Aristotle on practical wisdom, part 2
[NB: This is the second in a series of posts about practical wisdom. I explain the project in Part 1.]
How does Nicomachean Ethics Book VI, which treats not only practical wisdom, but also the other forms of intellectual excellence, follow on the discussion of character excellence that occupies Books II-V?
There are two ways, I think, to answer this question. One is to note that Aristotle proposed in II.1 to discuss the two kinds of human excellence, character excellence and intellectual excellence, and having treated the first he simply turns to the second in Book VI. While true, I don’t think this quite respects the role of Book VII – which discusses self-control and lack of control (akrasia, often translated with the anachronistic ‘weakness of will’), softness and endurance, and pleasure and pain – in specifying the intellectual state of the person of good character, nor does it explain sufficiently why Aristotle is so concerned in Book VI to distinguish practical wisdom from the other forms of intellectual excellence – craft (technê), scientific knowledge (epistêmê), theoretical wisdom (sophia), and rational intuition (nous) – as opposed to conducting some more systematic inquiry in which each of these was investigated in its own right.
A supplementary explanation for this focus on practical wisdom, that it is the intellectual excellence relevant for ethics, misses how central theoretical wisdom turns out to be to his ethical theory. Indeed, already in Book VI we are told that “theoretical wisdom brings about happiness, not in the way that medical science brings about health, but in the way that health [i.e., being in a healthy condition] brings about health, since it’s as a part of excellence as a whole that wisdom, by being possessed, brings about [happiness] and by being activated [that it brings about that a person is] happy.” (VI.12, 1144a3-5). At the very least that means no story about the kinds of excellence relevant for happiness is complete without also discussing theoretical wisdom.
The alternative to seeing Book VI as simply the intellectual counterpart to Books II-V (or more narrowly, just Book II, which treats character excellence in general) takes more seriously its opening lines: “Since we happened to have said earlier that one must choose the mean and not either the excess or the lack, and also that the mean is as correct reason (ho orthos ho logos) says, let us determine what this is” (VI.1, 1138b18-20). The reference in the Nicomachean version is back to II.6, “Excellence [of character], then, is a state that shapes decisions, which lies in a mean relative to us that is specified by reason, namely, by that reason by which the practically wise person specifies it” (II.6, 1106b3 6-7a2). The explicit topic of Book VI, then, is what kind of reason explains how we can go about correctly choosing the mean. As Aristotle goes on to say in the following lines, saying only what he said earlier about choice and the mean is to say something “true but not clear (saphes)” (b25-26).
The question I want to investigate here is what exactly wasn’t clear about saying that the mean is specified by correct reason, especially given the further analysis of choice and deliberation in Nicomachean Ethics III.1-5. The thought in VI.1 continues with an analogy: it’s no help to someone who wants to know what treatments to apply to the body to say “the ones that medical science and the person who has it prescribe” (b29-32). The point, I think, is that what he said about choosing the mean is platitudinous on its own. It’s as though Aristotle were imagining something like the following exchange with an auditor:
Aristotle: “The mean is specified by correct reason.”
Auditor: “What makes something be correct reason?”
Aristotle: “Correct reason is reason possessed by the practically wise person.”
Auditor: “So what is practical wisdom?”
Aristotle: “The reason that specifies the mean.”
Even a patient audience member might walk out at that point!
In saying his earlier remark wasn’t clear, then, Aristotle didn’t mean that it wasn’t sufficiently precise for its context. Rather, it wasn’t illuminating because unless more independent content is given to the notion of practical wisdom, all we have is a circular account of correct reason. That’s why he concludes this preface to Book VI by saying that we need to specify “what this correct reason is and what is its distinguishing mark” (b32-34).
Not only is a circular account intellectually unsatisfying, the goal of ethical inquiry, as Aristotle often reminds us, is not merely knowledge, but the kind of knowledge we can put into action. We need to say more because we want to choose the mean and to choose the mean we must come ourselves to possess practical wisdom. That is itself a substantive new thesis, since one could have heard the passage from Book II as consistent with the idea that character excellence can be possessed by someone who follows right reason possessed by someone else, a thought we can perhaps find in Plato.
 It may be worth noting that the author of the Magna Moralia, either Aristotle or someone in his school, takes himself to need to justify speaking about theoretical wisdom in an ethical-political inquiry (I.34, 1197b28-36). Many interpreters of Aristotle, it seems to me, would rather he not have written those embarrassing chapters at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics where he defends the theoretical life as happiest (X.6-8). I think a sound reading of those chapters requires a careful look at how Book VI introduces a number of themes retraced there.
 Most unhelpfully, there is a textual crux in the last words of this text, which I have not thoroughly investigated. I am more or less following the Latin tradition (the translation of Willem van Moerbeke and the commentary of St. Thomas), where the explanation of the somewhat cryptic “health brings about health” lies in a distinction between states and activities.
 Could someone point me to the corresponding passage in the Eudemian Ethics?
 CDC Reeve in his new commentary agrees with me about the general claim that the goal of Book VI is to specify correct reason (“Introduction”, p. 1), but seems to think that correct reason means something like those among the reasons that are correct (p. 92). I’m not sure whether Aristotle ever speaks this way about reasons, and the idiom strikes me as rather modern. In order to properly treat this topic, however, I’d have to take up the tricky second half of VI.2.
 The point is put better here in Nicomachean Ethics VI.1 and in Eudemian Ethics I.5, 1216b19 ff. than in Nicomachean Ethics I.3, 1095a1-6 and II.2, 1103b26-29, where he somewhat misleadingly suggests that the goal of the inquiry is action as opposed to knowledge. That is its ultimate goal, to be sure, but what we need first, which inquiry can actually provide, is practicable knowledge.
 Telling such a story about so-called ordinary virtue in Plato is rather complicated, but Republic 590c7-d7 is quite suggestive.