Wisdom and the Mind

9 Concepts of Reason and Wisdom

Maureen Junker-Kenny

The pursuit of enquiries into the origins and the development of significant traits of conscious life already testifies to the human capacity for asking questions that go beyond individual impressions and experiences in the everyday lifeworld. The question of origins implies the ability to reflect not simply on what is given as concrete empirical entities, but to conceive of the cosmos in its totality. This ability to take a position which is at a distance from immediate needs points to a faculty that can only be accessed indirectly as a condition for features that are observable, while open to different interpretations. “Freedom,” “reason,” and “wisdom” belong to these self-descriptions; comparing their understanding in different schools of ethics that agree on the term “animal rationale” for humans will offer some insights into how a feature that can be investigated as a natural factor in an evolutionary perspective is articulated and shaped within normative frameworks. The elaboration of these traditions can be traced back to historical circumstances and locations, such as Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, including their interaction and transformations as well as their trajectories into modernity; proposals that emerged in antiquity are still being debated as current possibilities for orientations in thinking. I will begin my comparison with an assessment of the role of philosophy regarding individual human sciences like anthropology, ethology, archeology, philology, or genetics (I.1). Having clarified that the distinct method of philosophy is based on self-reflection, I will then outline Paul Ricœur’s combination of two traditions of thinking on practical reason and wisdom, namely, those stemming from Aristotle and Immanuel Kant. Ricœur re-envisages these traditions as two levels of ethics leading to a third stage, judgment, titled “practical wisdom” (I.2). The second part of this chapter will contrast two views of language as a distinctive capability that makes us human in relation to its potential both for cooperation and evil. I will conclude by outlining the dimensions of a concept of “practical wisdom” that takes modernity’s insights into the constitution of human subjectivity seriously (II).

Concepts of Reason in Different Approaches to Philosophy

Reason in Philosophy and in the Enquiries of Individual Disciplines

Philosophers, the “friends of wisdom,” enquire into the human faculty of reason in order to give a critical account of the foundations of knowledge and reflected praxis. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the role of philosophy in universities has changed due to the rise of the sciences and humanities, which explore distinctive aspects in individual disciplines. A debate on the proper task and method of philosophy has ensued which can be followed in the paradigm changes reflected in proposals about which academic discipline should be guiding the enquiry into what it is to be human: history, sociology, biology, linguistics, or genetics? Which conception of “knowledge” should be leading these research projects? Should the method be exact-empirical, critical-transcendental, or historical-hermeneutical? Is “knowledge” a building site that is open to a plurality of enquiries, or is there a basic approach that strikes the dominant key and turns all other disciplines into contributors to its enterprise? The German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas proposed what he saw as a middle route between the metaphysical idea of an unchanging philosophia perennis, and a positivism that he had already combated with Theodor W. Adorno as the opposite of a critical enquiry. In his presentation at the 1981 Hegel Congress, “Philosophy as stand-in and interpreter,” Habermas conceded that the role of philosophy in a civilization analyzed by individual disciplines has to be adjusted to “interpreter” of the natural and human sciences and “placeholder” for universalist questions; the goal remains, however, to retain the critical and uniting function of reason.[1] This integrating capacity is applied to two tasks: i) the mediation of the expert cultures among each other, and ii) the communicative practices of the lifeworld. It is to “help set in motion the interplay between the cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical, and aesthetic-expressive dimensions that has come to a standstill today like a tangled mobile” to “overcome the isolation of science, morals, and art and their respective expert cultures.”[2]

