Practical Cognition in Animals

Aristotle thought that some animals are "sensible" (φρόνιμα). He thought that these animals are capable of controlling their behavior in ways that benefit them. For example, in the History of Animals IX.5.611, he reports that deer give birth alongside the road. They give birth here because predators are afraid to approach because of the likely presence of human beings.

One might think that such "sensible" behavior is an instance of reasoning, but this is not how Aristotle understands it. He did not think that the cognition that underlies this purposeful behavior involves the "intellect" (νοῦς) or is a matter of "reason" (λόγος) and "reasoning" (λογισμός). According to Aristotle, these animals do not have the cognitive capacity he understands as "reason" (λόγος).

"In the other animals choice (προαίρεσις) does not exist, nor in man at every age or condition; for neither is deliberating (βουλεύσασθαι) and judgment about the why (ὑπόληψις τοῦ διὰ τί). It is possible that many have an opinion (δοξάσαι) whether a thing is to be done, but not through reasoning (λογισμοῦ). For that part of the soul is deliberative which contemplates (θεωρητικὸν) a certain cause. For the 'for the sake of which' is one of the causes (ἡ γὰρ οὗ ἕνεκα μία τῶν αἰτιῶν ἐστίν)..., and that for the sake of which something is or comes to be, that we say is a cause, so the fetching of things is the cause of walking, if he is walking for the sake of this. Hence, those who do not have an aim [as a cause] are not deliberative" (Eudemian Ethics II.10.1226b).

How, then, does Aristotle think that this non-human cognition works?

Aristotle thought that a defining feature of animals is the capacity for perception and that perception implies the capacity for desire. Animals need to behave in certain ways in certain circumstances if they are to survive. Perception is the way they become aware of their particular circumstances, and desire moves them to engage in the appropriate behavior in these circumstances.

"If a living thing has the capacity for perception, it also has the capacity for desire. For desire (ὄρεξις) comprises appetite (ἐπιθυμία), spirit (θυμὸς), and wish (βούλησι). And all animals have at least one of the senses, touch. And where there is perception, there is pleasure and pain ..., and where there are these, there is also appetite: for this is desire for what is pleasant" (On the Soul II.3.414b1-6).

"We say that the movers of the animal are thought, perception, imagination (φαντασία), decision, wish, spirit, and appetite. And all of these can be reduced to thought and desire. For imagination and perception hold the same place as thought; for all of these involve discernment, while they differ in ways that have been stated elsewhere" (On the Movement of Animals 6.700b17-22).

The Simplest form of Practical Cognition

In some animals, there are only perceptions tied to desires and to behaviors to satisfy these desires.

In the History of Animals V.16.548b10-16, Aristotle reports that it is thought that sponges are animals and that they have a capacity for perception only in the form of touch. This perception is a stimulus for a certain behavior. The sponge is capable of controlling its behavior in one way: it contracts when it is touched. The sponge dislikes being touched. It finds being touched painful, and when it is touched, it flees in the only way open to it. This behavior is supposed to be conducive to the sponge's survival because this behavior helps prevent it from being dislodged from the place it is attached.

"Furthermore, perception is invariably present in animals, but not imagination (φαντασία). If they were the same in actuality, then it would be possible for all animals to have imagination; but it does not seem to be so: ants and bees, for instance have imagination, while grubs do not" (On the Soul III.3.428a8-11).

A More Complicated form of Practical Cognition

In other animals, the possible forms of behavior are much more complicated.

