"Speculative" and "practical" are terms used as modifiers in philosophy to denote distinctive cognitive qualities about the objects they modify. Speculative generally has reference to truth that is sought for its own sake and considered in itself, whereas practical has reference to truth that is sought for the sake of doing or making something other. According to St. augustine, speculative is derived from speculo, meaning mirror [Trin. 1.15.8; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 217 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 1878–90) 42:1067–68]; St. thomas aquinas adopts the same etymology, noting that the term does not come from specula, meaning watchtower (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2a2ae, 180.3 ad 2). Practical is derived from the Greek πρ[symbol omitted]ξις—meaning a doing, an action, or a mode of action—and from πρακτικός—meaning fit for or concerned with action. In their root significations, therefore, speculative refers to seeing or beholding as in a reflection; and practical, to performing deeds or acts.
Philosophical Usage. Speculative and practical have long been used to indicate modalities in cognitive faculties, intellectual habits, ways of life, and felicity. Common distinctions are those between the speculative and the practical intellect, between speculative and practical sciences, between speculative (contemplative) and practical (active) life, or between the happiness associated with the contemplative life and that associated with the active life.
The reason for this usage is that anything that can be identified by its characteristic manner of knowing can be described in terms of a distinction that is proper to the mode of being known, i.e., knowledge itself. Since the distinction between speculative and practical pertains primarily and essentially to modes of human knowledge, the terms designate a real and essential distinction of acts and habits of human knowledge. When applied to the intellect, to life, and to felicity, the terms do not imply an essential distinction, but only some accidental relation to intellectual acts or habits. Thus, the intellect of man is not really divided into a speculative part and a practical part, even though the mind does perform acts and acquire habits that are speculative or practical. Acts and habits of the intellect that are designated as speculative or practical, on the other hand, are really distinct entities and qualities. Inasmuch as these distinct entities are attributed to the intellect, the intellect is denominated in one act or quality as speculative, in another act or quality as practical. Similarly, speculative or practical may be attributed to the whole of human life, since, as rational, a man's life can be characterized by the modality of the acts and habits that predominate in it. That such a distinction is accidental and the elements not mutually exclusive is obvious, for no human being can live a life that is exclusively either speculative or practical. Although every human life contains a mixture of contemplation and action, still the speculative or the practical mode may so dominate a particular life that it can be characterized as either contemplative or active. The same general conclusion, servando servandis, follows with regard to felicity.
Intellectual Habits. Three ways of distinguishing intellectual habits as speculative or practical have long been recognized; these are (1) by reason of object, (2) by reason of mode, and (3) by reason of end.
By reason of object some knowledge can be only speculative, because some things that are knowable cannot involve acting or doing. The mind can discover the order, intelligibility, essence, and causes of natural things; but mind does not make or direct such order, intelligibility, essence, or causes. The mind can attain to such truth, consider it, and reflect upon it; but it does not make the truth itself. Other objects of knowledge and science are operable; i.e., the human mind can give order to, direct, make, or do them. The mind can design and direct the construction of a building, the writing of a poem, or the performance of a virtuous act. Such operables can be the object of a practical science or of prudence or of the arts and thus pertain to practical knowledge.
By reason of a mode some intellectual habits are speculative and some are practical. The speculative process—with its first principles ordered to truth alone, its movement toward truth by way of resolution, and its term in the consideration of truth—differs essentially from the practical process with its first principles of operation ordered to doing or making, its movement toward operation by way of composition, and its term in the actual directing of operation.
By reason of end the speculative and the practical are most perfectly determined. "The speculative has for its end the truth which it considers; the practical orders the truth to operation as to an end (St. Thomas, In Boeth. de Trin. 5.1). Thus speculative knowledge is perfected in the actual consideration of truth and practical knowledge is perfected in actually directing an operation of making or doing.
Other Applications. Although divine knowledge is sometimes distinguished into speculative and practical, this distinction is analogical because it designates divine knowledge according to a human manner of knowing. In itself divine knowledge is eminently both speculative and practical. The same is true of theology.
Human knowledge that is ordered to operation but is enjoyed simply for the consideration of its truth is sometimes called speculative; this, however, is only by reason of the intention of the knower and not by reason of the object, mode, and end of the knowledge itself.
Objects other than human intellectual acts and habits may similarly be called speculative or practical if they indirectly reflect the essential meaning as a sign, an instrument, an effect, or a similarity, or if they are otherwise analogically related to the basic signification.
See Also: knowledge; science (scientia); habit.
Bibliography: j. petrin, Connaissance spéculative et connaissance pratique: Fondements de leur distinction (Ottawa 1948). w. a. wallace, The Role of Demonstration in Moral Theology (Washington 1962). s. e. dolan, "Resolution and Composition in Speculative and Practical Discourse," Laval Théologique et Philosophique 6 (1950) 9–62. h. pichette, "Considerations sur quelques principes fondamentaux de la doctrine du spéculatif et du pratique," ibid. 1 (1945) 52–70. l. wakefield, "Practical Knowledge," Reality 1 (1950) 105–113. m. labourdette, "Savoir spéculatif et savoir pratique," Revue thomiste 44 (1938) 564–568.
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