At the same time, the position that philosophy has a method of its own which is different from investigations in individual disciplines is no longer defended. This is where colleagues in Continental philosophy and theology have elaborated their reasons for disagreeing with this curtailment of the genuine capacity of philosophy. In Postmetaphysical Thinking II, published thirty years after his 1981 presentation, Habermas considers it necessary to highlight again the irreplaceable significance of “self-reflection.”[3] This term denotes what Ricœur identified as the specificity of philosophy against the reductionisms he feared as much as Habermas. In Ricœur’s Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, the capacity for self-reflection is the antidote to ideologically enclosed pursuits. He distinguishes two factors, namely, the internal human capacity and the variety of its historical articulations: “Self-reflection has both an ahistorical factor, what I have called its transcendental component, and a cultural component, a history.”[4] The status of reflexivity is also one of the lines of division with other philosophical colleagues. In a 1987 response to Habermas, Dieter Henrich defended it as a capacity that is as original as intersubjectivity, and the key marker against attempts to naturalize pursuits that point to human freedom.[5] The debate on the “transcendental” method enquiring into the conditions of the possibility of human performances cannot be pursued here any further, but the term “self-reflection,” used by Habermas in his earlier critique of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, points to a specificity of human consciousness that can only be disclosed indirectly and that consists in going behind empirically observable features.

“Practical Wisdom” as the Third Stage in Ricœur’s Combination of Aristotle’s and Kant’s Approaches to Ethics

Ricœur can understand the two approaches to ethics, one orientated towards eudaimonia, the other towards principled autonomy, not as alternatives but as two stages, because for him Aristotle’s highest virtue of justice is compatible with Kant’s definition of morality as “good will.”[6] His interpretation of the flourishing life as striving to “live well, with and for others, in just institutions”[7] takes elements of Aristotle’s polis-centered approach in a universalist direction. The key reason to begin with an ethics of striving, rather than with the steep entry of the “ought” encountered in deontological ethics, is

the wish to live in just institutions arises from the same level of morality as do the desire for personal fulfilment and the reciprocity of friendship. The just is first an object of desire, of a lack, of a wish. It begins as a wish before it is an imperative.[8]

The second stage of this ethics, necessary in view of the human penchant for evil or “power over,” portrays deontology as the “sieve of the norm:” “it is owing to the wrong that one person inflicts on another that the moral judgment…has to add the predicate of the obligatory to that of the good, usually under the negative figure of what is prohibited.”[9] The “sieve” filters out maxims that do not meet the prohibition to instrumentalize the other for the agent’s own benefit. It is needed since humans not only lack insight, but can have evil intentions as well. Ricœur devises a third stage, titled with the Aristotelian-sounding term “practical wisdom,” bringing together level 1, the original striving to live well, with level 2, the moral ought, in judgements on concrete situations. This stage of finding equitable solutions for the persons and goods in question requires “imagination.” The task is to mediate between step 2, the “exceptionless universality” of the Kantian moral law, and step 1, the “perspectivism of personal singularity”[10] of the values and priorities chosen in the Aristotelian striving for a flourishing life.

How can the general rule of level 2, the categorical imperative of unconditional respect for the other which extends to all with the same validity, and level 1, the individual in her uniqueness, be encompassed at the same time? In the following characterization, it becomes clear that Kant’s Critique of Judgment is the key reference text: the “invention of an appropriate solution to the unique situation stems from what, since Kant, we have called the productive imagination, in order to distinguish it from the merely reproductive imagination.”[11] “Practical wisdom” as defined by Ricœur cannot be identified with the given cultural value systems which offer a general communitarian standard. While Ricœur relates imagination to the symbolic resources available, among them religious narratives and hopes, he points to the thoroughly innovative character of the conclusion represented by the term “conviction”: it rests on individual conscience and is geared towards protecting the singularity of the other. He is careful, however, to distinguish this regard from “arbitrariness” or “decisionism” without criteria that is in “complicity” with the “rigidity” of exceptionless universality:[12]

Practical wisdom consists in inventing conduct that will best satisfy the exception required by solicitude, by betraying the rule to the smallest extent possible…. Practical wisdom consists here in inventing just behavior suited to the singular nature of the case.[13]

Highlighting the role of conscience and personal decision, Ricœur proposes an understanding of “conviction” that is the result of “productive imagination” in the face of conflicting claims, not a verdict made once and for all and unmovable.

Language as the Origin of Distinctively Human Cooperation, or as the Capacity for Distance from Given and Immediate Contexts?