In the Nicomachean Ethics III.10, Aristotle gives the example of a dog that chases down a hare. The dog is hungry. The dog perceives the hare by catching its scent, and this causes the dog to form the desire to eat the hare. The dog must represent the state of affairs that is the object of this desire. Perception alone is not enough to account for this representation. Perception allows the dog to perceive the current state of its environment, but it needs to be able to envisage the prospective state of affairs of itself eating the hare. Aristotle thought that "imagination" (φαντασία) is vehicle that allows the dog represents this prospective states of affairs. His idea seems to be that the dog has eaten a hare in the past and that the dog remembers this state of affairs as pleasant. Because the dog is hungry, the scent of the hare triggers in the dog an image of the dog eating a hare. This image functions as the desire whose object is the state of affairs of the dog eating the hare. With the goal in mind in this way, the dog needs to act so as to achieve the goal. Unlike the sponge, the dog can act in many different ways. So it needs something like a plan so that its actions result in it catching and eating the hare. Aristotle's idea seems to be that "imagination" (φαντασία) is also the vehicle that allows the dog forms the plan. The dog has chased down hares and eaten them in the past, and the dog remembers this sequence of events. The desire to eat the hare triggers in the dog an image of the dog chasing down the hare. This image, in turn, moves the dog to chase down the hare and to eat it.

The Most Complicated form of Practical Cognition

In some animals, there is the form of cognition Aristotle calls "experience" (ἐμπειρία).

These animals who have acquired "experience" (ἐμπειρία) are better at discriminating among things in their environment in ways that benefit themselves. Aristotle illustrates the point with an example involving a medical practitioner who is more successful than the layman in treating certain diseases, but It is clear that Aristotle thinks that a less developed version of this cognitive ability is present in some non-human animals. As an example, consider an older dog who has chased down many hares over a long period of time. This dog may have gained "experience" (ἐμπειρία) with respect to the scent of the hare and its hiding place. This would allow the older dog to react to the scent in a more nuanced way and thus would make it a more successful hunter.

"Animals are by nature born with perception (αἴσθησιν), and from this some come to have memory (μνήμη), whereas others do not. The former are more sensible (φρονιμώτερα) and capable of learning than those which cannot remember. ... The other animals live by impressions (φαντασίαις) and memories, and have but a [comparatively] small share of experience (ἐμπειρίας), but the human race lives also by art and reasoning (τέχνῃ καὶ λογισμοῖς). It is from memory that men acquire experience" (Metaphysics I.1.980a).

Reason in Human Beings

The part of the soul with reason divides into two parts. The first is the ἐπιστημονικὸν. This part has "knowledge" (ἐπιστήμη).

"Knowledge" (ἐπιστήμη) is a "demonstrative state" (ἕξις ἀποδεικτική). It issues in demonstrations. A "demonstration" (ἀπόδειξις) is a certain kind of deductive argument. The premises and conclusion in a demonstration are necessary truths. Furthermore, and most significantly, the knowledge involved in demonstration is explanatory.

"A deduction (συλλογισμός) is discourse in which, certain things having been supposed, something different from those supposed results of necessity because of their being so" (Prior Analytics I.2.24b18–20).

We think we know a thing without qualification, and not in the sophistic, accidental way, whenever we think we know the cause in virtue of which something is—that it is the cause of that very thing—and also know that this cannot be otherwise. Clearly, knowledge is something of this sort" (Posterior Analytics I.71b9–13) "Since what is known without qualification cannot be otherwise, what is known by demonstrative knowledge will be necessary" (Posterior Analytics I.73a21-23). "We have found that demonstrative knowledge is derived from necessary starting-points (since what is known cannot be otherwise) and that what belongs to things in their own right is necessary" (Posterior Analytics I.74b5-7).

"Knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) is a demonstrative state (ἕξις ἀποδεικτική)" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.3.1139b). "Knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) is supposition (ὑπόληψις) about universals (καθόλου), things that are by necessity. Further, everything demonstrable and every science has origins, since knowledge involves reason (λόγου)" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.6.1140b).

To understand how the knowledge involved in demonstration is explanatory, Aristotle's example of the medical practitioner is helpful.

As a matter of "experience" (ἐμπειρία), the practitioner forms the generalization that patients who look a certain way respond to a certain treatment. This does not suffice for "knowledge" (ἐπιστήμη) because the practitioner does not grasp the universal feature that distinguishes those who benefit from the disease from those who do not benefit. Having a phlegmatic condition is the example of such a feature that Aristotle himself cites. His view is that only by grasping such a feature can a human being form more than the empirical generalization and thus have the knowledge in the judgment that all patients characterized by the feature will benefit from the treatment. The universal is part of the account of why the patients benefit. There is a necessary and hence universal connection between patients of the kind and benefiting from the treatment, and Aristotle thinks that this connection explains why the treatment is successful for patients with the disease.

