Knowing Ourselves through Nicomachean Ethics



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Knowing Ourselves through Nicomachean Ethics
ACTC Conference P. Corrigan

April 2008


2 Modes of Self-Knowledge and 3 Audiences

3 April 2008


What is it to be thoughtful about oneself, to live an examined life? What does the NE tell us about this, and what does it show us about being thoughtful?

NE has something in it for everyone; it=s deceptively conventional. Aristotle feeds the >prejudices= of each group, while also throwing out challenges to each of them. Sometimes, the challenge is the other group=s >prejudices=, so that each is a challenge to the other. That is, Aristotle shows the validity and truth of each way of life / type of person to the other. At the same time, the NE points to fundamental perplexities that need to be dwelt upon and not explained away.

6 April 2008

>Unfittings= and Thinking
Four types of >contradictions=/ruptures in NE:


  • between what NE says and how things appear/are

  • between what is NE and what ought to be there (either according to how things are or according to how things are (are done) in other places.

  • between what NE says in one place and what it says in another

  • between what NE says and what it does

Why are there such ruptures in NE? Are they a sign of imperfection/failure or of an aiming for a different telos? Is the goal of the book to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truthCto give a complete account of human flourishing so that the reader will be able to >have= it? Or, is the goal to help the reader achieve that flourishing?

The goal of human life is not to >have= the truth in the way that a reader is >given= words in a book. The goal of a helpful author, then is not to >give= his reader the answers. If the goal of human life is to be attentive and thoughtful about the serious things, then what can a good book do to help us achieve our ultimate goal?

Thoughtfulness does not occur easily and right way. It needs a basis on which it can occur. So, NE gives lots of truth. It helps us to see better what we already have seenCvaguely and in a fragmented way. The NE helps us to pull together things so that we have a basis for further thinking.

But this re-confirmation in what we know is not the final goal. Rather, NE seeks to help us be thoughtful about human flourishing by perplexing us, pointing to other things which need to be thought about (its own incompleteness).


What is the relation between the thoughtfulness I say Aristotle is trying to prompt in us and what he says is the best kind of thinking, between perplexity and theoria? What is the kind of thoughtfulness present at a typical (ACTC) conference? We have hundreds of papers being given, papers which each of us recognize as not of the highest qualityCwe aren=t stars in our field, the papers are too short and the discussions too brief, and these papers are not our best work, etc. What is the relation between our thinking together and the best human achievement?

It is important to recognize that Aristotle=s account of theoria is >too great for a human being=. Also, theoria is not some sort of extraordinary activity, achieved only by sages sitting on a mountain top. Rather, theoria is that insight into how things are that we achieve regularly, those >aha!= moments that culminate our following up a good question. The best human activity happens when we are able to follow up a good question. But this does not settle things, rather asking a good question well leads us to being able to ask another question. Coming to understand something better, does not settle all questions, it enables one to ask more and better ones. It is important to recognize that every real question is raised upon the foundation of an insight into how things are; it is not the case that we never make any progress. Contrary to what NE 10.7 and Metaphysics 1.2 suggest, insight into the truth does not mean a cessation of questions. Figuring one=s way through one question opens up other questions that one didn=t recognize. Second-rate thinkers, if they are really perplexed, are active because they have glimpsed the eide, how things really are.

How can we account for different >schools= of philosophy? Are the >others= just mistaken and misguided, thoroughly cut off from the truth? Is it possible for thinkers to be so separated off from the truth, how things are? Are they really not understanding anything? This seems to be preposterous. This is presuming that sentences are either true or false, rather than a mixture of true and false or as between true and false as Phaedo (90a-d) suggests. Maybe human logos is not able to be simply true or falseCunless it is not the result of real thinking, honest perplexity. That=s why it=s worth hearing even student essays. They also are worthy of praise when they are the result of their own perplexity and wonder (not when they are putting together others= words together in a clear and novel way). Those I fundamentally disagree with can help me to see things that I=d missed before. Even if I continue to think that they are fundamentally off target.

