Aristotle on practical wisdom, part 1

This blog has been on hiatus while I was finishing coursework for my doctorate, but I’m happy to say I’m once more in the position to write here as I work toward a dissertation proposal in the coming months. My anticipated topic is the acquisition or development of practical wisdom (phronêsis) in Aristotle’s ethical writings. Practical wisdom has struck many readers of Aristotle as one of his most interesting and elusive concepts, and understanding how we can acquire it seems to be a central goal of his Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.[1] So as I set out to say something about it, I think it’s worth saying first what’s interesting about it and why (from Aristotle’s point of view in writing these texts as well as ours in reading) it’s so elusive.

Aristotle thought human rational excellence came in two forms, character excellence and intellectual excellence. Practical wisdom is a special form of intellectual excellence that is intimately bound up with character excellence. In fact, one can’t (fully or strictly) possess the one without the other. Practical wisdom has something to do with successfully acting on the basis of character excellence, in particular, with coming to decide how best to achieve the ends or goals that are expressive of character excellence. But beyond this rough characterization, Aristotle seems to think that it is difficult to see exactly what practical wisdom is as a state of the intellect, given the way he proceeds in the book devoted to intellectual excellence in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book VI).

In particular, he seems to think practical wisdom has many doubles, and instead of coming right out and telling us what practical wisdom is, his method in Book VI is largely negative.[2] Is it a form of understanding (epistêmê)? Not in the way that medical science is an understanding of bodily health, though it too requires a grasp of universal principles. Is it a form of knowledgeable skill (technê)? Not in the way that such skill is what doctors use in curing patients, though it too is closely concerned with features of the particular case. Is it a form of rational insight (nous)? Not in the way that insight allows to grasp a definition without prior knowledge of it, although an analogous form of insight is crucial for its activity.

As even this summary of just one part of the complicated dialectic of the book shows, we can, I think, learn a lot about practical wisdom through carefully examining its intricate arguments.[3] Indeed, Aristotle’s method, despite being negative, is aimed at saying something about what practical wisdom really is. Moreover, thought the topic is certainly worth exploring for its own sake, if Daniel Russell is right, anyone who really wants to do Aristotle-inspired virtue ethics needs to come to grips with this concept, too.[4]

[1] I’d like to have something to say about the Eudemian Ethics, too, but for now I think that will have to wait for another project.

[2] We can’t conclude from that that he wasn’t sure about what practical wisdom was. There are two reasons: first, that the Ethics is in some sense a teaching text means that Aristotle may often be content to gesture where we would rather he say more – he is inviting his students to debate the points he raises rather than settling all the questions; second, and related, Aristotle’s awareness of the epistemological limits of what we can say truly in ethical matters is quite keen and he repeatedly insists both that what he is providing is just an outline to be filled out and that this will nevertheless be helpful to his audience.

[3] C.D.C Reeve has recently published a new commentary on and translation of the book, which I’m looking forward to consulting.

[4] Russell argues for this view at length in his 2009 book Practical Intelligence and the Virtues.

    • djr
    • December 15th, 2013

    A wholly reactionary and unconsidered comment: though I appreciate your reason for characterizing the treatment of phronesis in NE VI as “negative” — we learn most about it by coming to see what it isn’t — I wonder whether that description is too restrictive. We don’t, after all, just learn what phronesis isn’t; in a way we learn what it is by seeing it in contrast to other intellectual excellences. By contrast, in good Thomistic negative theology we don’t learn what God is by learning what he is not — we have no real insight into the essence of God by knowing that he is not a body, for example. The via negativa gives us no insight into God, it just prevents misunderstanding. Distinguishing phronesis from techne and episteme, though, seems to give us more of a positive grasp of what it is. No?

    I could just be confused because I suppose I have some idea of what phronesis is, whereas I have no idea what God is supposed to be. Go figure.

    By the way, I am pleased to see this blog redivivus!

      • Dhananjay
      • December 15th, 2013

      No, quite right, it’s not via negativa, but I still think it’s a fair characterization since we don’t get anything like the definition of virtue of character at II.6, 1106b36 ff., which is carefully built up from elements developed in the previous chapters. Perhaps a better term for this than “negative” would be “indirect”.

        • djr
        • December 15th, 2013


        • Dhananjay
        • December 15th, 2013

        Sure it’s contrastive, but often when he’s reasoning contrastively, he’ll then sum up by making some positive claim that explicates the essence in virtue of which the contrast cases were ruled out, and I just don’t see him doing that in the last couple of chapters after he’s finished the explicitly contrastive bits. All and not just some of the positive material, then, has to be gleaned from what he says along the way, and that’s why I wanted to label it ‘indirect’ or even ‘negative’. But not much turns on this terminology, of course!

    • djr
    • December 15th, 2013

    Well, it isn’t quite a definition, and I won’t claim that it’s sufficiently precise to tell us what we want to know, but VI.5 1140b4-6 (and again at 20-1) looks like a positive assertion that tells us what phronesis is, and the descriptions of the phronimos in that chapter likewise can be understood as informative, positive descriptions of phronesis. Our understanding of it depends on contrasts, there especially between phronesis/techne and praxis/poiesis. But we aren’t limited in our understanding to what we can deny of phronesis. It isn’t just an intellectual disposition that isn’t episteme, techne, or nous; it’s a true, practical disposition concerning human goods (and evils).

    So you’re quite right that the terminological issue is fairly trivial, and likewise that we understand phronesis, if we do, through understanding its doubles. But your way of putting it here at least suggests a view that understates the extent to which the NE tells us about phronesis directly; it doesn’t just aim to say something about what practical wisdom really is, it actually does so.

    Here is a question that might help you clarify (to me, if not to yourself) the project of your dissertation: what exactly is to be gained by focusing on the acquisition or development of phronesis? Is that focus primarily supposed to illuminate the nature of practical wisdom, or is there something about development that is worth understanding in its own right? No doubt both are true, but the question is what your goals are; studying development in order to clarify the nature of phronesis could take you in a different direction than studying development in order to understand just how moral education is supposed to work, for example.

      • Dhananjay
      • December 15th, 2013

      VI.5 is full of positive characterization, and that’s what I had in mind when I wrote ‘largely negative’, but you’re beginning to convince me (by attrition) that I need to be explicit that my standard of comparison is the treatment of virtue of character and that my point is comparative rather than absolute.

      As to the project, the focus on acquisition or development is both for its own sake and for the sake of illuminating practical wisdom itself. I think three very interesting things come into view with this focus: (1) the complex connections between habituation, which brings about character excellence, and teaching, which is mostly what brings about intellectual excellence, (2) a broader notion of moral education in the text that encompasses both processes and has to do as much with what an agent sets out to do in her life in the polis as with what is done to her in the family, and hence also the very many things Aristotle has to say in the Politics about how we become practically wise, and (3) how Aristotle’s remarks on methodology in ethics and politics bear on the nature of practical wisdom.

      I don’t just want to retrace the well-worn paths of existing scholarship on practical wisdom, deliberation, etc., so I’m hoping that with this more determinate focus I can hope to constrain a thoroughgoing interpretation of all the related concepts (notably virtue of character, feelings, action, and choice) without taking position on all the issues there, while drawing out some of the interesting connections between the Ethics and both the Posterior Analytics and the Politics which haven’t been explored nearly as much. And finally, I’d like some room to engage contemporary neo-Aristotelian reception of Aristotle’s notion of practical wisdom.

  1. December 20th, 2013
  2. January 2nd, 2014

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