8 Practical Wisdom: Good Reasoning or Good Action?

Craig Iffland

In this chapter, I advance two theses. First, while attributions of prudence or practical wisdom to some agent presuppose that agent’s possession of certain cognitive capacities, to state that an agent’s activities presuppose the possession of certain cognitive capacities is not eo ipso to say the agent is practically wise or prudent. Second, attributions of prudence or practical wisdom are irreducibly normative, depending on our assessment of the practical reasoning, that is, the justifications and argumentation, that we judge to be the source and explanation of the agent’s activities. That is to say, while we may attribute prudence or practical wisdom to an agent by virtue of his or her activities, those attributions presuppose the rectitude of the practical reasoning that is the origin of the teleological structure of those activities.

Following Augustine, Thomas Aquinas defines prudence as cognition of what should be desired and avoided.[1] The definition is normative, presupposing some cognizance of a standard in which one can perceive a certain thing as something that should be desired or avoided. By “standard,” I do not mean cognizance of a proposition. When a chimp breaks off a branch, strips it of its leaves, and snaps it in half, she has a formidable tool for hunting a certain kind of prey.[2] I do not know of anyone that would claim this ability is a function of the chimp’s thinking about or grasping some normative proposition about tools or hunting. Similarly, pre-linguistic members of the genus Homo attained food by scaring away a predator after it had killed its prey. This required some awareness of how to scare predators, coordination among the members of the group in collective scavenging, the effective use of tools to strip the prey of its meat in a short time, and knowing to leave the site before any other predators returned or arrived.[3] Nothing in any of these activities demands that these pre-linguistic humans had the capacity to apprehend some normative proposition about what it would be “good” or “bad” to do. Just as we do not need the chimp to tell us the normative propositions that guided her action in order to be warranted in attributing to her the use of a tool, so too we do not need these pre-linguistic human beings to tell us the normative propositions that guided their actions in order to be warranted in attributing to them the complex cognitive capabilities that are involved in the practice of “passive scavenging.”[4]

All this is not to suggest that these abilities are disconnected from a standard about what these animals needed to flourish. All need to eat in order to survive, and if their environment affords them the possibility of prey that can be had by the use of sticks or passive scavenging, the use of sharp sticks and passive scavenging for food is something each should desire. The actions of each group bespeak, at least, the right kind of desire given their specific mode of flourishing, and further, a correct understanding of the possibilities for achieving that desire in their present circumstances. Such acts seem rooted in past experience of the possibilities afforded by their environment and cognition of how a thing can be used to attain something at a distance from their present circumstances. In this, both groups look prudent, or practically wise, in making provisions for some common, future need. Indeed, Aquinas states that prudence is cognition of future things based on what is known about things in the present or past.[5] This does not mean that an action is prudent just because it cannot be adequately explained without positing some cognitive power like memory. Prudence is not a power, but a perfection of a power. For example, for Aquinas, a virtue is not a perfection of one’s power to remember, but a perfection of one’s power to reason in a practical mode, that is, toward the attainment of some end or good.[6] In other words, Aquinas’s view is that prudence, while presupposing some capacity to remember, is nonetheless a perfection of one’s capacity for practical reasoning. Considered as such, prudence involves the deliberate justification of some future action on the basis of some cognition of the past or present, which is an extra step beyond mere cognition of the past or present. In other words, because an agent has the ability to reason, it is sensible for us to speak of their actions as prudent or wise.[7] I turn now to a defense of this point.

Manifestations of practical wisdom certainly presuppose complex cognitive capacities, but when we say that someone is “wise” we do not intend to mark out a cognitive capacity. Rather, we are pointing out a praiseworthy trait of the individual’s character. Wisdom inspires wonder and we marvel at the cognitive capacities of non-human animals and even pre-linguistic children. Yet we are reticent about marvelling at the exercise of these capacities when they are directed toward manifestly cruel or vicious actions. If our criterion for attributing wisdom is only that the actions of the agent in question exemplify the exercise of cognitive capacities for complex, creative, and even collaborative problem-solving, we will not be able to distinguish between the use of individual or collective cognitive capacities for good or ill. Let me give an example.