This seems to be the case even in that paradigmatic example of human knowing, mathematics. A mathematician does not simply come to rest at the end of her proofs. Rather, it seems that on the basis of this proof, she is able to see where another question lies. Excellent human thinking is achieved in following the questions, not in resting in the answer.

Questions may be the principal way in which the eternal, universal and necessary appear to human beings. Being perplexed only occurs because the eide have been glimpsed.

What is the point of logos? Is the proper type of words a proposition which is either true or false? Or, is it not the case that words present things, they propose that we take things in a particular way (Phaedo 90a-d). It is difficult for logos to be fully true or wholly false; rather words share in both. They reveal how things are, partially; they cover over how things are a bit, too. The goal of words is to get us to see things; but no logos can disclose the full range of how something is. The goal of a book to prompt us to do the thinking that allows things to appear to us in their richness and complexity, and seeing how things are, at a certain point, causes wonder and perplexity, not just recollection.

So, Aristotle=s book is great because it helps us to ask better questions. It does this in two stages. First, it reminds us things that we already know. Because we are not clear even about this stuff, we have to struggle with the details of his text, taking care not to mistake what he says and trying to get the most we can out of what he says. This book is not easy, even in its most straightforward aspect; we need to struggle a bit to be reminded well.


Second, the NE helps us to ask great questions by more and less explicitly pointing to its own limitations, indicating where we need to leave it behind and pursue our own questions. It might do this by not always fitting well with itself.

4 April 08



A. Self-knowledge as Recollection (Aristotle as >ancient sage=) To spark pulling together things one already knows to things anew

Being reminded of what one already >sort of= knows. Having points brought to mind in an orderly and clear way so that what one had forgotten or overlooked or not recognized is able to be seen clearly as if for the first time. One now knows oneself in the sense of being re-minded of oneself.


A1. Young people: how does NE promote recollection? What would that mean for them?

  • It seems that NE present arete as beautifulCit=s goal seems to be to make young people want to be excellent (practical or theoretical?)

  • that I need to strive to be virtuous in character and mindCthat I need to be courageous, temperate, generous, just, etc., as well as prudent and wise.

  • Somehow NE taps into a young person=s pre-disposition by showing virtue as beautiful; this moves a young person to want to be excellentCbeautiful and good.

  • on basis of proper upbringing, one is moved to excellence and friendship.

A2. One Living the Practical Life (the citizen). Aristotle=s respect for common opinion, how things appear to most people, fits in here. He doesn=t seek to be novel, but to present Areflexions of common life methodized and corrected@ (EHU 12.3,2). Know myself better through NE by being reminded of goods and beliefs which constitute me.



  • the need to be concerned about goods beyond those that are useful for acquiring the necessities of life and that are merely private experiences. The good life is not merely comfortable and pleasant (2.3).

  • that excellence is a mean between extremes; >all things in moderation= (2.6)

  • the virtues of character (2.7) and intellect (6.3) that Aristotle notes and analyzes correspond to excellences that the citizen can acknowledge.

  • Aristotle even notes how strange sophia is. (6.7; 10.7-8)

  • that NE notes how important actions are in lifeCnot just talk (2.4);

  • that one is responsible for the kind of person one ends up to be; responsibility for what one takes as good and for one=s character (3.4-5); one=s own choices make a difference in one=s life

  • that habits and upbringing are very important (2.1); respect for parents and the polis.

  • NE notes that pleasure is dangerous; need to have reason in control

  • Akrasia is possible, lousy and pretty common

  • Friends are possible and needed to live well

A3. One Living the Theoretical Life (the wise)




  • Aristotle=s use of metaphysical principles such as act & potency confirm that the wise are able to make sense of and understand things better than those who are unfamiliar with these principles.

  • that the life of knowing is superior to the political lifeCall of 10.7: that the life devoted to knowing is the best, most divine life: that it is the activity of the best part of us, that it is more pleasant, more for its own sake, more self-sufficient and more leisurely.

