02 September 2006

Different, not Higher or Lower

When Aristotle says in NE I.4 that an educated person would no more demand demonstrations from a rhetorician than persuasive arguments from a mathematician, which of the following is he claiming:

1. Demonstration is a higher standard of argumentation and proof than persuasive argument, and it is always to be preferred when possible, but something less than this is to be accepted when (on account of the subject matter) demonstration is not possible.

2. Demonstration and persuasive argument are equally high standards of argumentation and proof. There is no sense in which one may be ranked higher than the other, because they differ in kind rather than in degree. Demonstration is appropriate to some disciplines, and persuasive argument to others.

Call the first methodological 'Elitism'; the second 'Egalitarianism'.

One might have thought that Aristotle was an Elitist, on the grounds that he says that mathematical inquiry is more 'precise' (akribes) than rhetorical argument, and (it seems) he is presuming that, when there is a choice, greater accuracy is preferable. (Shouldn't we always choose to be more precise, when we can be so?)

Yet Richard Kraut, in an excellent essay which is his contribution to the Blackwell anthology he has edited on the Nicomachean Ethics ("Aristotle's Method"), apparently opts for Egalitarianism. Kraut begins (p. 87) by acknowledging that Elitism at first looks like the correct interpretation of the passage:

It might nonetheless seem that Aristotle is, after all, downgrading the level of justification achievable by ethical inquiry because, soon after he notes that such matters seem to rest on convention alone, he insists that "we must be satisfied, in speaking about such matters and proceeding from them, to show [endeiknusthai] what is true roughly and in outline, and when discussing matters that hold for the most part, and proceeding from them, to arrive at conclusions of the same sort (NE I.3.1094b19-22).
But then Kraut insists that this would be a mistake, that Aristotle is defending Egalitarianism:
That might make it sound as though Aristotle ... is asking his audience to place lower intellectual demands on the arguments of ethical inquiry than those of other studies. But we should be careful here. Aristotle is not judging the credentials of ethics and other fields by applying to them all a single kind of measure or standard. On the contrary, he is asking us to have different expectations of different fields: not higher standards for some fields and lower standards for others, but different standards. An orator who addressed his audience by putting everything into the form of deductive arguments would fail miserably--he would be a worse orator, not a better one--but this does not mean that the intellectual standards by which oratory is to be assessed result from a lowering of the standards used elsewhere. Similarly, although ethics must be judged by the same endoxic method used to prove truths in every other field, we should recognize that it is a field in which some of what is shown to be true holds only for the most part.
You might be concerned, with me, that Kraut is failing to distinguish some very different considerations here: an argument's power to convince, its intellectual difficulty, its rigor.

Yet, even so, do you see the obvious objection to Kraut's interpretation--implicit in what Kraut says here--which, to my mind, quite undermines it?


papabear said...

Dr. Pakaluk,

Is a persuasive argument a form of dialectical argument? I'm not sure what the obvious objection is; but is the persuasion of a rhetorician the same as the ethical inquiry Kraut is speaking of? It seems to me (1) persuasion has a different function and aim from the ethical inquiry using dialectical arguments, a la the Nicomachean Ethics, and that (2) it is the latter that Kraut has in mind.

Anonymous said...

I haven't had time to work out whether it makes a difference, but the obvious antecedent to this passage is Tht 162E.

papabear said...

Not having all of the Rhetoric, I can't attribute this to Aristotle, but it seems to me that the rhetorician is not concerned with demonstration or with dialectical inquiry that reaches to first principles, precisely because he does not want to take the discussion to the level of first principles. If he is trying to persuade people of a position to adopt or an action to take, and he is aware that their first principles differ from his own, he recognizes that because the discussion is practical, he cannot go against appetite and he will be able to lead them to change their first principles. Hence, he tries to persuade them of the rightness of the action by appealing to some other basis which they admit or which would influence them.

Michael Pakaluk said...


It's commonly thought that Aristotle is rejecting in NE I.4 a Platonic view that if there is something like knowledge in ethics, it would be a deductive system and resemble geometry. Thaet. 162E (where a Protagorean objection is raised) suggests that the Platonist would see this an an alternative: either we produce a deductive system for ethics, or we must allow that Protagoras is correct--and Aristotle clearly rejects that alternative too in NE I.4.


Michael Pakaluk said...

The 'obvious objection' is that Kraut holds that, for Aristotle, disciplines are not 'higher' or 'lower' on the grounds that there is only one method of inquiry, the 'endoxic' method, which all disciplines must share. (The 'endoxic' method, described in NE VII.1, is that by which one first assembles reputable opinions (endoxa), then raises relevant difficulties, and then resolves the difficulities in a way that accounts for the reputable opinions.) But clearly (contra Kraut) not all disciplines rely on this objection--geometry certainly does not! Kraut fails to explain why, for Aristotle as well as for Plato, geometry would not be the ideal of rigor and knowledge.

papabear said...

Perhaps Kraut believes that geometry is unique, and that Aristotle's logic doesn't really apply to anything else.