Both human beings and non-human animals can express ingenuity, creativity, and problem solving in the various activities that make up their hunt. A seasoned hunter can explain, in detail, the reasoning that went into a successful kill, even the kills of non-human animals. Yet we tremble, rather than marvel, when the hunter’s game is another human being, as is the case in Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game.[8] In that story General Zaroff, an excellent hunter who has grown bored of hunting non-human animals, has taken to hunting shipwrecked sailors who wash ashore on his private island. No amount of ingenuity and creativity in Zaroff’s hunting can be a cause for attributing practical wisdom to him. This shows that it is not the ingenuity and creativity of the activities of the hunt that prompts praise or marvel specific to practical wisdom, but rather the goodness or uprightness of the practical reasoning that is the source and explanation of those activities.[9] Prudence pertains to the right use of certain cognitive capacities and not merely to a behavioral manifestation of those capacities.

Why not say that the hunting of our chimpanzee and the passive scavenging of our pre-linguistic humans are behavioral manifestations of practical reasoning? Neither could be operating on the basis of their apprehension or application of a proposition—since, we presume, they lack the linguistic capacities to formulate such a proposition—but perhaps their actions are evidence enough of their making an inference from past experience, drawing certain conclusions from some evidence available to them, acting in view of certain reasons that serve to explain and justify their activities?[10] There is an assumption here, namely that an agent’s thoughts, and by extension his or her reasoning, is something hidden or inner.[11] Because reasoning is “in the head” of the reasoner, we cannot come to know what she thought or reasoned without the agent’s report (via language) as to the content of those thoughts.

What lies behind this assumption is a deep philosophical confusion about “mind” that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein energetically wished to expel. As he pointed out, what I think or thought is not settled by a report of what happens or happened in my mind or head.[12] One could ask me, “who do you think is the President of the United States of America?” At any moment after January 20, 2017, I would say, “I think Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America.” This does not mean, however, that at that moment, or any other moment, the statement “Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America” passed through my head. In fact, I do not remember if this statement has ever passed through my mind or imagination. Nonetheless, the failure to remember in no way precludes the truthfulness of my assertion that, since January 20, 2017, I thought, “Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America,” and that, prior to January 20, 2017, I did not think, “Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America.” What matters is not what I can remember passing through my head at this or that time, but what I would truthfully affirm as giving adequate expression to my thoughts at this or that time. For this reason, it is mistaken for us to assume that we cannot know what a pre-linguistic human or non-human animal thought without their being able to tell us what went on their head at some point of time. After all, there is nothing nonsensical about stating that a chimp thinks it can catch prey with a stick, or that a pre-linguistic human thinks it can get food by scaring away a predator. The truth of such statements is settled by appeal to the behavior of the chimp and the pre-linguistic human, which behavior gives expression to such thought.[13] Yet, not every kind of thought can be given non-linguistic expression in behavior, or at least, outside of a community that is shaped by various linguistic powers. Our pre-linguistic passive scavengers can think that they can acquire food by scaring away predators, but they cannot think that they are justified in depriving the predator of his kill because, for example, they are a higher form of life or God’s elect. For such a thought cannot be expressed except through mastery of certain linguistic practices whereby we provide warrants and justifications for our actions through the use of “because” clauses in response to challenges or inquiries into our reasons for thinking ourselves justified in doing whatever we did.[14]

In order to settle the question of reasoning as the source of attributions of prudence and practical wisdom, one must ask what behavioral criteria would be required for us to be warranted in saying that some action was the result of an agent’s reasoning. Let us suppose we are dealing with a man who is chasing a cat. One may say to him, “you are never going to catch that cat,” to which he may respond, “you are right, I thought I could, but I cannot.” To which one may reply, “why did you think you could catch the cat?” And the man may say: “because I’ve done it before” or “because I’ve been exercising lately.” Here the man is providing us with a justification for his chasing the cat. In doing so, he is not reporting on some mental state antecedent or concomitant to his action. Nor is he interpreting his action, since an interpretation is only called for when there is some indeterminacy of meaning, and my reasons for doing what I did are not at all indeterminate to me. If the “because” clause is truthful—that is, he is not trying to hide his reason for chasing the cat—it is his reason or justification for chasing the cat. In this, the clause reflects his practical reasoning, his reasoning toward some end. Just as it is true that after January 20, 2017, I thought Donald Trump was President of the United States of America even though this proposition never crossed my mind, so too it is true that the man thought himself justified in chasing the cat on account of his prior experience even though this practical proposition never crossed his mind. The criterion for one’s having acted on reasons is one’s ability to respond to questions about one’s reasons and reasoning.[15] In the case before us, the man’s response shows that he thought he needed to weigh his past experience in successfully catching cats against other reasons for not acting (e.g., the general human limitations in catching cats, the fact that the previous cats were much fatter than this cat, etc.).