  • (6.7) that the life of sophia is the goal of politics; politics is for the sake of sophia.



B. Self-knowledge as Being Perplexed (Aristotle as Socratic philosopher) To spark perplexity

The NE does not merely leave its reader where he began. It calls attention to fundamental aporia in what it is to be human, and therefore, about the telos of being human. The learning that the NE initiates is not only a confirmation of what one already believed. Self-knowledge, being thoughtful about oneself, goes beyond being confirmed in one=s opinions, beyond recollection (Areasons@ for one=s beliefs). It fosters perplexity; leads one to see what one doesn=t understand, what one needs to think some more about.


B1. Young people:

  • which life should I follow: the practical or the theoretical? What kind of person do I want to be?

  • can I achieve all of the virtues? What should I do?

  • perhaps the proper perplexity for a young person is about the direction of his life


To adult readers, the NE presents each of the two ways of life as a challenge to the other. The practical life is shown to be in accord with human nature in such a way that it challenges the theoretical life=s prejudice that it alone is the proper life for a human being, and vice versa. For example, (to the prakitikates) being human is more than being concerned with the body and its goods, and more than the goods achieved in political life. To the theoretikes, the needs of the body and the goods achieved in actions are good and necessary. The NE disconcerts both parties; it does not leave either one simply where it began.


But the NE disconcerts and perplexes in more ways than that.

B2. Those living the practical life, the life of action; seeing that the things that I=d taken for granted may not suffice, may not be coherent and complete.




  • If one thinks about the details of Aristotle=s accounts of the particular virtues, one might be led to wonder whether his account will lead to the same conclusions that one=s conventions do. Has Aristotle simply defended ordinary opinion or also given one the means by which to critique one=s conventions? Will Aristotle=s account which bases the virtues of character on aspects of us which share in logos functioning well really match up simply and neatly with our ordinary set of virtues?

  • What accounts for one=s dissatisfaction with one=s current character/goals? What moves one to be motivated by the kalon? What effects the conversion that Aristotle seeks to achieve? To assist us in being virtuous and not merely conforming? What can parents and the city do to guarantee the excellence of the next generation?

  • Is the list of virtues complete? Are there other excellences that are needed to be human well? (13 virtues of character and 5 virtues of intellect; 2.7 and 6.3)

  • Is the mark of human excellence the mean (which tends to the middling) or the kalonCa concern for goods beyond those with which the city is concerned; should I be concerned with something more than the goods of the city?

  • True friendship really is difficult and rareBmaybe those I call >friends= aren=t really.

  • if one thinks about the details of Aristotle=s accounts of the particular virtues, one might be led to wonder whether his account will lead to the same conclusions that one=s conventions doC???

B3. Those living the theoretical life, the life of knowing/episteme



  • What are the relations among the >parts= of the soul? Is the presentation of human soul presented in NE adequate? Would a more >scientific= account of soul be able to support a teaching of a distinctly human telos? (Relation of De Anima to NE.)

  • the role and status of the middle part of the human soul is particularly difficult to give a theoretical account ofBperplexing for a sophon

  • Can the theoretical life be so unconcerned with the political? Is the disregard for the body and the polis truly in keeping with the truth about human being?

  • Does my initial disparaging stance toward pleasure and the passions indicate a deficiency in me?

  • If dianoia alone does not move (6.2: 1139a36), and nous is the true me and the highest aspect of me, can it rule (10.7)? And if so, how, since it does not seem that practical goods are its proper object? What kind of rule do I have over myself? Do I rule myself as God rules the cosmos?

CONCLUSION
Ultimately(?) the NE aims for us to live the life of the mind which is manifest in its presentation of things. Can we be mindful in the way that the NE is mindful?
The text challenges us to move beyond itself, and it even gives direction to what needs to be thought about. But that >direction= is given by noticing what Aristotle does, not by looking for him to tell us what to do.



