Posts Tagged ‘ philosophy of action ’

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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The Ends of Productive Activity (EN 1094a3-6)

I’m reading EN I in preparation for the MPhil seminar on the same this coming term, and it’s already proving to be a fruitful exercise. After working through the first four or five chapters, I have a long list of questions, and I’ve just written a paper on the purpose of the EN and the Politics – as a reply to John Cooper’s forthcoming article “Political Community and the Highest Good” [1] – that draws primarily on these early chapters and EN X.9. I want to try out some of the interpretive points I make in the paper in this forum, especially since many of them deal with difficult and crucial passages in the text.

Today, however, I was reading Gabriel Richardson Lear’s Happy Lives and the Highest Good [2], where she makes a point about a claim to do with productive activity that Aristotle makes at the very beginning of the EN. As it happens, I was thinking about this point earlier this year when, as I recall, Carlo Natali brought up a similar worry at a conference on κίνησις and ἐνέργεια in Oxford.

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