No matter which unifying concept is used, “reason” in the sense of Vernunft, not of purposive rationality (Verstand), or “wisdom,” or “freedom,” the status of these key interpretive terms remains unprovable and endlessly contestable. On the other hand, concepts like these are necessary for at least two reasons. First, a heuristic term is needed for gathering evidence for or against any interpretation of what can count as “human.” Second, without a normative self-understanding communities and societies would lack any symbolic integration, be it membership in a polis aware of the paradox of submitting oneself freely to governance; the shared historical foundation of an empire (for example, Rome, ex urbe condita);[14] or a territory-transcending cooperation in delegitimizing war and injustice contained in the vision of all the nations worshipping the one God who created the world and them (Isaiah 56 and 66). Unity of perspective is implied in agency, if this term is to denote more than behavior, namely, a conscious initiative or response to life’s conditions and to others in their unpredictable overtures and reactions. If “wisdom” is selected as the guiding term, it will require further specification as to the basic model of ethics chosen to elucidate it. All such definitions of a core, basis, or essence of a phenomenon imply two operations: outlining the circumference of the entity in question—a specific religion, a school of philosophy, an era—through historical research, and identifying its unifying core through conceptual work.[15] Enquiries into the specificity of humanity as such, as distinct from a culture or an era, draw the largest possible circle.

The endowment of language which will feature in any account of this scope, however, has given rise to quite opposite evaluations. Habermas establishes language as the overlooked enabling ground of cooperation. In the third phase of the Frankfurt School, after the second phase of the Dialectics of Enlightenment marked by the Holocaust and the Second World War, he sought to reconnect with the first, interdisciplinary phase of Critical Theory. Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, and others had engaged in developing an analysis of modern society by relating Karl Marx to Sigmund Freud, highlighting the need to include the context of origin and the context of use of theories. Habermas continues this critical enquiry into reason which he sees as embodied in language, providing the basis for a communicative rationality:

The human interest in autonomy and responsibility (Mündigkeit) is not mere fancy, for it can be apprehended a priori. What raises us out of nature is the only thing whose nature we can know: language. Through its structure, autonomy and responsibility are posited for us. Our first sentence expresses unequivocally the intention of universal and unconstrained consensus.[16]

The experiments and conclusions Michael Tomasello has drawn in A Natural History of Human Morality can be seen as empirical validation for this thesis, although the debate on joint intentionality in non-linguistic animals goes on:

The cooperative rationality we are positing here is the ultimate source of the human sense of “ought.” Early human cooperative rationality expands human pro-attitudes to include the welfare of others…and it focuses on the individual decision-making in the context of a joint agent, “we,” formed by a joint commitment. These new elements… created a socially normative sense of “ought”…a new social order, based on processes of joint intentionality and second-person agency—in which it made sense to act morally.[17]

By contrast, a different guiding idea than stated by Habermas in 1965 for the evaluation of language as an evolutionary game-changer can be found in the French philosopher Marcel Hénaff’s linking of cruelty as a specifically human trait to language with its capacity to establish a distance to the immediately surrounding world. In a text written for a recent Societas Ethica conference, he points out what is missing in biological and ethological approaches:

the fact that humans are a symbolic species, an animal endowed with language, which changes everything in prodigious ways; this fact opens a new world of problems. Language gives rise to a new order: the order of thought; thus arise a distance and a power of the virtual that completely change our relationship to the world and above all to other humans. Contrary to what could have been expected, this extraordinary increase in cognitive abilities does not decrease the violence that haunts our species; it merely alters and above all complexifies it; it supplies it with unprecedented resources and gives it access to forms of expression found in no other animal species. This specificity can be summarized with one word: cruelty.[18]

One could add to Hénaff’s analysis by drawing on the nineteenth-century religious thinker Søren Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the human as a being that is conscious of its utter facticity, the completely unnecessary status of its existence. In its anxiety and attempts to ground itself, human freedom is marked by despair: inauthentic at the aesthetic level, authentic at the level of ethical choice of either despairingly wanting to be itself or despairingly not wanting to be itself. For Kierkegaard, in view of a human existence that is torn between finite choices and infinite possibilities, the only resolution to be found where “despair is completely eradicated” is when “the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it,” namely, God.[19] In Hénaff’s analysis, the only remedy available to stop the cycle of human cruelty is “forgiveness.”

