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]

Continue reading


Transformative induction in Prior Analytics B21

Since this is my first post after the Blogistikon hiatus, I’d like to thank Dhananjay for asking me to contribute. I’m really excited to be able to get some ideas out and hopefully readers will enjoy it too. I expect I will post mainly on epistemology and logic in Plato and Aristotle because my current work looks at how logic gets used in different contexts: dialectical encounters, analysis, epistemology and so on. I got interested in the puzzle I address in this post because Prior Analytics B21 is a bit of a quirky text where Aristotle relates logic to epistemology.

Sometimes we fail to know logical consequences of our knowledge or to believe logical consequences of our beliefs. I can know the axioms of arithmetic and set-theory, for example, but not know whether the Goldbach conjecture is true. B21 asks why this is. Aristotle compares his answer to ‘the argument in the Meno’ (cf. A. Po. A 1 71a17-b8) then says something puzzling:

For it never turns out that someone knows the individual (to kath’hekaston) in advance, but she gets knowledge of the particular  (ton kata meros) at the same time, by induction, just like those who are reminded. For sometimes we know directly, for example that <such-and-such> has two right-angles if we see that <such-and-such> is a triangle (Pr. An. B 21 67a21-26).

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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).

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

Aristotle’s solution to Zeno’s paradox of the runner

This is a guest post by Matthew Duncombe, a fellow Cambridge ancient philosophy student. I hope it (and future posts!) will expand the range of topics on the blog. 

Aristotle’s answer to Zeno’s basic paradox of progress, the runner, is known to invoke a distinction between ‘actual’ and ‘potential’ infinities. Below, I ponder for your amusement, whether the solution based on the distinction of actual and potential infinities leads to incoherence.  The paradox, with which I imagine most people are familiar, is as follows. Suppose that in a finite period of time, T, a runner, Bolt, traverses a finite distance, AB. At some point within T, t1, Bolt will ‘touch’ (haptesthai in Aristotle’s presentation) the mid-point of AB, namely a1. At some time after t1, Bolt will ‘touch’ the midpoint between a1 and B, namely a2, and so on. In general, for any aN there is a point, aM, midway between aN and B which Bolt will ‘touch’ at some point in T. That is an infinite number of points. So (P1) if Bolt runs from A to B, then Bolt completes and infinite number of tasks. (P2) It is impossible to complete an infinite number of tasks. (C) Therefore, Bolt cannot run from A to B.[1]

Aristotle’s objection is that the argument trades on an ambiguity in the notion of ‘infinity’ in the argument (Phys. 263b3-9). There is an innocuous sense of infinity, potential infinity, which is the sense of ‘infinite’ in (P1), and a vicious sense of infinity, actual infinity, which is the sense operative in (P2) (Phys. 206a9-b2). The difference can be seen with the following case: Imagine another runner, Colt, who runs exactly the same course as Bolt, but who takes his hat off as he ‘touches’ point aN, and puts it back on as he touches point aM. Is he wearing his hat when he reaches B? It cannot be off, because each time he took it off, he put it back on again. But it cannot be on, because every time he put it on, he took it off. So it is neither on, nor off. So reaching B is impossible. This is because Colt has actualized each of the infinite number of potential points on the course AB. But Bolt did not actualize them, so there is no contradiction in Bolt’s case.[2]

To put the point another way: (AI) There is an actual infinity of tasks to complete running from AB just in case, between any two actual or potential tasks, there is a third actual task. (PI) There is potential infinity of tasks just in case between any two actual or potential tasks on AB there a third potential task. But (PI) does not entail (AI). Problem solved.

But: (M) If x is potentially F then it is possible that x is actually F. (PI) does entail that on course AB there is an infinite number of potential tasks to be completed to run from A to B. So the course AB is traversable only by completing an infinite number of potential tasks. But that is to say that AB is traversable only by it being possible to complete an infinite number of actual tasks. But Aristotle agreed that it is impossible to traverse AB if one must complete an infinite number of actual tasks.

Continue reading

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.