Practices of Reason: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Practices of Reason: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. – book reviews

Marcia L. Homiak

In this interesting and unusual book that departs considerably from current orthodoxy, C. D. C. Reeve explores the epistemological, metaphysical, and psychological foundations of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. As the book jacket indicates, Reeve argues “that scientific knowledge (episteme) is possible in ethics, that dialetic and understanding (nous) play essentially the same role in ethics as in an Aristotelian science, and that the distinctive role of practical reason (phronesis) is to use the knowledge of universals provided by science, dialectic, and understanding so as to best promote happiness (eudaimonia)”. There are two kinds of happiness: primary happiness, Reeve claims, is the activation of theoretical wisdom in study (theoria), whereas secondary happiness is the activation of practical wisdom when it is undertaken for the sake of study. According to Reeve’s account of Aristotle, only a few have the ethical and intellectual virtues necessary to achieve phronesis and hence politics, since, for Aristotle, phronesis is the same state as politics. In Aristotle’s ideal political community, these few are philosphers who rule with knowledge over citizens who have merely true belief. Their knowledge enables them to control the productive activities of the state so that these activities optimally contribute to the rulers’ study. For Reeve, Aristotle’s ideal state thus looks much like Plato’s anti-democratic Republic, where only philosophers are fully virtuous because only they have knowledge of the good.

Reeve’s most notable departures from current orthodoxy in Aristotelian interpretation are his claims that, first, nous functions in the Nicomachean Ethics in the same way it does in an Aristotelian science, and, second, that eudaimonia is an exclusive, rather than an inclusive, end. Many contemporary readers of the Nicomachean Ethics take Aristotle’s remarks that there is no fixity in ethics (NE 1104a4), and that judgments about particular circumstances depend on perception (NE 1109b23), as evidence of his belief that there can be no demonstrative first principles in ethics, from which we then deduce what is to be done. (See, for example, John McDowell, “Virtue and Reason”, Monist 62, pp. 331-350; Martha Nussbaum, “The Discernment of Perception: An Aristotelian Conception of Private and Public Rationality”, Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, 1, pp. 151-201; and T. H. Irwin, tr., Nicomachean Ethics, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, 1985.) Many readers also take his claim that eudaimonia must be self-sufficient and lacking in nothing (NE 1097b14-15) to be evidence of his view that eudaimonia is a comprehensive good that includes various intrinsic goods such as family, friends, wealth, health, and a political community. (See, for example, John Ackrill, “Aristotle on Eudaimonia”, Proceedings of the British Academy, 60, 1974, pp. 339-359; John M. Cooper, Reason and Human Good, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1975; and T. H. Irwin, Aristotle’s First Principles, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992.) Indeed, not only are these views the basis for much recent Aristotelian scholarship, they are also often the basis for a direction in contemporary moral theory that seeks an alternative to the views of Kant and the utilitarians by emphasizing the importance of the quotidian, the personal, and the particular. (See, for example, Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints”, Journal of Philosophy, 79, no. 8, August 1982, pp. 419-439, and the recent response to Wolf and others by Catherine Wilson in “On Some Alleged Limitations to Moral Endeavor”, Journal of Philosophy, 90, no. 6, June 1993, pp. 275-289.)

Although Reeve offers suggestive and intriguing discussion on specific topics such as practical perception and political knowledge, I have space only to consider some of the arguments for his central claims that, first, ethics and science are similar in methodology, and, second, that eudaimonia is not an inclusive good.

First I discuss Reeve’s views on methodological similarity. When considering how to justify the premises of a demonstrative science, Aristotle looks for some first principles that can be grasped as true without inference. He demands that these principles be grasped by understanding (nous, sometimes rendered “intuition”) and that they be self-evident (Top. 100130-b21, APr. 64b28-38, Phys. 193a3-9). Aristotle seems to be rejecting the possibility of a demonstrative science of ethics when he says that universal ethical statements are not true in all cases, but only usually (NE 1094b14-22). Reeve reminds us (pp. 14-15) that this fact is not a good reason to think there is no scientific knowledge in ethics, since Aristotle allows for scientific knowledge about the usual as well as the necessary (Meta. 1027a20-21). Reeve is right to think this is not a good reason for dismissing scientific knowledge in ethics, yet one might wonder how one can have noninferential knowledge of principles that are true only for the most part. That Aristotle does not call ethical truths episteme may be an indication that he abandoned his earlier view about the scope of episteme, rather than that he failed in the Nicomachean Ethics to acknowledge explicitly his earlier view, which is the position Reeve adopts (p. 16).

