of
a future for which it is worthwhile to strive and to struggle.
Without the prospect of a future, without a vision, we have little
reason to invest in the present, to do something about it.
But with a future, we not only have reasons to make an effort,
we also gain orientation, ideas, strength, in one word: hope.
then, what exactly is it in faith that provides us with a future?
In Spe Salvi we learn interesting things about the meaning
of the biblical concept of "faith." We are referred to
an unusual and thought-provoking definition of faith in Paul's letter
to the Hebrews:
is the hypostasis of things hoped for; the proof of things
not seen. (Heb 11:1; Benedict XVI, 2007, p. 16)
is, faith gives presence to that which the future holds but which
we cannot see because it is not yet real. The traditional but inaccurate
translation of hypostasis in this biblical quote is "substance,"
but a better word might be "certainty": through faith,
that which we hope for becomes a certain source of orientation.
We "know" what we want to achieve, we gain orientation.
It is a reality that we carry within us, but as such it has a real
power to move us:
gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and
this present reality constitutes for us a "proof" of the
things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present,
so that it is no longer simply a "not yet." (Benedict
XVI, 2007, p. 19)
based in a vision of the future Spe Salvi
explains this intimate link between faith and future, hope and facing
the present, in beautiful words inspired by Paul's letters to the
Ephesians and to Thessalonians.
reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they
were "without hope and without God in the world" (Eph
In the same vain he says to the Thessalonians: you must
not "grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Th
4:13). Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the
fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details
of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life
will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a
positive reality does it become possible to live the present as
In our language we would say: the Christian message
was not only "informative" but "performative."
(Benedict XVI, 2007, p. 4f)
do not find it difficult to relate these insights to the current
wave of hope and optimism that so many people associate with the
new U.S. American President. What matters is not just that President
Obama has promised real change but that he has done so in a way
that has already changed so many people. With hope we
live the present differently, for "we have a future."
Faith, in the terms of contemporary language analysis and
discourse theory, is the "performative" force that links the future we hope for with the present we live in. When we
see a future, we not only are able to live the present
but it also makes sense to face the present (2007, p.3),
so as to work towards that future. Note that the prospect of change,
whether in the form of religious redemption or of everyday progress
of our human affairs, is never just given to us (cf. 2007, p. 3);
rather, we must earn it by facing the present. It is not
good enough to have hope and lean back; to look to "Washington"
(or to "the government," "those in charge,"
etc.) and wait for change to happen. As Arun Gandhi quotes his grandfather
Mahatma Gandhi: "Be the change you wish to see." (O'Hahn,
2001, p. 6) This is
what it means to "face the present."
where can we find the strength and orientation to face the present
to always again engage anew in the daily quest for change
and improvement if not in some vision of the future that
appeals to us and in which we have faith? To some, a religious Messiah
provides the vision; to others, a political Messiah; to still others,
perhaps a philosophical Messiah can provide orientation, say, towards
personal virtue (e.g., Aristotle) or towards a global moral community
(e.g., the Kantian vision of world peace and world citizenship).
What matters is that we turn this source into a force that makes
us "change ourselves" and "face the present."
based in practical philosophy Facing
the present is also a core concern of practical philosophy
as I propose to understand it in its widest sense: namely, as
a force that "draws the future into the present"
and thereby gives us vital distance from the present. Thus
understood, the quest for practical reason (the core business
of practical philosophy) creates space for religious, spiritual,
political as well as ethical thinking. I do not find it difficult,
then, to relate Spe Salvi to my philosophical interest in
practical reason, no more than to current political hopes. Practical
reason differs from theoretical reason in that it need not "observe"
(in the double sense of the word: recognize and obey)
the laws of
nature but is free to define its own principles of what is right
and rational (Kant, 1787, 1788). Accordingly, practical philosophy is concerned with those
inner sources of orientation and valuation that move us toward change,
and which in the quest for change allow us to distinguish between
change for the better and change for the worse.
be sure, philosophy
is often taken to be a complicated and abstract endeavor that is
remote from everyday practice. But isn't it really up to us whether
this is how we want to understand philosophy, or whether we do not
prefer to understand and practice it in a way that helps us face
the present? It seems to me that too
often when we face genuinely philosophical
issues such as they always come up with practical problems, issues
such as what is "good" and what is "rational,"
we tend to behave a bit like doctoral students who are just beginning
to define the topic of their research: we tend to worry too
much about definitions, procedures, and methods and not enough about the essence
and ends of our effort; that is, about what kind of difference our research or practical
engagement is to make in the end, not with regard to definitions,
procedures, and methods but to the art of living here and now
and wherever our influence may reach in future.
Salvi reminds us that faith not only provides a basis for trustworthy
hope but that it also frees us from seeing ourselves as being
entirely conditioned by external forces; as being the eternal slaves
of the circumstances, of the material conditions of our existence, and
quite generally of that which we cannot change in the present. With hope, "the
inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word;
we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free."