The contrast between looking to Aristotle for answers and looking to him for questions; Aristotle as wise and as philosophical. Is the goal of a thoughtful reading of NE to tie up any apparent loose ends and >inconsistencies= into a neat system or to allow it to show some fundamental perplexities in being human?
Some of these points are the things that scholars, assuming that the goal of a philosophy text is systematic completeness, note and seek to explain away. Although it may be the case that this Homer does occasionally nod off, I believe that these often point to genuine perplexities about what it is to be human.
Is the goal of this text to tell us what to think about the most important things; is its goal to tell us what Aristotle believes (and therefore what he wants us to believe)? Perhaps his goal to help us achieve self-awareness, to recognize our ignorance, and to be thoughtful about ourselves. What Aristotle does (not just what he says) indicates what we to think more about.
 $ What is the distinctively human ergon? What is logos? And, what is its relation to those aspects of us which we >share= with other animals? While at first I thought I knew what >reason= was, after trying to fit all that NE says is distinctive to human beings, I no longer do.

  • for example, 10.7 that which is most me ends up being what is more than meCnous is divine, not human! The distinctively human has disappeared into either the subhuman or the superhuman. What is one to make of this?

  • What sort of >completion=, >self-sufficiency= and >finality= (1.7) are possible for human beings?

 $ Why is it so difficult to get clear on what it is to be human well? We can get a sense of what it is for a rose to be thwarted or to be thriving; and for a giraffe to be living well as a giraffe or not. But we are much less able to do this for human beings. Why? What sort of >complexity= is the problem? Ex., what sort of cognitive achievements are necessary?

  • What is our relation to the divine? (1.9 and 10.8)

 $ Nature=s role in being human well

  • To what extent are we in control of ourselves? Nature, nurture and luck

  • Does the relation between one=s past actions/choices, one=s goals, and one=s present character indicate something more profound about the temporality of being human?

 $ All sorts of questions about intellectual virtues: how are they acquired? What role does the past play? What is their >genus= and >species= (arguments given about virtues of character in 2.5 and 2.6Csimilar arguments about intellectual virtues are missing)? What determines one=s intellectual character: what one can think well about? What questions can I raise and pursue? Why? What can I think well aboutCtechne, phronesis, episteme, nous?

  • Lack of >flexibility of mind= as one gets olderCespecially if one thinks a lot about things. As one becomes more proficient in the ways of thinking of one=s profession, for example, that way becomes easier, and other ways of thinking become more difficult. Is this correct? Is this a way in which there is a correspondence between character and intellect?



 $ In particular, NE does not account for its own excellent activity of mind. The excellence of thinking that is manifest in the NE does not fit with the description of any of the intellectual virtues as given in Book 6. Is it possible that the mind at work in NE is so thoroughly lacking in self-awareness, reflexivity? That=s hard to believe

 $ Why does NE spend four books on virtues of character and only one book on intellectual virtues?



  • But the NE cannot guarantee its own success. Similar to the >knot= of how one comes to motivated by the kalon, here the perplexity is how one comes(?) to be one who can dwell with perplexity. Why is it the case that it cannot? What is it about human beings, about me, that makes this so?

  • Is it possible to pursue and achieve excellence in all spheres of human being?

 $ It=s been suggested that a >natural= perspective is adopted (rather than the political perspective) begins in Book 7. What to do with the discrepancy between these two? What does that say about understanding being human excellently? What aspects show up in which context? Which aspects do not?

  • Does pleasure seem different in Book 10 than it did in Book 1?

These perplexities are to dwelt upon, not explained away. Being perplexed is to achieve self-knowledge appropriate to the human situation. That man is a Amonster that surpasses all understanding@ (Pensées, 130).


Being perplexed by these (and other) knots puts me in my proper place, reveals my true situation to myself, and C By doing this, reading and thinking along with the NE fosters self-knowledge in a remarkable and unique way.


