Aristotle on practical wisdom, part 3

[NB: This is the third in a series of posts about Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics. I explain the project in Part 1.]

I claimed in Part 2 that EN VI is structured around a search for the kind of reason that explains how we can go about correctly choosing the mean, that is, making the right ethical choice. As Aristotle points out in the first half of VI.2, reasoning of this sort belongs to the more general category of reasoning about contingent things, which is the province of the faculty for calculation, to logistikon (1139a3-15).[1]

Not all calculation is about ethical matters, of course, since calculation is also present in crafts such as medicine. It’s perhaps worth noting here that I don’t think Aristotle is committed to the thought that all ethical reasoning is calculative, either. We might think that the theoretical enterprise of the ethical works themselves is also a form of reasoning, namely, inquiry. And ethical inquiry is not calculative since it is not directed in the first instance toward what is contingent, that is, the sphere of particular and determinate actions, although it certainly seeks to shape our calculative reasoning.

Aristotle is in quite direct conversation with Plato throughout this passage, even deploying the familiar argument from Republic V that cognitive states are distinguished according to the ontological status of their objects, in order to distinguish the faculty for scientific knowledge (to epistêmonikon), whose objects are necessary, from that for calculation (1139a6-11). There’s another interesting connection to Plato in Aristotle’s use of logistikon to denote the sphere to which the reasoning that leads to correct choice belongs.[2]

I’m thinking of the opening pages of the Statesman where Plato has the Eleatic Stranger divide up the various forms of knowledge. The top-level division is between cognitive and practical knowledge (epistêmê gnôstikê and praktikê), but the former is further subdivided into discriminatory (kritikon) and directive (epistatikon) varieties (258b-260b). The knowledge needed to rule, the Stranger argues, falls into the last category, the cognitive but directive variety. In the second subdivision, this knowledge is contrasted with none other than calculation or reckoning, logistikê, which is concerned only with forming judgments (gnôsis) and so falls into the merely discriminatory.

One of the striking things about this contrast is that directive knowledge also involves making judgments, but differs in putting them to further use by issuing orders (259e-260a). Both discriminatory and directive knowledge involve judgments – that seems to be what makes them cognitive (gnôstikê), which we might also translate ‘judgmental’ – but then discriminatory knowledge looks like the pure case and directive knowledge ends up seeming a little strange. (Indeed, when the first division is introduced, the Stranger’s presumably paradigmatic example of cognitive knowledge is arithmetic, which may signify the same thing as calculation – 258d.) Why should the further use of a judgment affect the nature of the faculty or species of knowledge that issues it? Why not think two separate faculties are involved?

When Aristotle adopts the term calculative and then applies it to the other side of this contrast, he is, I think, partly drawing on an analogy to mathematical judgment in order to bolster the cognitive credentials of the kind of ethical reasoning in which he is interested, perhaps because of questions such as these about the Platonic view. Correspondingly, it is no surprise that his favored mathematical metaphor for deliberation is geometric construction.[3] For this type of mathematical reasoning involves particulars in a way that the arithmetic reasoning that Plato tends to speak of does not obviously do, but retains its evidently inferential quality.

What I think is important to see here is that the underlying question that both Plato’s Stranger and Aristotle are addressing is the same – how do reasoning about what’s best to do and actually getting those things done relate to one another? I take it that Aristotle’s full answer takes up most if not all of Books VI and VII of the Ethics, and he takes on the task headlong in the tricky second part of VI.2, which I hope to write about next.

[1] I write ‘contingent’ and ‘necessary’ as short-hand for ‘what has starting points that admit of being otherwise’ and ‘what has starting points that do not admit of being otherwise’. I’m not sure why Aristotle draws the distinction this way. Perhaps he is merely being careful to distinguish statements, which have the relevant kind of modal properties, and things that those statements are about, which do not.

[2] Leaving aside the most obvious point of comparison, that logistikon signifies the whole of the thinking part of the soul in the Republic (introduced explicitly at IV.439d).

