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.[1] 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).[2] 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).[3] The explicit topic of Book VI, then, is what kind of reason explains how we can go about correctly choosing the mean.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Could someone point me to the corresponding passage in the Eudemian Ethics?

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] Telling such a story about so-called ordinary virtue in Plato is rather complicated, but Republic 590c7-d7 is quite suggestive.

    • djr
    • December 22nd, 2013

    I think I’m with you on most of what you say here, but there seems to be a bit of tension between your reason for rejecting the first answer to your initial question — how does Bk VI follow on II-V? — and your second answer. I take it that you reject the first answer — that Bk. VI studies intellectual excellence to supplement or complete the discussion of character excellence — is that it doesn’t adequately explain the attention that VI gives to forms of intellectual excellence other than phronesis and that it understates the importance the discussion of akrasia &c. in VII for telling us about the intellectual states of a virtuous person. These considerations give us good grounds for resisting the thought that VI treats phronesis because that’s “the intellectual excellent relevant to ethics,” as you put it. I would say, instead, that VI isn’t principally about phronesis, but about intellectual excellence quite generally, since at least a few of these are crucial to eudaimonia, as you point out for sophia. Sure, we learn about techne, episteme, nous, sophia, and the like in part to learn about phronesis by contrast; but we’re also out to understand these in their own right (Aristotle elsewhere seems to regard Bk. VI as a general account of intellectual excellence; e.g., Met. A.1: “We’ve said in the Ethics what the difference between techne and episteme and the other kindred faculties is,” so we don’t need to repeat it here).

    Now, perhaps I’m misunderstanding your reason for rejecting the first view of VI, but the alternative you sketch seems to me to put phronesis back at the center. You’re right to emphasize the opening of VI.1 and to see it as asking what kind of reason will enable us to identify and choose the mean (and not, as your note on Reeve discusses, asking what reasons we should recognize as the correct reasons for action — you’re probably right that we shouldn’t read logos as ‘reason’ in that sense). Phronesis is indeed at the center of the answer to that question, and we understand it in part by seeing its difference from other species of intellectual excellence. But to see this as the question of the book, with all else subordinate to answering it, seems to bump up against the objections you raised against the supplemental reading: it understates the independent importance of the accounts of other intellectual virtues and it downplays the role of Bk. VII in telling us about the intellectual states of the virtuous.

    Of course, even if I’m not misunderstanding your take on this, I’m not suggesting that your understanding of the question of VI.1 is flawed; it seems more promising than the idea that what we want is, say, a set of principles or “reasons” that we can apply in practical reasoning to determine what the mean is. I’m just not sure whether we can see the whole of VI as directed toward answering that question so understood.

    A more substantive suggestion: I, along with several others, think that Aristotle does believe “that character excellence can be possessed by someone who follows right reason possessed by someone else” — i.e., slaves and children (women are a more complicated case). The central text for this is Politics I.13, and probably the best short treatment of it is Marguerite Deslauriers, ‘Aristotle on the Virtues of Slaves and Women’, Ancient Philosophy 2003. The question of that chapter is how slaves, children, and women can have virtues without having the same kind of virtues that free adult men can have; the answer in the case of slaves and children seems to be that they can have virtues of character that respond well to the reasons given by their masters/fathers. So these are virtues, but they’re not full virtues of the kind that free adult men have when they have them. I’m not sure how relevant that will be to you, since it’s pretty plain that for Aristotle — and for Plato, I’d think — that excellence of the fullest variety requires its possessor to have intellectual excellence; the kind of courage or sophrosyne one can have when dependent on someone else’s reason is different from the sort that one can have when one is not so dependent. So you may not need to consider that issue at all, since you seem to be interested in excellence ἁπλῶς.

    Certainly, though, you’re making me want to read more!

    P.S. re: footnote 3: I’m not sure that it’s altogether parallel, because it’s not quite a definition like the NE passage, but EE III.5 1222a6-17 seems to amount to the same thing: “Virtue is the kind of state that makes people doers of the best actions, and best disposed to what is best. The best and chief good is what is in accord with correct reasoning. This, in turn, is the mean between excess and defect relative to ourselves. It needs must follow, then, that moral virtue is in each case a middle state concerned with certain means in pleasures and pains and pleasant and painful things, and this middle state will sometimes be in pleasures (as will the excess and defect), and sometimes in pains, and sometimes in both…” (trans. Kenny)

      • Dhananjay
      • December 23rd, 2013

      Dave: Thanks for another thoughtful reply.

      First, to the question of whether my second way is undermined by my objection to the first way to understand the function of book VI. Let’s distinguish four claims:

      1) The purpose of Book VI is to investigate intellectual excellence, as the purpose of Book II (or II-V) was to investigate character excellence.
      1′) The purpose of Book VI is to investigate phronêsis as the intellectual excellence relevant for ethics.
      2) The purpose of Book VI is to investigate correct reason.
      2′) The purpose of Book VI is to investigate the correct reason that specifies the mean.