1. What is >self-knowledge=?

2. How does any book foster self-knowledge?

3. How does the NE enable me to understand myself better? What is so great about NE?
3a. Illuminating things about myself that I had overlooked; showing me things about my place that I had missed; helping me to make sense of things


  • part of that might be to get me to see new goods to be pursued and truths to knowBbut this must be based on what I already hold (recollection)

3b. Promoting perplexity; indicating things that I don=t understand about myself; showing me that I am enigmatic; that what it is to be human is to resist an account



  • and this perplexity is crucial to understanding myself; lack of perplexity would indicate a lack of self-understanding

  • Does NE help to me to understand not only that I am an enigma to myself, but why I must be?

The contrast between 3a and 3b is

1. ASelf-Knowledge@CKnowing Oneself



  • to have reflected on my opinions about what is true and good

  • to have a sense of where I stand in relation to the whole, to the most fundamental truths

  • and on what is good.

  • Good: to have reflected on, appropriated, what I take to be final ends, things/activities worth pursuing for their own sake

  • to know what I hold to be final goods, things worth pursuing or engaging in for their own sakes; things I want to want; reflexive goods, which require that I reflect on my ends.

  • the >self= is not an >object=Cself-knowledge is not achieved by learning things about me, not being better informed, getting more information.




  • contrast: being someone else=s person (live in opinion); not knowing what I hold to be true and good;




  • contrast between philosophical self-knowledge and confident self-knowledge (I know what I believe and what I care about!)




  • Taking care of oneself; what is >good= for me?; taking care of anotherBwhat is good for one? Without self-knowledge of some sort, I cannot take care of myself.

3a. Aristotle as defender of common opinionCgiving a philosophical account of what all well-raised gentlemen know (in a vague way).


Aristotle=s three audiences (gentlemen and >intellectuals=). Aristotle feeds the >prejudices= of each group, while also throwing out challenges to them. Sometimes, the challenge is the other group=s >prejudices=, so that each is a challenge to the other. That is, Aristotle shows the validity and truth of each way of life / type of person to the other.

Aristotle, therefore, stands above both groups. He is not one or the other. But this distance is not a superiorityBhe is neither more of a gentleman than the gentlemen, nor wiser than the wise. His stance does not enable him to be a better agent, >more virtuous= than the virtuous gentlemen, nor does it enable him to give more answers than the wise.

Aristotle invites us readers of NE to join him


  • respect for common opinions and yet also recognition that they may not be consistent: 1.4; 1.8

  • the importance of habits and one=s upbringing; parents and community matter!

  • Actions, not just talk (2.4)

  • that human beings are not concerned only with the necessities and gratifications; kalon

  • that people are responsible for the kind of person they become; while the city and its nomoi are important, it is also the case that one is responsible for one=s character.

  • the virtues noted: courage/manliness, temperance, generosity, magnanimity, >ambition=, justice, etc. (2.7)

  • pleasure and the passions as dangerous; need to have reason in control.

  • Forethought and follow through

  • That the past affects the future; that the past is not past (3.4-5)

  • Distinguishing practical from theoretical issues

  • Akrasia is possible, lousy and pretty common; pleasure threatens otherwise good people

  • The need friends to know myself (9.9); friendship as possible and one of the greatest goods

  • The life of wisdom is odd and removed from political life. Book 10.7-8 as feeding >true philosophers= their prejudices, but also challenging them to rethink those prejudices. Do those who contemplate know themselves?


3b. Aristotle as philosopher; notes aporia, knots




  • What sort of >completion=, >self-sufficiency= and >finality= are possible for human achievements? (1.7)

  • What is the distinctive human activity? What is logos?

  • What are the relations among the >parts= of the soul? The vegetive to the passions and mind; the passions to mind? Etc.

  • What are the respective roles of nature, chance, upbringing and choice? How much in control of myself and my flourishing am I?

  • Is the list of virtues (13 virtues of character and 5 virtues of intellect) complete and accurate?

  • Is the mark of virtue >mean= or >kalon=? Middling or transcending necessities/contested goods

  • What is the relation between the excellences of the mind and those of character? Does a concern for the truth, intellectual excellence, sit so easily and comfortably with the active life? Cf., 6.12-13. Is it possible to pursue and achieve excellence in all distinctly human spheres of life?