[3] Most notably at EN III.3, 1112b20-24. A certain conclusion in geometry, however, is mentioned as a paradigmatic case of something we do not deliberate about at III.3, 1112a21-23.

    • djr
    • January 7th, 2014

    A few quick comments and objections:

    1. You’re right to look to the Statesman for a contrast with what we find in NE VI. It is curious that Aristotle rarely (never?) refers to the text explicitly, but has very clearly read it and developed his thinking in response to it (hence at least one person has argued that he actually wrote it). I don’t think I’m peculiar in finding Aristotle more intelligible when I see how his ideas contrast with what we find in the dialogues, but I’ve been especially keen on it lately. To that effect, I’d draw special attention to the Stranger’s initial division between practical and cognitive knowledge. On its own terms, I think, that division is unstable, and the account of politikē that we get in the dialogue helps itself to features of practical knowledge that should be unavailable if we accept the division. You focus here on the disagreement between Aristotle and the Stranger about the relationship of judgment to directive knowledge. But it seems to be at least as important to consider the broader disagreement about the relationship of the cognitive to the practical. Cashing out exactly what the differences are would be a fairly substantial undertaking, but it seems pretty promising.

    2. I don’t think your way of formulating the common question is entirely apt. For the Stranger, at least, the question isn’t about how thinking about what is best to do relates to actually getting those things done. The cognitive/practical division is supposed to divide, roughly, knowing propositions from knowing how to produce products; the discriminatory/directive division is supposed to divide the ability to make correct judgments from the ability to issue appropriate orders. So the Stranger’s concern is at least ostensibly broader than thinking about what to do; some or all forms of discriminatory knowledge do not involve thinking about what to do, but just about what is the case. One problem for the Stranger, as I see it, is that directive knowledge is essentially tied up with thinking about what to do, and even, at least in the case of politikē, with how to produce a product. In fact, I think at least a partial solution to your puzzle about whether directive knowledge is just discriminatory knowledge put to a specific use is that directive knowledge is a knowledge of what to do and discriminatory knowledge isn’t. Aristotle rightly rejects the binary division and gives us an account of theoretical, practical, and productive forms of knowledge all of which are ‘cognitive’ in the Stranger’s sense; if there is any coherent sense to be given to the Stranger’s idea of ‘practical’ knowledge, it is what Aristotle (and, elsewhere, Plato) calls empeiria, a kind of unsystematic and relatively inarticulate acquired ability to reliably produce a certain product without the ability to explain the nature of the product or the processes of its production. So, otherwise put, the Stranger is, in a way, concerned with the question as you pose it, but in his terms it is the relationship between directive knowledge and practical knowledge, not between directive and discriminatory.

    So that’s not really an objection, so much as an encouragement to go further in the same direction.

    3. Minor objection: gnostikē is not plausibly translated as “judgmental” here. Gignōskein can of course denote distinguishing or judging that something is so (even if the judgment turns out to be inaccurate or false), but the examples offered and the broad contrast with practical knowledge suggest that it has a wider sense; “cognitive” seems to have the same kind of imprecision, too.

      • Dhananjay
      • January 16th, 2014

      Unsurprisingly, I think we’re more or less in agreement!

      ad 1. I’m working on a paper at the moment that tries to make some headway with the top-level division. I haven’t really spent enough time with the second half of the dialogue after the myth, but I’m confident that I have a good story to tell about why features of political knowledge that seems to cut against the division in fact don’t.

      ad 2. The common question I identified was meant to be what lies behind the Stranger’s interest in exploring the dimensions of political knowledge by contrast to other forms of knowledge and Aristotle’s interest in practical knowledge by contrast to other forms of knowledge. So I agree with you that the question doesn’t come in until we get to directive knowledge, but that’s just what the Stranger is aiming to reach with the whole division anyway.

      ad 3. Quite right – that was just a hamfisted way of pointing out the etymology of gnostike.

  1. March 25th, 2014

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