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Practical Induction

Practical Induction

Elijah Millgram

ISBN 9780674000735

Publication date: 09/15/1999

Practical reasoning is not just a matter of determining how to get what you want, but of working out what to want in the first place. In Practical Induction Elijah Millgram argues that experience plays a central role in this process of deciding what is or is not important or worth pursuing. He takes aim at instrumentalism, a view predominant among philosophers today, which holds that the goals of practical reasoning are basic in the sense that they are given by desires that are not themselves the product of practical reasoning. The view Millgram defends is "practical induction," a method of reasoning from experience similar to theoretical induction.

What are the practical observations that teach us what to want? Millgram suggests they are pleasant and unpleasant experiences on the basis of which we form practical judgments about particular cases. By generalizing from these judgments--that is, by practical induction--we rationally arrive at our views about what matters. Learning new priorities from experience is necessary if we are to function in a world of ever-changing circumstances. And we need to be able to learn both from our own and from others' experience. It is this, Millgram contends, that explains the cognitive importance of both our capacity for pain and pleasure and our capacity for love. Pleasure's role in cognition is not that of a goal but that of a guide. Love's role in cognition derives from its relation to our trusting the testimony of others about what does and does not matter and about what merits our desire.

Itself a pleasure to read, this book is full of inventive arguments and conveys Millgram's bold thesis with elegance and force. It will alter the direction of current debates on practical reasoning.


  • Written with panache and vigor, boldly confident in laying out its argumentative strategy, and full of colorful examples, this book gives us a good time while plying us with its central positive theses: that, in order to remain unified agents capable of carrying out any serious plans, we must be able to learn from experience about what is desirable, and that, accordingly, this learning should be counted as a kind of inductive practical inference that plays a legitimate role in our thinking.

    —Henry S. Richardson, Ethics


  • Elijah Millgram is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

Book Details

  • 192 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press