"Whereas the other animals live by impressions and memories, and have but a ([comparatively] small share of experience, the human race lives also by art and reasoning (τέχνῃ καὶ λογισμοῖς). ... Experience seems very similar to science and art, but actually it is through experience that men acquire science and art (ἐπιστήμη καὶ τέχνη). ... Art is produced when from many notions of experience a single universal (καθόλου) judgment is formed with regard to like objects. To have a judgment that when Callias was suffering from this or that disease this or that benefited him, and similarly with Socrates and various other individuals, is a matter of experience; but to judge that it benefits all persons of a certain type, considered as a class, who suffer from this or that disease (e.g. the phlegmatic or bilious when suffering from burning fever) is a matter of art. ... We consider that knowledge and proficiency belong to art rather than to experience. .... Men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know the why, while the others know the why and the cause (οἱ μὲν γὰρ ἔμπειροι τὸ ὅτι μὲν ἴσασι, διότι δ᾽ οὐκ ἴσασιν: οἱ δὲ τὸ διότι καὶ τὴν αἰτίαν γνωρίζουσιν)" (Metaphysics I.1.980b25-981a30).

"We consider that knowledge and proficiency belong to art (τέχνῃ) rather than to experience (ἐμπειρίας), and we assume that artists [= those with τέχνῃ] are wiser than men of mere experience (which implies that in all cases wisdom depends rather upon knowledge);and this is because the former know the cause (αἰτίαν), whereas the latter do not. For the experienced know the fact, but not the why but the artists know the why and the cause. For the same reason we consider that the master craftsmen in every profession are more estimable and know more and are wiser than the practitioners, because they know the causes of the things which are done. We think that the practitioners, like certain inanimate objects, do things, but without knowing what they are doing (as, for instance, fire burns); only whereas inanimate objects do each of these things through a certain nature, practitioners do theirs through habit (ἔθος). Thus the master craftsmen are superior in wisdom, not because they can do things, but because they possess a theory (λόγον) and know the causes" (Metaphysics I.1.981a-b).

Knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) and Intellect (νοῦς)

The cognition in a demonstration is "knowledge" (ἐπιστήμη). The cognition that grasps the starting-points for demonstration is "intellect" (νοῦς).

A wise human being must not only know what is derived from the origins of a science, but must also grasp the truth about the origins. Wisdom is intellect (νοῦς) plus knowledge (ἐπιστήμη)" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.7.1141a17-19). "What we have said shows that wisdom (σοφία) is both knowledge and intellect about what is by nature most honorable" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.7.1141b2-3).

"It is clear that we must get to know (γνωρίζειν) the firsts by induction; for perception implants the universal (καθόλου). Now of the thinking states by which we grasp truth, some are always true, others admit of error. Belief (δόξα) and reasoning (λογισμός) admit error, whereas knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) and intellect (νοῦς) are always true. No kind other than intuition is more precise than knowledge, whereas starting-points of demonstrations are more knowable, and all knowledge involves an account, there will not be knowledge of the starting-points, and since except intellect nothing can be truer than knowledge, it will be intellect that apprehends the starting-points" (Posterior Analytics II.19.100b3-12).

It is not straightforward to translate ἐπιστήμη and νοῦς in Aristotle's theory of the soul, and the translation as "knowledge" and "intellect" requires some explanation.

Aristotle is part of the ancient philosophical tradition that distinguishes "reason" from "experience." This distinction first appears in a relatively indeterminate form. Parmenides gives an example of "reason." He argues that nothing comes into or goes out of existence. Further, he associates "experience" with perception broadly speaking. Parmenides does not set out the distinction any more precisely, but his view turned out to be influential. The way he champions "reason" over "experience" in connection with what exists became a central part of the subsequent philosophical tradition. It became part of this tradition that for understanding things, as opposed to just getting on in life, "reason" as opposed than "experience" is the correct form of cognition. It later became part of this same tradition, under the influence of Socrates and Plato, and also Aristotle, that "reason" is a form of cognition that that makes human beings into the distinctive kind of beings they are.