  • What accounts for one=s Aconversion@ to virtueCnot motivated by necessities and private pleasure but by the kalon, not motivated by others= decisions but by one=s own choices, etc.?

  • What does it disclose about human beings that they have character? And that the relation between ethical and intellectual character is not clear?

  • How is akrasia possible? What does this indicate about the coherence of human nature?

  • What is the true relation between the mean and excellence? Kalon and the mean.

  • What are the things about which I should be really concerned? What are the kalos things which are the telei of human excellence?

  • True friendship really is difficult and rareBmaybe those I call >friends= aren=t really.

  • Does my initial disparaging stance toward pleasure and the passions indicate a deficiency in me?

  • If dianoia alone does not move (6.2: 1139a36), and nous is the true me and the highest aspect of me, can it rule (10.7)? And if so, how, since it does not seem that practical goods are its proper object? What kind of rule do I have over myself? Do I rule myself as God rules the cosmos?

Being perplexed by these (and other) knots puts me in my proper place, reveals my true situation to myself, and C By doing this, reading and thinking along with the NE fosters self-knowledge in a remarkable and unique way.


Not asserting that Aristotle has some hidden message in noting these knots, a message which undermines his surface teaching. Rather, I am suggesting that these........ Things are and are not what they appear to be.
Unless it is that the surface is more complicated than one recognizes at first.
Relation of this self-knowing to eudaimoniaBto being human well.


  • is this perplexity >theoretical= or >practical=?

  • n

3 June 2008





Intellectual VirtueCBook VI: One of the enigmas of the Nicomachean Ethics is the brevity and incompleteness of its account of excellences of that >part= of human being which is logos. Why does he spend only one book on the virtues of thinking, when he spent four books on the excellences of that >part= of us which only has a Ashare@ in logos? Thinking seems to be the most obvious distinctly human activity, so one would expect the account of the intellectual virtues to dominate Aristotle=s account of a life of Adoing distinctly human activities well.@ After Book VI=s brief sketch of the various ways we have of achieving truth in our thinking (the two principal intellectual virtues prudence (phronesis) and wisdom (sophia); the three secondary ones: art (techne), science (episteme), intellect (nous); and some tertiary ones: politics (politike), good deliberation (euboulia), understanding (eusynesia), and considerateness (gnome)), we are left with all sorts of issues left unanswered. For example, why did Aristotle find it appropriate to discuss how the virtues of character come to be and to discuss the vices of character, but not to discuss how the virtues of thinking come to be and ever whether there are vices of mind? One would think that a philosopher would pay special attention to the mind and its ways of being excellent and deficient in is account of the goal of human living. If we have Amoral@ character that establishes how we act and react, that causes us to be human active well, badly or ambivalently in the spheres of passions and action, don=t we also have a Acognitive@ character that establishes how we are thoughtful well, badly or in a mediocre way?

In the first sentence of the Ethics, Aristotle mentions techne, methodos, praxis and prohairesis in order to set a context for his discussion of the telos of human living. It is noteworthy that three of these four receive explicit analysis in the rest of the work. Aristotle notes their places in an excellent and complete human life. Methodos is the odd man out.


Why does Aristotle not discuss this activity of methodos in any of his analyses of living well? Since Ainquiry@ or Asystematic investigation@ seem to characterize the philosophical life, it is a noteworthy absence. Why does Aristotle slight those activities which are not useful, practical or wise? Why does Aristotle ignore the activity which seems to characterize the distinctly human excellence (neither useful, practical nor wise)?
How can Aristotle not discuss the role of having questions, recognizing one=s ignorance, following through on one=s wonder, etc. in an excellent distinctly human life? Why does the Nicomachean Ethics seem to be so focused on praxis? It is so much more interested in examining excellent achievements connected to action, that it presents an significantly incomplete account of human excellence. Why is this philosophical account of human completeness so silent about the cognitive conditions for the possibility of philosophy?

5 June 2008





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