In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Practical Reason

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • The Aristotelian Tradition
  • The Humean Tradition
  • The Kantian Tradition
  • Instrumental Rationality
  • Deliberation about Ends
  • Practical Reason, Motivation, and Action
  • Dualism of Practical Reason: Prudence versus Morality
  • Failures of Practical Reason
  • Decision Theory
  • Practical Reasons
  • The Nature of Practical Reasoning and the Normativity of Rationality
  • Other Emerging Issues

Philosophy Practical Reason
Jussi Suikkanen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0092


Practical reason is the mental faculty that enables agents to deliberate about what they ought to do and to act on the basis of such deliberation. Much of the philosophical investigation of practical reason and its limits has been done in three historical traditions, originating from Aristotle, Hume, and Kant. This article begins from some of the most interesting recent publications within these traditions. It then moves on to the literature of the different problem-centered debates concerning practical reason, practical reasoning, and rationality. The notion of philosophy of practical reason has also been used more widely to cover philosophy of normativity generally, that is, philosophical investigation about what we ought to do, what reasons we have, and so on. Two sections of this bibliography—Dualism of Practical Reason: Prudence versus Morality and Practical Reasons—include some literature of the philosophy of practical reason in this wider sense.

General Overviews

Several good overview articles on practical reason are available. Millgram 2001 is the most accessible introduction to the alternative views about the norms governing practical reasoning. O’Neill 1998 explains equally well the difference between the theories that evaluate actions by their ends and the ones that assess the rationality of actions more directly. Gosepath 2002 is a good guide to the most recent literature on practical reason, and it also describes clearly the arguments against the so-called belief-desire model. Wallace 2014 is helpful in explaining how practical reason differs from theoretical reason, what the different views of rationality are, and how practical reason relates to morality. Wallace 1990 is an excellent overview and clarification of the debates about the motivating ability of practical reason. Kauppinen 2007 and Cullity and Gaut 1997 both explain the main features of the Aristotelian, Humean, and Kantian theories of practical reason. The former concentrates more on the metaethical implications of those theories (and the empirical research on the subject), whereas the latter is better on the argumentation between them.

  • Cullity, Garrett, and Berys Gaut. “Introduction.” In Ethics and Practical Reason. Edited by Garrett Cullity and Berys Gaut, 1–27. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

    This excellent article begins by explaining how normative and explanatory reasons have been claimed to relate to practical reason, rationality, and motivation. It then examines the arguments for and against the three main views about practical reason: instrumentalist Humeanism, recognitional Aristotelianism, and constuctivist Kantianism.

  • Gosepath, Stefan. “Practical Reason: A Review of the Current Debate and Problems.” Philosophical Explorations 5.3 (2002): 229–238.

    DOI: 10.1080/10002002108538735

    Gosepath’s fairly dense overview article has an extensive bibliography of the recent literature on practical reason. It first explains the “belief-desire” model of practical reason and then goes through many of the recent attacks on that model. Available online by subscription.

  • Kauppinen, Antti. “Essays in Philosophical Moral Psychology.” PhD diss., University of Helsinki, 2007.

    The introduction to this PhD thesis offers a careful exposition of the major philosophical theories of practical reason from a contemporary metaethical perspective. Section 2.3 is an excellent overview of the recent empirical literature on practical deliberation.

  • Millgram, Elijah. “Practical Reasoning: The Current State of Play.” In Varieties of Practical Reasoning. Edited by Elijah Millgram, 1–26. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

    Millgram provides an overview of the different views about what kinds of norms govern practical reasoning. These views include nihilism (none), instrumentalism (means-ends norms), expected utility maximization views, and Kantianism (universalizability). The article is very accessible, and it has an extensive bibliography.

  • O’Neill, Onora. “Practical Reasoning and Ethics.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 7. Edited by Edward Craig, 613–620. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

    This clear introductory article provides a helpful map of the different positions in the debates about the nature of practical reason. The emphasis is on exploring the differences between the Humean “end-orientated” and Kantian “act-orientated” models of practical reasoning.

  • Wallace, R. Jay. “How to Argue about Practical Reason.” Mind 99.395 (1990): 355–385.

    A thorough overview article about the recent discussions between those who think that pure practical reason can itself give rise to motivation to act (rationalists) and those who think that reason must always be aided by antecedent desires (Humeans). It is helpful for both explaining the relevant literature and distinguishing between different aspects of the debate. Reprinted in Wallace’s Normativity and the Will: Selected Essays on Moral Psychology and Practical Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

  • Wallace, R. Jay. “Practical Reason.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

    A systematic introduction to the defining features of practical reason. Much of the focus is on the different conceptions of the norms of rationality, but the ethical relevance of such norms is also considered. The bibliography could be more extensive.

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