The philosophical project is to clarify "reason" and "experience" and the way these forms of cognition make human beings into the kind psychological beings they are.

Aristotle's discussion of the soul is part of this philosophical project. He thought that the form of cognition specific to the "intellect" (νοῦς) is "thinking" (νοεῖν) and that "thinking" is a form of "discrimination" (κρίσις). As Aristotle understands this aspect of reason, the "intellect" recognizes the universals that are the starting-points for demonstration.

"There are two things that most define the soul: movement in respect of place and intellect (νοεῖν), sensibleness (φρονεῖν), and perception (αἰσθάνεσθαι). Intellect and sensibleness are regarded as a kind of perception (for in both the soul discriminates (κρίνει) and is cognizant (γνωρίζει) of something). Indeed the ancients go so far as to say that sensibleness and perception are the same. ... But it is apparent that sensibleness and perception is not the same, for perception is in all the animals and sensibleness only in some. Further, perception is distinct from intellect. In intellect we find rightness and wrongness. We find rightness in sensibleness, knowledge (ἐπιστήμη), true belief (δόξα ἀληθής), and we find wrongness in their opposites. But perception of the special objects of sense is always true, and is found in all animals, and while it is possible to think falsely, intellect is found only where there is reason (λόγος) (On the Soul III.3.427a17-427b14).

Further, since Aristotle seems to hold that the "intellect" does not grasp the universals one by one in isolation, this "thinking" does not take place without the advent of "knowledge" (ἐπιστήμη) and thus the possession of demonstrations that exhibit necessary connections between universals. The knowledge that comes with this "thinking" is an essential part of reason.

The Life of Contemplation (θεωρία) is the Best Life

Aristotle argues that happiness is not found in the pastimes by which we amuse ourselves. We amuse ourselves to relax, and we relax to prepare for the serious activity of living a good life (Nicomachean Ethics X.6.1176b). This, according to Aristotle, is a life in accordance with certain virtues, and the life in which the best thing in a human being is in accordance with its proper virtue is the best life. Aristotle says that the best thing in a human being is "intellect" (νοῦς) and that the activity that expresses virtue of the "intellect" is "contemplation" (θεωρία).

"We all suppose that the gods are alive and in work, since surely they are not asleep like Endymion [who, in myth, is said to have chosen eternal sleep so that he would exist forever]. And if someone is alive, and action is excluded, and production even more, nothing is left but contemplation (θεωρία). Hence the actuality of the gods that is superior in blessedness is contemplation (τοῦ θεοῦ ἐνέργεια, μακαριότητι διαφέρουσα, θεωρητικὴ ἂν εἴη). The human actuality most akin to this is the nature of happiness (εὐδαιμονίας). An indication is that other animals have no happiness, being completely deprived of contemplation. The whole life of the gods is blessed, and human life is blessed to the extent that it resembles this sort of actuality, but none of the other animals is happy because none shares in contemplation at all. Happiness extends just so far as contemplation, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not accidentally, but according to contemplation. Contemplation is valuable according to itself. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation (εὐδαιμονία θεωρία τις)" (Nicomachean Ethics X.8.1178b18-32).

(The Greek word θεωρία means generally something along the lines of "a looking at, viewing, or beholding." It transliterates as theoria and is the etymological root of the word theory. In philosophical contexts in Plato and Aristotle, it is traditionally translated as contemplation. This practice derives from the use of the Latin contemplatio to translate θεωρία in Plato and Aristotle.)

The argument is based on the premise (familiar from the similar argument in Plato's Republic) that what is proper to a thing is most pleasant for it.

"What is proper (οἰκεῖον) to the nature (φύσει) of each is supremely best and pleasantest for it, and hence the life of the intellect (ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος) is the best and the pleasantest life for man, inasmuch as the intellect more than anything else is man (ἄνθρωπος). Therefore this life will be the happiest" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1178a).

Even given this premise, it is not clear that the conclusion follows. Aristotle thinks that "contemplation" (θεωρία) makes a substantial contribution to "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία). This much is clear, but Aristotle does not explain how this contribution is weighed in comparison with other things traditionally thought to contribute to or detract from happiness.

