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Theoretical or Pure Reason tries to assess the way things are.

A theoretical proposition is good if it conforms to reality, while a practical proposition has more complicated and debatable standards. Theoretical irrationality is simply a mistake.

While theoretical reason tries to conform to the world, its proceedings are influenced by the practical needs of inquirers. Some have concluded from that theoretical reason is the specification of the norms of practical reason to the practical project of theoretical inquiry. Theoretical reasoning needs practical judgment to reach definite conclusions.

Theory is a moment in practice, sometimes a means of avoiding action and sometimes a means of domination. Theoretical reasoning is what happens to practical reasoning when one temporarily abstracts from the usual conditions of practical decision—limited information, time constraints, a need to be responsive to desires and opinions, even those that are not well-grounded.

In Plato’s representation of Socrates, Theoretical and Practical reasoning are only superficially distinct. Truth and goodness are convertible, as are the modes of reasoning that lead to apprehension of truth and goodness. To know the good is to desire it. The good life is the philosophical life, characterized not by knowledge but by eros. Anyone who fully understands the good must try to achieve it; no one can know the better, yet choose the worse. Vice is a practical form of ignorance.

Kant’s “critical philosophy” takes for granted the existence and successful operations of theoretical reason in the sciences, and thus the Critique asks for the conditions that could justify this use of reason. At the same time, the Critique exposes as empty the claims of theoretical reason to transcend the empirical conditions that make scientific knowledge possible.

In Kant, theoretical reason has priority because it can have knowledge where practical reason merely has conviction and belief.

When Kant speaks of the Unity of Reason he means that reason gives “unity a priori through concepts to the understanding’s manifold cognitions”. In the famous “Refutation of Idealism,” Kant says the following: “Whether this or that putative experience is not mere imagination [or dream or delusion, etc.] must be ascertained according to its particular determinations and through its coherence with the criteria of all actual experience”.

To see what Kant means, consider a simple example. Suppose that our dreamer believes she has won a lottery, but then starts to examine this belief. To decide its truth, she must ask how far it connects up with her other judgments, and those of other people. If it fails to connect up (she checks the winning numbers, say, and sees no match with her actual ticket), she must conclude that the belief was false. Otherwise, she would contradict a fundamental law of possible experience, that it be capable of being unified. As Kant summarizes his position: “ the law of reason to seek unity is necessary, since without it we would have no reason, and without that, no coherent use of the understanding, and, lacking that, no sufficient mark of empirical truth…”.

Kant’s idea that Reason has “interests,” or even “needs,” but for finite beings, Reason is not transparently or infallibly given to consciousness (as some rationalist philosophers seemed to think), just as it cannot deliver transcendent truths. Thus reason “needs to present itself to itself in the process of gaining clarity about its own workings” —above all, the principles that it must give to itself.


The Essential Dialectic of Theoretical Reason is:

{Analytic-Intuition ⇆ Intuition-Analytic ⇵ Analytic-Analytic} ↻ Intution-Intution


The Intermediary Dialectic of Theoretical Reason is:

{Transcendental-Analytic ⇆ Aesthetic-Intuition ⇵ Categories} ↻ Understanding



The Complete Dialectic of Theoretical Reason is:

{Speculative ⇆ Theoretical ⇅ Practical} ↻ Judicial