What is practical reasoning?

I find myself using the phrase ‘practical reasoning’ with ever greater frequency. This is a curious outcome of a meandering trajectory in which I deliberately avoided the concept as a philosophy student and fifteen years after I ceased to be one it appears regularly in my speech and writing as a sociologist/educationalist. I realise I’ve been using it as a placeholder to refer to the practical implications of my work relating to how academics use social platforms. I’ve tried through books, articles, talks, workshops, seminars and blog posts to support and deepen how academics understand, relate to, make decisions about and manage their use of social media.

In effect I’m using ‘practical reasoning’ as a placeholder for “understand, relate to, make decisions about and manage their use”. But the fact it’s percolated up from my disciplinary past without me being conscious of it has led me to think I should return to the concept and reflect more deeply. In his wonderful Why Things Matter to People Andrew Sayer talks about four aspect to practical reasoning:

  • Practical reasoning as embodied and intuitive: it pertains to how we cope with and respond to the world rather than how we represent the world and form knowledge of it. Obviously, how we understand the world shapes how we act in relation to it but the point is that it’s an immediate relation of concern to our environment rather than a detached relationship of knowing. To call it intuitive concerns the immediacy with which experts can “quickly take in the whole situation before them and respond appropriately without thinking; seemingly at one with their instruments, they don’t solve problems, or make decisions, they just do what works” (pg 75). In this sense our actions often have an uncertain relationship to deliberation such that we act and later clarify our reasons for action, rather than initiating action on the basis of reasons that we have formed through detached rumination. It’s a matter of responding to situations in a way which is practically adequate to them, drawing on the dispositions we have cultivated (at least if we have tried to get better at practical reasoning) as well as those that have accumulated on our meandering paths through the world. To give an example I blogged about recently, practical reasoning can involve immediately apprehending a problem even as others are blundering into it, even if it might not be possible to take action to mitigate the problem. It involves (i) taking in the situation (ii) being disposed to act in ways adequate to it (iii) reflecting on the first two in a way conducive to a deepening capacity to read situations and an embodied understanding of how to act in ways adequate to them.
  • Practical reasoning as knowledge of particulars: this process involves “experience of past cases, and attentiveness to the specificities of present cases and contexts” (pg 79). It is through this knowledge of particulars that we intuit how to respond to variety with a cultivated sensitivity to the similarities and differences between the situations we have encountered and the one in which we now find ourself. In this sense practical reasoning is inimical to abstract knowledge which reduces variety into general rules, even if such abstraction might nonetheless provides rules of thumb which can be deliberately drawn upon in feeling out an unfamiliar situation. The point is the capacity to cope with variety, as Sayer puts it when he reflects “No two patients or students are the same te experienced nurse or teacher expects this and adjusts to their differences, largely intuitively” in a process rendered viable because “variation is not limitless; students tend to have much in common, just as tennis games have common features” (pg 80)
  • Practical reasoning as concerned with ends: it is always orientated towards what we hope to achieve and why, as well as how our multiple ends are to be balanced against each other. This involves what Sayer calls reasonableness in the sense of “being responsive to the object in its diversity and specificity and to our own capacities and susceptibilities” (pg 81). It involves evaluation of the relationship between our selves and the worlds, deciding what to do through the facility Archer describes as reflexivity. This is why what I call technological reflexivity is part of practical reasoning about technology but does not exhaust it. It is guided by the aforementioned rules of thumb accumulated through past experience, as well as the features of the situation we currently confront and how we apprehend them through both (culturally mediated) intuition and deliberate reflection. It’s a matter of making sense of our situation in terms of our concerns and where we find ourselves standing in relation to the possibilities to realise them or otherwise.
  • Practical reasoning as ethical: it follows from all of this that practical reasoning is inherently normative. It’s not just a matter of what we consider ‘desirable’ or ‘undesirable’ but rather of the ethical judgements we are inclined to make which are not matters of choice even if we can exercise a meta-reflexive influence over them. It’s not just about learning norms or rules but rather about cultivating the capacity to act well, including the dispositions and interpretations necessary to do so.

I’ll have to come back to this in greater depth but I can see how my concepts of platform literacy and technological reflexivity capture two facets of practical reasoning vis-a-vis digital platforms. The former refers to the apprehension of situations we confront as users of these platforms, the capacity to take in situations and the opportunities for action within them in ways which recognises how and why those situations take the form they do as a consequence of the platform’s design and operation. In this sense it is a precondition for practical reasoning as embodied and intuitive and achieved through practical reasoning as knowledge of particulars. The latter refers to our capacity to exercise reflexivity in relation to our use of technology, as well as enrol technology in the exercise of our reflexivity i.e. it’s not simply an object of reflexivity but a means of reflexivity through the use of digital systems to manage relations between self and world. It is concerned with the ends to which our use of technology is orientated, as well as the unintended consequences which our use of technology can have on prior ends. It suggests the moral dimension to our proclivity to distraction and how we might reconstruct what are often framed as cognitive questions with technical answers in moral-existential terms which have a much richer sense of the technical.

One of the reasons why these need to be named is because social science tends to be negligent of practical reasoning in the manner which Sayer suggests on pg 85. This makes it difficult to name aspects of practical reasoning and render them as objects of theoretical understanding and empirical investigation:

Insofar as social science is a theoretical enterprise rather than a practical one, it has less need of knowledge of particulars than do the actors who it studies; it also rarely needs to respond quickly to the irreversible flow of events, simply because the researchers is generally a spectator rather than a participant. Insofar as social research tends to focus on particular aspects of lives rather than whole lives, it is less likely to appreciate the need for practical judgement in the sense of evaluation of different ends that give shape to whole lives. Where it is primarily interested in common, general processes and objects, it tends to regard variation and difference as a nuisance, as ‘noise’ to be ignored or reduced by better choice of variables.

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