Practical Cognition in Human Beings

Aristotle thought practical cognition in human beings and in animals is different. He thought that reason distinguishes human beings from animals and that the human soul has rational and nonrational desires. (The nonrational desires are "spirit" and "appetite." The rational desire is "wish.") This allows human beings to have a form of motivation not available to animals.

Wish (βούλησις), Deliberation (βούλευσις), and Choice (προαίρεσις)

"Wish (βούλησιςis) is found in the reasoning part (λογιστικῷ) and appetite and spirit in the the part without reason (ἐν τῷ ἀλόγῳ ἡ ἐπιθυμία καὶ ὁ θυμός)" (On the Soul III.9. 432b5-6).

"It is apparent that these two produce movement, desire (ὄρεξις) or intellect (νοῦς), if we set down that imagination (φαντασίαν) as a kind of intellect; for many follow their imaginations against their knowledge (ἐπιστήμην), and in the other animals intellect and reasoning do not exist (οὐ νόησις οὐδὲ λογισμὸς ἔστιν), although imagination does. So both can produce movement in respect of place, intellect and desire, but intellect in which there is reasoning for the sake of something is practical (πρακτικός); and it differs from the theoretical (θεωρητικοῦ) in respect of the end. Every desire too is for the sake of something; or the object of desire is the starting-point for practical intellect (πρακτικοῦ νοῦ), and the final step is the starting-point for action" (On the Soul III.10.433a9-17).

Aristotle thought that when a human being makes a "choice," his motivation is a form of "wish" (βούλησις). Wish is a desire for what one believes is good in the circumstances. "Deliberation" (βούλευσις) is thinking about what to do to bring about this wished for end. When a human being settles on a means, he has made a "choice" (προαίρεσις).

"Choice will be a deliberate desire of things up to us; for we when we judge from deliberation, our desire is according to our wish (ἡ προαίρεσις ἂν εἴη βουλευτικὴ ὄρεξις τῶν ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν: ἐκ τοῦ βουλεύσασθαι γὰρ κρίναντες ὀρεγόμεθα κατὰ τὴν βούλευσιν)" (Nicomachean Ethics III.3.1113a10-12).

Choice stems from a Wish for something that is Up to Us

Aristotle thought that choice "voluntary" because it is a wish for something in our power, but the use of the word 'voluntary' here can be misleading. The Latin noun voluntas is from the verb volo, which means "I wish." This is why βούλησις is translated into English as "wish" in Aristotle's discussions of the desire that belongs to reason. Aristotle, however, did not think that everything a human being does of his own accord is motivated by wish. He thought that a human beings can, of his own accord, do something because he is motivated by the nonrational desires "appetite" and "spirit."

(This ancient understanding of what it is for an action to be voluntary shows itself in modern philosophical dicussions. So, for example, in the "Tue Dec 16, 2014" entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for "Voluntary Euthanasia," the author offers the following analysis of instances of euthanasia that are not voluntary: "[t]here will be occasion to mention non-voluntary euthanasia — instances of euthanasia where a person is either not competent, or unable, at the time to express a wish about euthanasia and has not previously expressed a wish for it....")

"What comes about by force or because of ignorance seems to be ἀκούσια. What is forced has an external origin, the sort of origin in which the agent or victim contributes nothing--if, e.g., a wind or human beings who control him were to carry him off" (Nicomachean Ethics III.1.1109b35-1110a1). "What is ἑκούσιον seems to be what has its origin in the agent himself when he knows the particulars that the action consists in" (Nicomachean Ethics III.2.1110a22-24).