Now, there may be reasons why a dog should or should not chase a cat. Suppose the cat is fairly fat. Knowledge of this fact could give one a reason for chasing the cat. However, if this fact is to be cited as a justification for chasing the cat, it would itself stand in need of some kind of explanation for why it should be taken as a justification in favor of chasing the cat. One knows from prior experience, for example, that fatter cats are easier to catch, and because one knows this fact from prior experience, one takes himself to be justified in chasing this cat because it is fat. This chain of reasoning cannot be laid bare to us without an ability of the agent to express his practical reasoning to explain his action. When we say, “the dog is justified in chasing that cat since it is fairly fat,” we are expressing our reasoning, not the dog’s hidden reasoning. We may say that a dog thinks it can catch a fat cat, but not a lean cat, inasmuch as, by its behavior, it shows such discrimination in its chasing of cats. But that one thinks or believes something does not mean that one thinks or believes one is justified in acting on the basis of that thought or belief. For I believe that I can catch a fat cat but not a lean cat, but this belief does not explain or justify my not chasing cats on the street. Indeed, this belief may play no justificatory role in my chasing cats on the street, as when I chase a lean cat, but not a fat cat, because the lean cat belongs to my neighbor.

It is one thing to say, quite sensibly, that a pre-linguistic human or non-human animal has learned how to do such-and-such in view of some goal, even learned that such-and-such is a better way of achieving some goal, since either of these can be given expression in its behavior. It is quite another thing to say, however, that the pre-linguistic animal does X rather than Y because it thinks it has more reasons or justification for doing X than it does for doing Y. So too, while one’s actions may express a kind of know-how rooted in prior experience or training, this is not the same as thinking that one is justified in acting on the basis of its prior experience. A dog shows it knows how to sit by sitting, or to hunt game by tracking its scent, but it is not clear how anything in the dog’s behavioral repertoire could count as its showing that it knows how to justify its acts. In other words, only language-users can take what they have learned, or prior experience, as a justification for taking some course of action but not others. We know this because language-users do justify their acts by appeal to their reasons and reasoning when asked or challenged. Of course, the reasoning of others is usually fairly transparent to us, or even uninteresting, and so we do not always need or want to know their reasoning in order to get on with our lives. That doesn’t mean that there is no reasoning that can be the subject of our inquiry, however. We see a man in a suit, getting on an early morning train, and we assume that he is taking this train in order to get to work. Yet, unlike a pre-linguistic human, it makes sense to ask whether his reasoning in doing so is good or bad. Perhaps the principle or ultimate goal of his acts is to accumulate personal wealth or perhaps it is to serve the common good. Because we can ask him about his ultimate end(s), and because he can respond to these inquires, it is possible for us to make a judgment about whether his actions are evidence of good or bad reasoning, whether the man is practically wise or unwise. Because language-users can offer us their reasoning when asked, it is sensible for us to say that they act on the balance of reasons even when we are not interested in asking them about their reasoning in pursuing or avoiding certain courses of action. It is because human beings do routinely justify their own acts that we can wonder about, guess, or even impute a certain form of justification or practical reasoning even when our interlocutor is not in a position to reveal his justifications—perhaps he is a character in a play or a politician who wants to hide his reasoning from public view. This imputation rests, however, not on an inference about what might be going on in his head, but rather on the presumed ability of the agent to be guided by reasons and to use these reasons as justifications and explanations of his own acts.

We now come to the end. I’ve argued that attributions of practical wisdom are not warranted by a mere exhibition of an agent’s ingenuity in achieving some end, but rather by the good practical reasoning that is the source of that ingenuity. The attribution presupposes that the “wise” person is one whose reasoning is transparent to us or can be rendered so by her ability to offer justifications and explanations of her acts.[16] What sets a particular action apart as exemplifying practical wisdom is not so much what was done but the good reasoning with which it was done. It makes sense to speak of someone as practically wise when she has the ability to lay out her reasoning to us, rendering it transparent and teachable. As Aquinas says in the prologue to his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, it pertains to the wise person to direct others because it is characteristic of wisdom to put everything in order.[17] Practical wisdom in human beings pertains to an ability to put things in their proper order in accordance with the good specific to human beings (i.e., a life lived in accord with the virtues of temperance, fortitude, and justice). The depth of human wisdom follows upon our ability to put things into their proper order by deliberating well and by explaining and justifying this ordering to others and ourselves by laying our reasoning bare for all to see. When we converse with the person who truly possesses practical wisdom, we uncover not only the order of reasoning that led her to perform some creative or ingenious act, but also the order of reasoning that animates her entire life. This is why we consult a “wise person,” not just a wise mechanic. For the former, but not necessarily the latter, is purported to have a command over the ebb and flow of a well-lived human life that flows from her good reasoning about the ordering between the various competing goods that make up such a life. We seek the wise person for her counsel, her deliberation. The wisdom of the “wise person” is manifest more in her reasoning than in her actions. This is why we are not as likely to attribute wisdom to a good footballer as we are to a good friend, parent, or leader.