Reeve thinks there are other parallels between the ethical and scientific works. In the scientific works we come to have a grasp of first principles via a process of induction that begins with perception of particulars (APo. ii. 19). Reeve interprets NE 1143a35-b5 to be parallel to APo. ii. 19: in ethics, too, the perception of particulars leads by induction (which here is the process of habituation) to a grasp (nous) of ethical universals (p. 60). We learn to do actions of specific types in specific circumstances, and as a result of being encouraged and discouraged, we develop dispositions to do actions of some types and to avoid actions of other types. According to reeve, this process leads to nous of the first principle of ethics that eudaimonia involves “acting well” and to nous of what “acting well” is (pp. 59-60). But if we do learn what acting well is through this process, it looks as though we have to determine why the types of actions we do perform count as examples of acting well and why other, similar looking, types of actions do not. If telling the truth in one situation counts as acting well, but it does not in another situation, we must be able to appeal to some considerations that would explain why there is this discrepancy, and that seems to involve our using inferential justifications that the habituation process has not uncovered. Why, then, is not our success a result of deliberation rather than a result of nous? Even if Reeve is correct to think there is nous of both universals and particulars, it is not clear that this is the non-inferential nous of scientific knowledge and hence whether there is a significant similarity between the ethical and scientific works.

I turn now to some of Reeve’s arguments for the claim that eudaimonia is an exclusive, rather than an inclusive, end. To support an exclusive interpretation, Reeve must address Aristotle’s remarks on the self-sufficiency of eudaimonia at NE I.7, 1097b16-20, since these remarks have suggested to many that eudaimonia is an ordered composite of intrinsic goods. Reeve takes intrinsic goods to be the same as those we choose for their own sakes. He concludes that eudaimonia cannot be an inclusive good consisting of all intrinsic goods, since there are some goods we choose for their own sakes that, for Aristotle, are not parts of eudaimonia. Examples are the “pleasant amusements” of NE 1176b9ff. Yet proponents of the inclusive view can grant, as Reeve does (p. 119), that Aristotle’s concept ion of eudaimonia is normative, not conative, and that the goods in question are those a rational person wants. Thus, an inclusivist can agree with Aristotle, at NE 1177a6-10, that pleasant amusements are slavish, are not chosen for their own sakes by rational persons, and hence are not part of the composite.

Reeve’s second argument against the inclusive conception of eudaimonia seems to be question-begging. Since eudaimonia is an activity (NE 1098a16-18) rather than a state, Reeve believes that whatever goods it contains must be the sort activities can intelligibly contain (p. 121). Since the pleasures of different activities impede one another, eudaimonia as an activity can contain only a single pleasure. This conclusion seems to require that eudaimonia be a single activity. But if the activity of eudaimonia is an ordered combination of activities that occurs over a complete life (cf. NE 1095b32), then there is no problem in its containing various pleasant activities as intrinsic goods. (A similar assumption seems to influence Reeve’s construal of the conclusion of the function argument on p. 130.)

For Reeve, eudaimonia’s unique status as a measure or limit of what is good (NE 1153b21-5) is inconsistent with its being a composite good consisting of everything we choose for itself. If it included everything we choose for itself, then it should include the excess fortune that at 1153b23 is said to impede eudaimonia. This conclusion seems to follow only if eudaimonia is thought to include all choiceworthy things in any amount. But proponents of the inclusive view take eudaimonia to be an ordered combination of goods that does not give equal weight to each type of good (NE 1099b9-25, 1100b7-1101a21).

I have raised a number of objections to some arguments Reeve offers in support of his central claims, but these objections should not be taken to deny the importance of his project. Reeve’s book will be of interest to anyone who has wrestled with the question of how to integrate Aristotle’s views on study with his portrait of the virtuous person as engaged in political life.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Oxford University Press

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group