"Choice (προαίρεσις) is something someone does of his own accord (ἑκούσιον). But they are not the same, the latter being the wider. Children and animals as well as men are capable of their own accord (ἑκουσίου), but they are not capable of choice" (Nicomachean Ethics III.2.1111b6-9). "Choice is not a wish (βούλησίς), though they appear closely akin. .... We wish for ends, but choose the means to our end; for example we wish to be healthy, but choose things to make us healthy.... In general, choice is concerned with things that are up to us (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν)" (Nicomachean Ethics III.2.1111b19-30). "It is preceded by consideration (προβεβουλευμένον), since choice involves reasoning and some process of thought (προαίρεσις μετὰ λόγου καὶ διανοίας)" (Nicomachean Ethics.III.2.1112a15-16). "We deliberate about things that are up to us and practical (βουλευόμεθα δὲ περὶ τῶν ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν καὶ πρακτῶν)" (Nicomachean Ethics III.3.1112a30-33).

What is Up to Us (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν)

Now in fact [the captain] does it of his own accord (ἑκών); for in these sorts of actions he has within him the origin (ἀρχὴ) of the movements of the limbs that are the instruments of the action, and when the origin of an action is in oneself, it is up to us to do it or not (ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ πράττειν καὶ μή). Such acts are of our own accord" (Nicomachean Ethics III.1110a).

Aristotle is considering the case of a ship captain who tosses cargo overboard in a storm to save his life and the lives of the crew. He does not mean that the captain chooses to toss the cargo overboard but could have chosen or decided otherwise. The point is that it is in his power to do it or not do it.

What things are up to us and in our power to do or not do?

"No one deliberates (βουλεύεται) about eternal things, about the cosmos or about the incommensurability of the sides and the diagonal; nor about things that are in movement but always come about the same way, either from necessity or by nature or by some other cause, the solstices or the rising of the stars; nor about what happens different ways at different times, droughts and rains; nor about what results from fortune, e.g., the finding of treasure. We deliberate about the actions that are up to us (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν), about the actions we can do; and this is what is left. For causes seem to include nature, necessity and fortune, but besides them mind and everything through human agency. However, we do not deliberate about all human affairs. No Spartan deliberates about how the Scythians might have the best political system. Rather, each group of human beings deliberates about the the actions they can do" (Nicomachean Ethics III.3.1112a).

Aristotle thinks that what is "up to us" are the things not settled independently of us. In his example, it is not the business of the Spartans to determine the right constitution for the Scythians. That is up to the Scythians to decide (as long as no one has power over them). Similarly there is nothing anyone can do about the order in the world or that fact that 2 + 2 = 4. These things are settled by necessity.

Lack of Control (ἀκρασία)

Socrates thought that "lack of control" (ἀκρασία) was impossible, but Aristotle follows Plato against Socrates. Plato and Aristotle think that not all desires stem from reason. These nonrational desires can interfere with reason. For example, someone might have developed a habit of eating sweet foods. In a given circumstance, he might know that a certain food is the right one to eat but instead be overpowered by his desire for sweet food. To explain how this happens, Aristotle suggests that the nonrational desires interfere with reason and temporarily render the knowledge ineffective.

"The continent is the one who abides by his rational calculation (λογισμῷ), and the incontinent is one who abandons it. The incontinent person knows that his actions are base, but does them because of his feeling (πάθος), while the continent person knows that his appetites are base, but because of reason (λόγον) does not follow them" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.1.1145b10-14).

"We speak of knowing (ἐπίστασθαι) in two ways, and ascribe it both to someone who has it without using it and to someone who is using it. Hence it will matter whether someone has the knowledge that his action is wrong, without attending to his knowledge, or both has it and attends to it. For this second case seems extraordinary (δεινόν), but wrong action when he does not attend to his knowledge does not seem so" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.3.1146b31-36). "Some people, e.g., those asleep or mad or drunk, both have knowledge in a way and do not have it. Moreover, this is the condition of those with passions (πάθεσιν). For anger and sexual appetite and some conditions of this sort disturb the body, and even produce fits of madness in some people. It is clear that we should say that incontinents (ἀκρατεῖς) have knowledge in a way similar to these people" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.3.1147a13-18).

