20 April 2005

The Blurb

Besides two reviews of Gabriel Lear's book on the internet (in BMCR and NDPR), there is, of course, also the Blurb, which has a certain authority, because we know who really writes these:

Gabriel Richardson Lear presents a bold new approach to one of the enduring debates about Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: the controversy about whether it coherently argues that the best life for humans is one devoted to a single activity, namely philosophical contemplation. Many scholars oppose this reading because the bulk of the Ethics is devoted to various moral virtues--courage and generosity, for example--that are not in any obvious way either manifestations of philosophical contemplation or subordinated to it. They argue that Aristotle was inconsistent, and that we should not try to read the entire Ethics as an attempt to flesh out the notion that the best life aims at the "monistic good" of contemplation.

In defending the unity and coherence of the Ethics, Lear argues that, in Aristotle's view, we may act for the sake of an end not just by instrumentally bringing it about but also by approximating it. She then argues that, for Aristotle, the excellent rational activity of moral virtue is an approximation of theoretical contemplation.

Thus, the happiest person chooses moral virtue as an approximation of contemplation in practical life. Richardson Lear bolsters this interpretation by examining three moral virtues--courage, temperance, and greatness of soul--and the way they are fine. Elegantly written and rigorously argued, this is a major contribution to our understanding of a central issue in Aristotle's moral philosophy.

The Blurb is a strange genre in which one writes as an agent of the press, which is an agent of the author. It's the author's supposition of what the press would want to say on the author's behalf, if only it knew the book so well as the author.

This particular Blurb is especially useful as making it clear at once what the Main Thesis of the book is, and what we might expect the chief difficulties of that thesis to be.

The Main Thesis is that, according to Aristotle, courageous, moderate, and generous actions--and all actions of any virtue of character--are 'approximations' to philosophical contemplation; and that a virtuous person chooses them as such.

Some difficulties that immediately suggest themselves as regards this thesis:

1. It's not clear what approximation is. Is it a matter of similiarity or analogy? And do we want to say that actions of the moral virtues are similar (or analogous) to actions of contemplation, or that actions of the moral virtues are similar to objects of contemplation? If the former, then is the claim of 'approximation' anything other than the assertion that upright living is (in some unspecified sense) like contemplation? If the latter, then isn't the claim of 'approximation' really the claim that acts of contemplation (of sorts) can accompany actions of the moral virtues? But then those actions don't themselves approximate contemplation.

2. It's not clear whether approximation, however construed, is plausible as applied to particular cases. How would (say) standing firm in battle to hack down an enemy soldier as he rushes at you be an approximation of (say) pondering the divine blessedness of the First Cause?

3. It seems a puzzle why, if it were true and important for the argument of the Ethics, Aristotle (it seems) hardly says anything about it.

4. It's not clear how, even if true, recourse to approximation would solve the problems usually thought to affect a 'Dominant End' reading of the Ethics. For instance, if it's a difficulty, why, if one is single-mindedly devoted to contemplation, one should choose to perform morally virtuous actions, it seems to remain a difficulty, why one should choose to perform actions that only approximate contemplation. Or how would the fact that a just action approximates contemplation explain why someone should act justly, even when an unjust action would lead to many more opportunties for (strict, true, full) contemplation?


Anonymous said...

Isn't it the task of the rest of the book to defend the thesis? That is, are you not demanding a little much of a blurb? I think, especially, that the complaint that 'approximation' has not been well defined, would be a major complaint if it were made in response to the whole book rather than merely the blurb. Are we to understand that you are making it of the whole book, or merely of the thesis as announced in the blurb? It seems to me that a good portion of the book would need to be spent working out the details of what 'approximation' is, and so the fact that the blurb fails to tell us that is unsurprising.

Also, it seems to me to be rather quick to conclude from the blurb that virtuous people would engage in virtuous activities as approximations of contemplation. Though that seems like a candidate for a coherent consequence of Lear's thesis, it is by no means a necessary consequence of it. Why not see virtuous activity and its relationship to contemplation as a kind of good-for-itself-and-for-something-else relationship? Or why not see contemplation as the fullest form of eudaimonia, the real telos, for which virtuous activity is an approximation, but still choiceworthy in itself? Nothing about the blurb makes us conclude that virtuous people must choose virtuous activity because it approximates. It is, of course, one of the central questions one will want to take to the book, but you write here as though the blurb has failed us by leaving these questions unanswered, and, well, it's just a blurb.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm sorry for not stating clearly what I was doing!

I was aiming, in an Aristotelian spirit, to generate difficulties (aporiai) which I fully expect to get clearer about (luseis) in studying the book. I was not posing *objections* to the book, based on the blurb, which I agree would be ludicrous.

This seems to me a reasonable way of approaching any thesis or book--alert as to difficulties or problems.

I'm very sorry for giving the wrong impression about that.