Aristotle on practical wisdom, part 4

One of the hardest and most puzzling bits of Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics – and that’s really saying something – is the second half of chapter 2, where Aristotle tries to establish the validity of the notion of practical thinking. As I gestured at in the previous post, the problem is one he inherits from Plato’s Statesman. On the one hand, the most ordinary sort of knowledge how to do things doesn’t seem really to be a form of thinking. On the other, the directive sort of knowledge, which quite evidently does involve thinking, does not seem to be especially practical in the sense of being necessarily bound up with action.

Remember that Aristotle’s goal in NE VI is quite specific: figuring out in a non-circular sort of way what form of correct reasoning specifies the mean for virtuous action. Moreover, the identification of this correct reasoning is supposed to illuminate how one goes about choosing the mean. Using Plato’s terms, the directive knowledge that determines what to do has to be such as to inform, in an unmediated way, the practical knowledge that is expressed in action – it can’t, for instance, be separated into two people like the master-craftsman and the manual laborer. That’s a function of Aristotle’s overall project in the Ethics, which is trying to understand which life we ought to choose for ourselves.

Despite the influence of this specific background problem[1], Aristotle proceeds in a highly abstract manner and in his characteristically terse style:

Now there are three things in the soul that control (kuria) action and truth: perception, thought, and desire. Of these perception does not originate any action; this is clear from the fact that animals have perception but no share of action. Now what in thought is assent and denial is in desire pursuit and avoidance. Hence, since character virtue is a state [of the soul] involving choice and choice is deliberative desire, the reasoning must for these reasons be true (alēthē) and the desire be upright (orthēn) if the choice is to be worthwhile (spoudaia), and it is the same things that the one [reasoning] states and the other [desire] pursues (1139a17-26).

Aristotle notes first that unlike perception, thought and desire are both involved in originating and controlling human action, which is deliberate and admits of the notions of truth and rightness. The notion of control (being kurios over) seems to come down to determining whether something or its opposite comes about, since he notes assent and denial in thought correspond to pursuit and avoidance in desire. Since virtuous action essentially involves choice and choice is desire produced by deliberation, which is a form of thinking, the sort of thought and desire that control virtuous action must be, respectively, true and upright. Indeed, these are not separate conditions, they jointly constitute the excellence of choice itself: the thought involved (deliberation) settles on an upright choice and the upright choice is itself a desire to pursue what thought specified.

An especially striking feature of this dense passage is Aristotle’s use of the term correct (orthos) – the very same term that appears in the phrase ‘correct reasoning’ (orthos logos) that identifies the object of his search – to describe not the reasoning here but the desire that issues from it. The clear implication is that correctness for reasoning, when we take it on its own, is (as we always thought) truth, but that in a practical domain what counts as true reasoning issues in a desire that is fitting to the circumstances. As he goes on to say, it is only of theoretical thought that going well and badly is purely a matter of truth and falsity; for practical intellect, both truth and upright desire are involved (1139a26-31).

I have translated orthē as ‘upright’ to capture the inevitable moral overtones of speaking of ‘correct desire’ as an aspect of virtuous or worthwhile choice. Is Aristotle already assuming the view he will argue for later in Book VI, that correct choice is always choice in accordance with character virtue? I do not think so, but one can here detect the kernel of the thought, or at least the beginning of the path that leads to that conclusion. After all, there is evidently some excellence in the reasoning of someone who has the wrong ends but nevertheless pursues them effectively and efficiently, without internal conflict. All he needs for his argument here is the narrower claim that worthwhile choice requires upright desire, whether or not ‘correct’ desire can also be found in less-than-worthwhile choice.

This is a matter of some importance, because of the asymmetry between thinking and desire presupposed by the present discussion. What Aristotle appears to be interested in is how sound practical thinking eventuating in a virtuous choice involves, or more precisely, leads to desiring the right object. Practical thought is a mover, Aristotle will insist, even though both thought and desire are inevitably involved in action for the sake of something (1139a35-36). Indeed, from the synchronic viewpoint of an individual choice, we can interpret the state of the rational agent’s soul indifferently as either desiderative thought or as an intellectual desire (1139b1-5).

The difficulty then arises for us to understand what practical thought itself begins from and why choice is linked so tightly to character as Aristotle insists here and elsewhere (1139a33-35; cf. V.6, 1134a17-23). Looking to the broader argument of Book VI, why should practical thought be limited to the relatively meager aim of determining the mean? I think quite a lot of Aristotle’s treatment of practical wisdom (notably in VI.5, as we shall perhaps see) can be seen as a way of showing that doing well at this task is an impressive intellectual achievement and so worthy of the title of the virtue that ensures our achieving success in action, although other intellectual excellences are inevitably also involved.

[1] Until its final chapters, Book VI does not display the ‘aporematic’ style that Aristotle often adopts in both the Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics, that is, the method of introducing his considered view through the resolution of puzzles generated by conflicting phenomena or received views (endoxa).

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