"Spirit (θυμὸς) ... is like over-hasty servants who run out before they have heard all their instructions, and them carry them out wrongly, or dogs who bark at any noise at all, before investigating to see if it is a friend. In the same way, since spirit is naturally hot and hasty, it hears, but does not the hear the instruction, and rushes off to exact penalty. For reason (λόγος) or appearance (φαντασία) has shown that we are being slighted or wantonly insulted, and spirit, as though it had inferred that is right to fight this sort of thing, is irritated at once. Appetite (ἐπιθυμία), however, only needs reason or perception (αἴσθησις) to say that this is pleasant, and it rushes off for gratification" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.6.1149a25-1149b1).

The Virtues of Character

In someone with the virtues of character, the part of his soul that (according to Aristotle) does not have reason strictly speaking (but is capable of "obeying" reason) has developed dispositions to act in certain ways in the circumstances. A human being who is brave, for example, is disposed to act in appropriate ways with respect to situations that are frightening. He is not overcome by fear or excessive confidence, and he does what is appropriate in the situation. "Whoever stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time, and is correspondingly confident, is brave. The actions and feelings of a brave human being reflect what something is worth and what reason prescribes" (Nicomachean Ethics III.7.1115b17-19). He recognizes that the situation is frightening, but he nevertheless has appropriate nonrational desires ("appetite" and "spirit") and acts in appropriate ways to achieve the objects of these desires.

How do human beings acquire the virtues of character?

Aristotle thought that human beings become virtuous by acting in imitation of the ways the virtuous would act in the situation. This imitative behavior is a type of habituation. It trains the part of the soul that obeys reason (the part with "appetite" and "spirit") so that it is disposed to result in appropriate behavior in the circumstances.

"The nutritive part shares in reason (λόγου) not at all, the part with appetites (ἐπιθυμητικὸν ) and in general desires (ὀρεκτικὸν) shares in reason in a way, in so far as it both listens to reason and obeys it. It listens in the way in which we are said to listen to reason from father or friends, not in the way in which we give reason in mathematics. The part without reason (ἄλογον) also obeys and is persuaded in some way by reason, as is shown by chastening, and by every sort of reproof and exhortation. ... [The part with reason has] two parts, one has authority in itself, and the other that has it by listening to reason as to a father. The distinction between virtues also reflects this difference. We says that some virtues are virtues of thought (διανοητικὰς) and that others are virtues of character (ἠθικάς). Wisdom (σοφίαν), quick comprehension, and practical wisdom (φρόνησιν) are virtues of thought. Generosity and temperance are virtues of character" (Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1102b29-1103a7).

"Virtue (ἀρετῆς), then, is of two sorts, virtue of thought and virute of character. Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching... Virtue of character results from habit (ἔθους)" (Nicomachean Ethics II.1.1103a14-18).

"A state of character arises from the repetition of similar activities. Hence we must display the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states. It is not unimportant, then, to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth; rather, it is very important, indeed all-important" (Nicomachean Ethics II.1.1103b21-25).

Practical Wisdom (φρόνησις)

In the context of Aristotle's ethics, 'practical wisdom' is a traditional translation of φρόνησις.

To understand the reason for this translation, it helps first to place Aristotle in relation to Plato. Plato seems to have thought that the soul is reason and that it exists both before and after its time in the body. In this way, the soul has two concerns. Its own concern is "contemplation" (θεωρία), but because it is temporarily in the body, it has to take on the practical problems associate with life in the body. The solution to this problem is take control of the body and live in a way that in which the soul is to the extent possible like its existence outside the body and in "contemplation" (θεωρία).

Aristotle does not have this Platonic understanding of the soul and its relation to the body, but he thinks that reason focuses on two kinds of matters. That which can be otherwise is the focus of the part of the soul with reason that Aristotle calls the λογιστικόν. This part of the soul figures out how to bring about the good.

"We said that there are two parts of the soul, one that has reason [which we divided into a part that has reason strictly speaking and a part that is capable of listening to reason and being controlled by reason] and one that is without reason. Now we should divide in the same way the part that has reason. Let us assume there are two parts of that have reason (λόγον), one with which we consider (θεωροῦμεν) beings whose origins do not admit of being otherwise, and one with which we consider beings whose origin admit of being otherwise. For when the beings are of different kinds, the parts of the soul naturally suited to each of them are also of different kinds, since the parts possess awareness (γνῶσις) by being somehow similar and appropriate to their objects. Let us call one of these parts the part for knowledge (ἐπιστημονικὸν), and the other the part for reasoning (λογιστικόν), since deliberating (βουλεύεσθαι) is the same as reasoning, and no one deliberates about what cannot be otherwise. Hence the reasoning part is one part of the soul that has reason. Hence we should find the best state of each part, for this is the virtue (ἀρετὴ) of each of them" (Nicomachean Ethics V1.2.1139a).