CRAIG IFFLAND is a doctoral student in Moral Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the editor (with Ana Marta Gonzlez) of Care Professions and Globalization: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives (Palgrave 2014) and a forthcoming edited volume (with John O’Callaghan) titled Intention & Double Effect: Theoretical and Practical Challenges. Craig also serves as a Visiting Research Fellow in International Law and Ethics at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa as part of the Notre Dame-USAID Global Development Fellowship program. He was  Graduate Student Scholar on the Human Distinctiveness project.

References

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica  translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1947), II–II 47.1 (hereafter ST). It is true that Aquinas speaks specifically of foresight in this connection. Yet, as I explain below, Aquinas does not mean mere foresight, but the use of a reasoned, justificatory inference from what has come before to what one should expect to come next.
[2] The example is taken from Agustín Fuentes, The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (New York: Dutton, 2017), 75–6.
[3] Ibid., 71.
[4] Ibid.
[5] ST II-II 47.1, 49.1 ad 3.
[6] ST II-II 47.2, 47.4. For Aquinas’s understanding of prudence’s relation to the power of memory, see ST II-II 47.3 ad 3 and II-II 47.16 ad 2.
[7] In order to avoid certain misunderstandings, I should make it clear that I do not mean to suggest that one’s sense powers and appetites, including the passions, have no role to play in the development of practical wisdom. As Aquinas himself explains, the virtue of prudence does not establish the ends of virtue, but only the means thereto (ST II-II 47.6). It is the operation of other virtues, including those that are perfective of the concupiscible and irascible appetites shared in common with non-human animals, which establish these ends. Correctly understood, the operation of prudence as a virtue depends, in part, on the perfection of powers of the soul other than the intellect or will. As a result, I see no reason to deny that the evolution of human wisdom could be a piecemeal process in the sense that the development of the varied sense powers and appetites, even prior to the development of linguistic capacities necessary for practical reasoning, informs (and to a certain extent guides) the very exercise of practical wisdom in human beings. For a good discussion of the importance of the role of the passions in human action, see Jean Porter, Justice as a Virtue: A Thomistic Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 187–203.
[8] Richard Edward Connell, The Most Dangerous Game (Rockville, MD: TARK Classic Fiction, 2008).
[9] Just as we engage in a form of teleological re-description of certain forms of pre-linguistic animal behavior by connecting an animal’s past experience or training to what it does here and now, so too we engage in a form of teleological re-description of our own activities by affirming a chain of justifications that explain our present activities. For a landmark discussion of this point, see G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention, 2nd edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 37–47 and 83–9.
[10] I will leave it to the anthropologists and scientists to opine as to whether attributing such inner “reasoning” to animals or pre-linguistic humans is necessary in order to explain the capacities in question, but I want to challenge the assumptions about “mind” that animate this question.
[11] To begin with, I do not think practical reasoning involves being made to act by some thought about a proposition. The murderer can think “Thou shall not kill is a command of God” throughout the murder of his victim.
[12] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen/Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, revised 4th edition (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 232–234 [PPF §316–322].
[13] As Peter Hacker has observed, “the limits of what a being can intelligibly be said to think are the limits of its possible behavioral expression of thinking” (The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature [Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013], 392).
[14] Ibid., 394. Of course, this does not mean that mastery of the concept of a “cause” is in no way connected to our sense powers. It does mean that we cannot master its use without language.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Although I cannot defend the point here, I am aware that my position here implies that “practical wisdom,” properly so-called, cannot be attained by pre-linguistic human beings. That is not to suggest we cannot speak of “wisdom” in early hominids or non-human animals, but only that the virtue of practical wisdom, or prudence, presupposes a capacity for practical reasoning that is given expression through the use of language.
[17] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by John Patrick Rowan (Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1995), Prologue.

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