08 September 2006

A Complaint, A Question, and a Quibble

Just small points this morning-- a complaint, a question, and a quibble about Kraut's treatment of the famous NE passage on method. His essay is in general very good, but his discussion of this passage has been bothering me in small ways.

Here is Kraut's translation, followed by the Greek

One should, as one does in other cases, set out what seems to be the case [ta phainomena ] and, by first going through the puzzles [diapor─ôsantes], in this way prove, first and foremost, all of the reputable opinions [endoxa] about these ways of being affected [that is, about akrasia and other conditions of the soul], but if not all, then most, and the most authoritative; for if the difficulties are solved and the reputable opinions [endoxa] remain, adequate proof has been given (VII.1.1145b2-7).

dei= d', w(/sper e)pi\ tw=n a)/llwn, tiqe/ntaj ta\ faino/mena kai\ prw=ton diaporh/santaj ou(/tw deiknu/nai ma/lista me\n pa/nta ta\ e)/ndoca peri\ tau=ta ta\ pa/qh, ei) de\ mh/, ta\ plei=sta kai\ kuriw/tata: e)a\n ga\r lu/htai/ te ta\ dusxerh= kai\ katalei/phtai ta\ e)/ndoca, dedeigme/non a)\n ei)/h i(kanw=j.

A complaint.
Should we understand these remarks as universal or restricted? Does Aristotle take himself here to be giving a universal--indeed the only--method for philosophical inquiry, or a method that is to be used only in some circumstances?

The question is obviously not answered by the phrase 'as in other cases', because we do not know what the relevant class of comparison is (all cases whatsoever, cases like this one in some respect, etc.).

One would think that a commentator should be clear on this basic point, but Kraut seems not to be of one mind. On one page he says that Aristotle "takes himself to have a general method of establishing what is true--general in that it applies to many subjects, not just to ethics" (86); but on the very next page he says that "ethics must be judged by the same endoxic method used to prove truth in every other field" (87).

Of course 'many' does not exclude 'every' (and 'available for use in every field' would not imply that it is the only method available in any field); but when one glosses 'general' by 'many', the implicature is of 'not every'.

Most commentators presume that the method is meant to be the sole method, and a universal method, but there are reasons for denying that this is so; moreover, it would be strange for Aristotle to use so rarely a method that he regards as universal. (One of the truly valuable points about Bostock's book is his observation, in an appendix, that only a small fraction of the Ethics may rightly be described as conforming to that method.)

A question.
Do phainomena and endoxa mean the same thing in this passage? Of this Kraut says simply, "We can safely assume that in our NE VII.1 passage Aristotle uses his terms phainomena and endoxa to refer to the same things". But this seems arbitrary: Kraut gives no reasons.

It is perhaps natural to assume this. But to my mind there is a good reason against it, which is this: Aristotle clearly regards his setting out of the relevant phainomena as completed by the end of VII.1 ("These, then, are the things that are said",ta\ me\n ou)=n lego/mena tau=t' e)sti/n.). But later he then goes on to take into account, and attempt to reconcile, other views--such as Socrates' view that there is no such thing as akrasia, because knowledge cannot get dragged about by anything else. In fact Aristotle's procedure in VII suggests two tiers of relevant data: phainomena which are accepted outright (perhaps with qualifications, as in the couple of instances where there are conflicting reports), and endoxa which are more theoretical and which are 'handled' relative to the phainomena.

Of course you see how one would be more inclined to this reading insofar as one did not take the passage as describing a completely general method--because then the content that we give to the passage would hinge more directly on how Aristotle actually proceeds in the chapters that follow.

A quibble.
This concerns Kraut's explanation of 'most authoritative' (kuriw/tata). He says:
...what makes certain reputable opinions most authoritative (kuri┼Źtata)? When we look at what Aristotle's writings do, when they encounter conflicting reputable opinions that cannot be reconciled by the recognition of ambiguities, what we find is that he evaluates the strength of the arguments that can be found for and against conflicting options. For example: some say that pleasure is the good, but the arguments they use merely show that it is a good, not the good (NE X.2.1172b23-8). Aristotle does not say "this reputable opinion should be accepted and that one rejected because the first seems more plausible than the second". He does not appeal to some notion of intuitive plausibility. Rather, he argues for one position and against the other. So, for an endoxon to be "most authoritative" is simply for it to be the one that is best supported by argument. Its authority comes from the fact that it wins us over.
But I wonder if Kraut's interpretation of the word isn't being controlled by the overtones of the English, 'authoritative'--for we, as philosophers, like to contrast 'reasoned argument' with 'authority', and say that the only authority in philosophy is reasoned argument.

Yet this is not Aristotle's claim, I think. The Greek clearly does not have this sense, and kuriw/tata as 'more powerful' (viz. in argument) seems forced. Wouldn't it, rather, be natural to take kuriw/tata to mean something like (as we would say) 'more fundamental' ('more fully entrenched', 'more decisive for thought'). In which case Aristotle's claim would not be that we put arguments for the views against each other, head-to-head, as in a fist-fight, to see which one wins (And on what grounds? Are these arguments resting on the same premises or different ones? If different, how do we evaluate the different weight of these?), but rather that we should aim to hold onto the more fundamental view, and qualify or reject the more remote view--and there are many, many instances of his proceeding in this way in the corpus.