"[Practical wisdom (φρόνησιν)] is a state of reason (λόγου) attaining truth in relation to things that are good and bad for human beings" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.5.1140b5-6).

"Of the two parts of the soul that have reason (λόγον), practical wisdom (φρόνησις) is a virtue of one of them, of the part that has belief (δοξαστικοῦ); for belief is concerned, as practical wisdom is, with what admits of being otherwise" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.5.1140b25-28).

A human being who has "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις) has the virtues of character. He wishes for the right things in the circumstances, deliberates correctly about how to bring about these wished for ends, and has the part of his soul that obeys reason under control so that he acts in accordance with his reason.

"Virtue is a state relating to choice (ἔστιν ἄρα ἡ ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική)" (Nicomachean Ethics II.6.1106b36).

"It is not possible to be good properly speaking without practical wisdom (φρονήσεως), nor to have practical wisdom without virtue of character (ἠθικῆς ἀρετῆς)" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.13.1144b31-32).

Someone is not practically wise (φρόνιμος) simply by knowing (εἰδέναι); he must also act on his knowledge" (Nicomachean Ethics 1152a8-9).

The Life of Practical Wisdom is the Second Best Life

The second best form of the life of reason is the life of "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις). Practical wisdom is the activity that expresses the virtue of "choice" (προαίρεσις). Choice is the form of reason that is the origin of movement proper to human beings, but it is not reason without qualification. "Choice is intellect combined with desire or desire combined with intellect, and this sort of starting point belongs to man (ἢ ὀρεκτικὸς νοῦς ἡ προαίρεσις ἢ ὄρεξις διανοητική, καὶ ἡ τοιαύτη ἀρχὴ ἄνθρωπος)" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.2.1139b).

"That which is proper (οἰκεῖον) to each thing is by nature (φύσει) the best and the most pleasant for it. For man this the life according to intellect (ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος), if this [the intellect] more than anything else is man (εἴπερ τοῦτο μάλιστα ἄνθρωπος). This life therefore is also the happiest (εὐδαιμονέστατος). But the life according to the other kind of virtue is happiest secondarily (δευτέρως δ᾽ ὁ κατὰ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετήν) because the actualities in accordance with this are human (αἱ γὰρ κατὰ ταύτην ἐνέργειαι ἀνθρωπικαί). We display justice, courage, and the other virtues, in our intercourse with our fellows... and in our emotions (πάθεσι), and all of these things seem to be purely human affairs" (Nichomachean Ethics X.8.1178a5-8).

Two forms of Happiness and the Good Life

Why is the life of practical wisdom secondary in happiness to the life of theoretical wisdom and contemplation?

One possibility is that practical reason is a less pure exercise of "intellect" (νοῦς) and "thinking" (νοεῖν) and so is less an exercise of the divine part of the human function. Just what makes this true is not completely clear, but the idea seems to be that practical reason involves desire and knowledge of particulars whereas "intellect" (νοῦς) and "thinking" (νοεῖν) strictly is about universals only.

"Practical wisdom (φρόνησις) is not about universals (καθόλου) only. It must also come to know particulars, since it is concerned with action and action is about particulars. Hence in other areas also some people who lack knowledge but have experience (ἔμπειροι) are better in action than others who have knowledge. For someone who knows that light meats are digestble and healthy, but not which sort of meats are light, will not produce health; the one who knows that bird meats are healthy will be better a producing health" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.7.1141b14-21).

"Practically wise (φρόνιμος) young people do not seem to exist. The reason is that practical wisdom is concerned with particulars, and this comes to be known from experience (ἐμπειρίας), but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.8.1142a14-16).