Enquiries both into human origins and the development of wisdom, as articulated in different systems of ethics, encounter the abysses of finite freedom. For Ricœur, the question of whether one can forgive belongs exactly to practical wisdom in its mediating capacity between valid universal rule and singularity. When a perpetrator has violated the prohibition of violence and instrumentalization, the victim can choose whether to “untie” the agent from her act, restoring her to a new original agency by distinguishing the self from the actualizations of its freedom: “You are worth more than your acts.”[20] The outcome of practical wisdom is not a foregone conclusion, however; it is an act of freedom based on a judgment that can avail of the symbolic worlds of the agents with their narratives, visions, and reservoir of sources of meaning which allow their imagination to find an inventive response to a situation of conflict. It is the faculty of judgment (Urteilskraft) that makes it clear why morality is not a game of rules but requires imagination.[21]

This understanding of practical wisdom differs from the emphasis on “community,” “dispositions,” and “character” typical for current versions of virtue ethics. A principled restriction to a community of shared values would make it an insiders’ ethic[22] unable to rise to the universalist scope of both biblical monotheism and deontological understandings of morality as the capacity for goodwill in every human. Some versions tend to take mere habits as expressions of ethical conduct.[23] The focus on “character” reduces the moral self to the “idem” aspect of natural continuity, while failing to account for the “ipse” aspect of willing to live “with and for others in just institutions.”[24] The lack of a theory of self that is based on an analysis of human subjectivity is evident both in contractual theories of justice and an Aristotelian account of the “good,” despite the merits of practical reasoning it supplies regarding orders of priority. In view of the daunting infinity of options of an unsecured self which is conscious of its temporal finitude, a “practical wisdom” that has its origin in the human will, not in the cognitive insight privileged by Greek approaches to ethics, can resolve to reject evil and extend the forgiveness that Hénaff sees as the key response available to humans:

the infinity of possibilities and representations language opens up for us, indexed on the violence and energy present in our species, has radically transformed emotional bonds and turned impulses into a desire as immense as the worlds born of thought; but at the same time as those emotions of attachment and love, emotions of rejection and hatred are also caught in the power of the infinite. Against this evil no ritual or law can stand. Faced with this hatred that sometimes inhabits and grasps us, there is only one possible answer: the decision to reject it. This is the power to start over, which we call forgiveness. It is probably the only radical answer to radical evil.[25]

MAUREEN JUNKER-KENNY, F.T.C.D., is Professor in Theology at the School of Religion, Trinity College Dublin. She studied English, Catholic Theology, and Philosophy and completed her Ph.D. on F. Schleiermacher’s Christology and theory of religion at the University of Münster, as well as her Habilitation on the discourse ethics of J. Habermas at the University of Tübingen. Research interests include religion and concepts of public reason and the public sphere; Schleiermacher and conditions of theology in Modernity; and approaches to theological and philosophical ethics, especially Ricoeur, Habermas, and biomedical ethics.


