29 April 2006

My Accomplishment Consists in This, That I Am Aware That I Lack Accomplishment

From what has been said, then, it is clear that intellectual accomplishment is a combination of systematic knowledge and intelligence, with the things that are highest by nature as its objects.
I don't imagine anyone could guess in advance that this sentence was about sophia. It's a translation of Nic. Eth. 6.8 1141b2-3. e0k dh_ tw~n ei0rhme/nwn dh~lon o3ti h( sofi/a e0sti\ kai\ e0pisth&mh kai\ nou~j tw~n timiwta&twn th|~ fu&sei. (And 'highest' is an undertranslation, to be sure.)

And consider this one, the sentence that follows:
That is why people call Anaxagoras and Thales and people of that sort 'accomplished', but not 'wise', when they see them lacking a grasp of what is to their own advantage; and they say that people like that know things that are exceptional, wonderful, difficult, even superhuman--but useless, because what they inquire into are not the goods that are human. It is wisdom that has to do with things human.
This is almost unintelligible and fails dramatically to convey Aristotle's sense-- "Ah, there goes Thales again, falling into a well. That's what happens when you are accomplished but lack any wisdom."

I take both of these sentences from Rowe and Broadie, who render sophia as 'intellectual accomplishment' and phronesis as 'wisdom.' Their treatment of the intellectual virtues, as a result, becomes so confusing that I can hardly recommend their translation, even if in other respects it may be the best available.


Ben Miller said...

What translation would do you prefer then? Because it seems to me that phronesis really needs to be translated as wisdom, which means that sophia obviously cannot be translated that way. What I'm thinking of here is Irwin's translation of phronesis as prudence which seems to me to go too afar from our normal usage of wisdom--which generally relates to practical matters and  mostly to ethics. How then, should sophia be translated? 

Posted by Ben Miller

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Ben,

Why do you object to Irwin's 'prudence'? And on what grounds do you think phronesis should be rendered 'wisdom'?

Briefly, the approach I prefer in these things is that a language needs to be reclaimed. We should give some weight, but not too much, to 'what people in general think', or how things strike us originally. (Is there much agreement, after all, about what sort of thing wisdom is? And how was the sense of the average person shaped?) What is at issue, I think, is whether we can come to regard a certain kind of language as most fitting and appropriate.

In other cases, our usage needs to be educated and become deeper.

Thus I favor 'virtue' for arete rather than 'excellence'. And I would wish to render eudaimonia as 'happiness', but use an account such as Aristotle's to educate us in what we mean by 'happiness'. It's not inevitable that we think of it as a subjective mood.


Thornton said...

Why translate them at all? Phronesis in Aristotle means something different than it does in Plato or ordinary Greek usage, and certainly something distinct from what the tradition later called "prudence." And although Aristotle's use of the term sophia is in line with the Socratic legacy of philosophia (or the notion of the seven sages or even in a way with that of the sophists), looking for a different word with which to translate it seems to require more effort than the explanatory footnote a translator could append explaining why he or she chooses to transliterate the word. If we need no translation for the terms "sophist" or philosophy(although plenty of explanation to arrive at what they signify historically and philosophically), why do we need one for the term sophia?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Thornton,

I don't know about your general point, that transliteration should be used more widely than it is, rather than translation.

But as to sophia: It seems likely to me that Aristotle in Nic. Eth. means the same thing by it as he does in the Metaphysics, and there he definitely does wish to connect his usage to ordinary usage, since he claims, in effect, that there is a reason why people use the word sophia as they do, and that what he counts as sophia is the best candidate for corresponding to this.

I suspect a similar line of thought could be attempted even today, for 'wisdom'.


Ben Miller said...

Hi Micheal,

Since I'm by no means a scholar--yet--I guess I'll just have to appeal to my intuitions and sense of what works better. In the Irwin translation I totally missed much of what I should have gotten out of (book VI especially) the discussion of sophia and phronesis. If we want to make ethics practical--as I want to--we need to prevent ourselves from being totally removed from the way we normally speak. In this way I think practical wisdom or wisdom fit the bill for phronesis much better than prudence. To me prudence implies a simply choosing between, and from my understanding this is not why phronesis is. On the other hand, the everyday usage of wisdom does fit the bill--much better than it fits sophia.

Admittedly, I'm just beginning to sink my teeth into Aristotle in the way that I'd like to, but I feel that the Broadie and Rowe translation has really helped me get a "truer" view of what Aristotle is saying than the Irwin translation. (Of course, part of this may be due to the fact that Irwin has little in the way of introducing the terms he uses and why he uses them, while in that respect Broadie's introduction is excellent in my view.

But as you say, perhaps I'm putting too much weight on what we usually say and how we use the words in everyday speak. Do you have a view on the Crisp version? I have yet to take a look at it, but I've been told it has quite a number of virtues. 

Posted by Ben Miller

Michael Pakaluk said...


I like Crisp, although there are some strange things about it.

As I said, generally I think Rowe and Broadie are excellent. But I'm almost prepared to go back to recommending Ross above all, because of what I see as the obscurity of their translation of the intellectual virtues.

I think 'practical wisdom' is fine for phronesis. But it's difficult to find one word that captures its sense in different context. Sometimes it means 'good judgment' or 'good sense'; sometimes 'administrative ability'.

I'm not sure what the 'everyday usage of wisdom' is. How could we determine that?


Bill Wians said...

An interesting discussion. I agree, Michael, with your suspicion of the rather deflationary translation of Rowe and Broadie in the case of sophia. As for an everyday usage of wisdom, it seems to me that this is exactly what Aristotle begins with in NE VI.7, before going on to his preferred sense. He gives two examples. Sophia is what 'we' ascribe to the most accomplished exponents in a field, e.g. Phidias and Polyclitus. And we also ascribe wisdom in general to a person--here he cites ps-Homer's Margites. These endoxa show that wisdom is somehow akribestate. But they fail to capture what Aristotle insists on: that wisdom most properly understood is an achieved knowledge of the most honorable or worthiest objects. And that is what 'intellectual accomplishment' also fails to capture.

Posted by Bill Wians

Michael Pakaluk said...


Well put. I agree with you entirely.