      I reject 1, since it doesn’t recognize how VII, or at least VII.1-10 contributes to that end. That’s also a reason to reject 1′, but I gave the additional reason that theoretical wisdom is also crucial for Aristotle’s ethical inquiry, as Book VI itself discloses. I do hold 2, but under the more specific interpretation of it given by 2′, which is where I think you and I might disagree, since I think Aristotle’s method of inquiry in Book VI involves bringing in the other forms of intellectual excellence to illuminate the nature of phronêsis. Now, often when we are investigating a genus in order to make sense of some species, we will say quite a lot about other species falling into that genus so that the differentiae of the target species are perspicuous. Aristotle is also permitted occasional digressions from his outline, as he himself comments upon quite often.

      Nevertheless, I think it is plain from the structure and execution of the book that correct reason in the form of phronêsis is his principal subject throughout. But in order to make plain how phronêsis is the correct reason that specifies the mean, he must understand the other forms of correct reason, and not just with a view to differentiating them. In order to make sense of this thought about Aristotle’s methodology in Book VI – that while his aim throughout is to differentiate phronêsis from the other forms of correct reason, he does not aim with each of his remarks or even in each phase of the argument to do so – we have to keep in mind that he is engaged in inquiry and in bringing his students along with him in inquiring. Were he instead to be presenting something akin to a finished science per the Analytics, there could be a presentation of genus and differentiae to define the various forms of intellectual excellence followed by demonstrations showing, among other things, that phronêsis is just that form of intellectual excellence required for acting well.

      I realize this is walking quite a fine line, and your worry that my story does not account entirely for what Aristotle has to say about the other kinds of intellectual excellence in Book VI is a good one. In my view, Book VII comes in closely on the heels of this grasp of phronêsis as the excellence required for acting well, since with a grasp of both reason and desire and their respective excellences and their interdependence in the case of perfect virtue, we can confront the various ways in which these excellences can be configured, misaligned, etc., in other cases, thereby illuminating further what has been accomplished with regard to reason and desire separately. Moreover, we can integrate the story about choice and deliberation in Book III.1-5 with what has been said about desiderative and deliberative excellence.

      Second, on your substantive point, the notion of dependent virtue in Aristotle is something I’ve been thinking about lately again after a hiatus from working on the Politics. (My interest was revived by a talk given at the recent Princeton Classical Philosophy Colloquium by our friend and fellow Austinensis Mariska Leunissen, on the subject of the natural basis per Aristotle for the moral inferiority of women.) I am primarily interested in unqualified character excellence, but we certainly learn something about it from what Aristotle thinks about the qualified case. The case that’s most relevant for me is the child (not least because the things Aristotle says about women may just be hopelessly disordered), the one whose defect is not actually a defect but rather a deficiency of the act-potency type, and to generalize from the child, the learner.

      I’m not fully convinced that the best way to think about this stage is in terms of acts that, were it not for the fact that the reason that governed them is external to the agent, would be in no respect blameless. (That seems to be something like Plato’s view, and goes along with the priority in value of state over act to which he is explicitly committed in the Republic.) It seems more plausible to me that incomplete activation is involved in the account, that the learner has some inchoate form of the very same faculty possessed by the person of practical wisdom, which in some very special circumstances may be subject to subordination to such a person, which diminishes the learner’s control over the resultant act (as if by the principle known in the law of torts as novus actus interveniens), but in the ordinary case simply results in a deficient act, as specified in relation to the person of full practical wisdom. I take it the latter condition, the specification of the deficiency, could itself warrant the term ‘relative’ as Aristotle applies it in Politics I.13. But at any rate, this is all rather far from the initial topic, so I’ll leave it there, with a promissory note to take up the topic at another occasion. (And thanks for the EE reference!)

        • djr
        • December 24th, 2013

        Those distinctions help. I think I see now that 1, while perhaps true, is too vague to account for the guiding role of the opening question of VI.1; it helps me to see more clearly the difference between 1′ and 2′. I still wonder whether phronesis is really so central structurally, but any lingering doubts on my part can probably be summed up as questions about how tightly unified the book is, as opposed to digressive, and that hardly matters. At the bare minimum, it seems like a promising strategy for understanding the book as a whole.

    • djr
    • December 22nd, 2013

    I never make so many typos as when I’m writing to you. It must be the intellectual excitement.

    • djr
    • December 22nd, 2013

    Ugh: EE II.5, not III.5. The Bekkers are right, anyway.

  1. January 2nd, 2014
  2. March 25th, 2014

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