(Benedict XVII, 2007, p. 13) From the standpoint of
practical philosophy, being free means to be able to use our reason; to act
to our genuine convictions; to work
towards change in open and tolerant exchange with others.
is such a strong and necessary ingredient of the quest for improvement
precisely because it offers us these two kinds of strength at once:
a firm basis in the form of faith or trust, and the personal freedom
to orient us toward a "future drawn into the present."
Interestingly, as I learn from Spe Salvi (2007, p. 13f), already
the sarcophagi of the early Christian era captured this twofold
source of strength: they show Christ both as a shepherd and as a
philosopher. What a beautiful image: Christ, the ultimate source
of hope, faith, and change, as shepherd and philosopher at
once. A good shepherd knows a path on which the sheep will be safe
and sound; a good philosopher knows a path of reflection through
which autonomous and reasonable beings will be led to reason and
at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline,
as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how
to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human
the art of living and dying. (2007, p. 14, my italics)
the art of being authentically human
What a beautifully succinct and meaningful description of philosophy! Philosophy as a source of
hope that puts us in touch with the art of being authentically
human perhaps the most inspiring definition of philosophy
that I have encountered. Such an understanding of philosophy is indeed very close to my belief
practical philosophy, adequately simplified and pragmatized, should
in future play a more important part than we give it today in
our conceptions of rational practice, in
the public as well as in the private sector, in our professional
as well as our private lives. I realize that probably not everyone
will want to go as far as Kant (1788, A215ff) went with his concept of
the primacy of practical reason over theoretical reason,
which suggests that when it comes to the art of being authentically
human, practical reason is primary and theoretical reason is only
its servant. Although I tend to agree with Kant, I think it is quite good enough to recognize that when it comes
to reflective practice, theoretical and practical reason are inseparable
siblings. In other words, good practice is inextricably two-dimensional,
in that it needs a basis in both knowledge and faith, present and
circle is closing, then. Hope grounded in faith "the hypostasis
of things hoped for" is not in opposition to acting with
reason so as to bring about the kind of future we hope for.
Reason needs orientation as much as faith needs reason for bringing
therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and
faith need one another in order to fulfil their true nature and
their mission. (2007, p. 47).
Some readers may be surprised to find me emphasizing
the role of hope and faith in conjunction with reason, given that
I do not usually appeal to such acts of faith in my writings on
practical reason and reflective professional practice. However,
the reason for such abstinence is not that I consider hope and faith
unimportant, only that calling for them does not constitute a methodological
achievement. Methodological argumentation must show how we can systematically
handle the normative content of all practice with reason,
in ways that are transparent and open to questioning on the part
of all those concerned, so that in the end we can claim that practical
reason is more than just calculated partiality; that it amounts
to a gain in rationality in the larger sense of considering the values
and hopes of all those concerned. Methodological argumentation cannot
tell us what these values and hopes should be, much less distinguish
a few selected visions of the future and sources of faith as the only right ones. Practical
philosophy is not to supersede practice but must leave such judgments
to practice itself.
is not directed against recognizing the importance of faith, then,
if methodological argumentation in practical philosophy concentrates
on the task of explaining the idea and implications of the moral
point of view (Baier, 1958). The moral point of view is an attitude
of unconditional respect for the dignity and integrity of other
people, which expresses itself in respecting their autonomy with
respect to their choice of values and hopes, rather than in stipulating
what these values and hopes ought to be with the exception of
that minimal normative core which is present in all reasonable practice
in the form of the moral point of view itself. In this double sense
of presupposing a minimal normative core and of depending on normative
practice, the quest for practical reason requires both reason and
faith. Spe salvi facti erimus in hope we will be safe and
a peaceful holiday season full of hopes, and stay safe and sound.
K. (1958). The Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis of Ethics.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
XVI (2007). Spe Salvi. Encyclical Letter, 30 November (English
edition). Rome: Vatican Press. Also available from the Vatican's
web site (open access):
(references are to the printed version).
K. (1975) Die massgebenden Menschen: Sokrates, Buddha, Konfuzius,
Jesus. Munich, Germany. Piper (orig. 1964). (English
transl.: Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: From the Great Philosophers, Volume I.
Fort Washington, PA: Harvest Books, 1966.)
I. (1787). Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed. (1st ed. 1781).
Transl. by N.K.
Smith. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965 (orig. London and New
York: Macmillan 1929).
I. (1788). Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy,. Transl. by L.W.
Beck. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1949.
Be the change you wish to see. An interview with Arun Gandhi.
Reclaiming Children and Youth, 10, No. 1, pp. 6-9.
G. (2006). The Cloudspotter's Guide. London: Hodder &
J. (1998). Glaube zwischen Vernunft und Gefühl.
Die neue Ordnung, 52, 1998, pp. 164-177. English version:
"Faith between Reason and Feeling," in Joseph Cardinal
Ratzinger: Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions,
San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press 2004.