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A puzzle about knowledge and virtue

What role, according to Aristotle, does knowledge play in the exercise of the virtues of character? This is a simple question to ask, but a difficult one to answer simply. In order to answer this question, we have to tackle an elliptical passage in Nicomachean Ethics II.4, which is part of Aristotle’s solution to a different puzzle about virtuous action.

That puzzle is (very roughly) this: if we have to do the virtuous thing in order to become virtuous, but we have to be virtuous in order to do the virtuous thing, how do we ever get started? Aristotle notes that we talk about actions and corresponding states of soul in two different ways, (let’s label them) logically – the actions accord with a certain state – and causally – the actions are the product of that state. So, too, with virtue: there are actions that are courageous because they are what a courageous person would do and actions that are courageous because they flow from the courageous person’s courage. Puzzle solved: when we’re on the way to virtue, we have to do the first kind of action so that when we acquire virtue, we are capable of the second.

Where the terrain gets treacherous is when Aristotle decides to try to characterize the state of the soul that differentiates the latter from the former case:

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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).

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Individuating the virtues

I’ve been working on a number of projects over the past few months, which I hope will spur me to write up more of my thoughts in short form here. One was my MPhil thesis, on intellectualism and moral education in Plato’s Protagoras and Republic. I hope this will be the launching point for a more comprehensive project on intellectualism and moral education from Socrates to the Stoics. I’d welcome comments on the current version.

Another was a paper I wrote for the MPhil and gave at the inaugural Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Politics conference at London Met in June. The paper tries to bring together some research in personality psychology with a (neo-)Aristotelian approach to virtue ethics to argue that one of the components of personality identified by psychologists, called openness to experience, constitutes in its developed form a virtue. In order to make the case, I found that I had to do some thinking about the nature of Aristotle’s list of virtues and what the structure of a virtue theory ought to be like. In a recent book Daniel Russell has argued that contemporary neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics can’t do without the concept of phronesis, and he makes a number of intriguing arguments about how we ought to individuate the virtues from each other, a problem Aristotle doesn’t explicitly wrestle with, and what work virtues in the plural do in such ethical theories [1]. Indeed, Aristotle’s list looks conspicuously flabby when compared to the taut tetrad of Plato’s Republic, and virtues like greatness of soul (megalopsychia) still cause headaches for Aristotle’s defenders. Can there even be such a thing as a canonical list of the virtues?

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Conf: Myth and Literature in Ancient Philosophy

I’m pleased to announce, along with my co-organisers [1], a conference for junior researchers hosted by the ancient philosophy caucus of the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge on April 15-16, 2011. The theme of the conference is the engagement of ancient philosophers with myth and literature, and we have six graduate papers covering a diverse range of topics, complemented by two keynotes by Prof Catherine Osborne (UEA) and Dr Kurt Lampe (Bristol). A programme with titles of talks will be released shortly, and further information is available at our conference website. I encourage anyone who is considering attending to register; we are happy to arrange accommodation on your behalf in Cambridge.

[1] Matthew Duncombe, Tamer Nawar, and Christina Hoenig, who are all PhD students in ancient philosophy.