[1] Jürgen Habermas, “Philosophy as Stand-in and Interpreter,” in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, translated by C. Lenhardt and S. Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 1–20.
[2] Ibid., 19.
[3] Jürgen Habermas, “Religion und nachmetaphysisches Denken: Eine Replik,” in Nachmetaphysisches Denken II. Aufsätze und Repliken (Frankfurt, Germany: Suhrkamp, 2012), 122: “Even today, philosophy is distinguished from the objectifying sciences by the reflexive question about the understanding of self and world of “the’ human person or of individuals ‘as such’ (or of ‘modernity’).”
[4] Paul Ricœur, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, edited by G.H. Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 237.
[5] Dieter Henrich, “What is Metaphysics—What Modernity?” in Habermas: A Critical Reader, edited by P. Dews (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 291–319.
[6] “It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will” (Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H.J. Paton [New York, NY: Harper, 1964], 61).
[7] Paul Ricœur, Oneself as Another, translated by K. Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 172.
[8] Paul Ricœur, The Just, translated by D. Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), xiii.
[9] Ibid., xvii.
[10] Paul Ricœur, Reflections on the Just, translated by D. Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 88.
[11] Ricœur, The Just, xxii.
[12] Ricœur, Oneself as Another, 264.
[13] Ricœur, Oneself as Another, 269.
[14] Ricœur, “The Paradox of Authority,” in Reflections on the Just, 91–105.
[15] A thought-through example of how the two methods relate in three disciplines titled, “ethics,” “philosophy of religion,” and “apologetics” can be found in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s discussion of the essence of Christianity in 2§ 11 ET of the Second Edition (1830/31), available in English as The Christian Faith, translated and edited by H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986), which I have tried to reconstruct in “Transformations of Doctrine as Cases of Mutual Learning Between Religions and Cultures: Schleiermacher’s Proposal for Translating Christology in Modernity,” in Re-Learning to be Human in Global Times: Challenges and Opportunites from the Perspective of Contemporary Philosophy and Religion, edited by B. Buchhammer and H. Nagl-Docekal (Washington, DC: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2018).
[16] Jürgen Habermas, “Appendix: Knowledge and Human interests: A General Perspective,” in Knowledge and Human Interests, translated by J.J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 301–17, 314.
[17] M. Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Morality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 82.
[18] Marcel Hénaff, “On the Genesis of Evil in Human Evolution: Homo Sapiens, Homo Loquens, Homo Crudelis,” read at the Societas Ethica conference “Giving an Account of Evil,” in Volos, Greece, August 24–27, 2017, 1–2.
[19] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, translated and introduced by A. Hannay (London: Penguin, 1989 [1849]), 44.
[20] Paul Ricœur, Memory, History, Forgetting, translated by K. Blamey and D. Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 493 (translation amended).
[21] Jonathan Marks refers to the irreplaceable role of imagination and imaginaries in “A Tale of Ex-Apes: Whence Wisdom?,” Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences 3 (2016): 152–74.
[22] “Although particularist reasoning can allow for the revisability of norms or of commitments across time, in the light of other norms and commitments (…it is not, contrary to some critics, intrinsically conservative), it cannot allow for the thought that one stretch of practical reasoning may have multiple and differing audiences. Particularist reasoning is intrinsically “insiders’ reasoning” (Onora O’Neill, Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 52.)
[23] The moral theologian Sigrid Müller has shown that in the history of moral theology, this identification was resisted. A mere “habitus” does not already qualify as ethical. As Müller points out: “Significantly, there were already discussions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as to what virtue was precisely. These discussions criticized the concept of habitual virtue in order to defend an understanding of virtue as an individual decision made according to right reason” (“From Virtue Ethics to Normative Ethics? Tracing Paradigm Shifts in Fifteenth-Century Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics,” in Between Creativity and Norm-Making: Tensions in the Later Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, edited by S. Müller and C. Schweiger [Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2013], 9).
[24] Ricœur, Oneself as Another, 172; A. Daughton, With and For Others: Developing Ricœur’s Ethics of Self Using Aquinas’s Language of Analogy (New York: Herder, 2016). I have discussed the strengths and the limits of the virtue ethical approach in “Virtues and the God Who Makes Everything New,” in Recognising the Margins: Developments in Biblical and Theological Studies: Essays in Honour of Seán Freyne, edited by A. Mayes and W. Jeanrond (Dublin, Ireland: Columba Press, 2006), 298–320, reprinted in An Irish Reader in Moral Theology: The Legacy of the Last Fifty Years, Vol. I: Foundations, edited by E. McDonagh and V. MacNamara (Dublin, Ireland: Columba Press, 2009), 169–86.
[25] Hénaff, “On the Genesis of Evil in Human Evolution,” 10–11.



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