04 November 2006

Functioning without Nature

I said in an earlier post that Broadie, in her Kraut volume contribution, discusses the Nicomachean Ethics as if there were no Function Argument. She speaks of "flourishing"--not, I am convinced, Aristotle's idea, as I have explained--and interprets eudaimonia in terms of that.

Now in the quotations I gave, you may see that she sometimes speaks of "living well" or "functioning well" instead of "flourishing", and, for her, the view that there are a variety of ostensible competitors for "flourishing" is the same as that there are a variety of ostensible competitors for "functioning well." She thinks that Aristotle has no real way out of this. She takes him simply to presume that there is only one way of flourishing or functioning, an approach which she calls "lost innocence", but which I would call begging the question, arguing in a circle, petitio principii (take your pick).

I should say that I doubt that there is any "lost innocence" in Aristotle, since there was no such innocence in Plato, and Aristotle follows Plato. One finds in Plato sufficiently clever and, in their own way, persuasive defenders of hedonism (Callicles), "the will to power"(Thrasymachus), and the ethic of glamour and the "cool" (Alcibiades). I would prefer to presume the presence in Aristotle--and there is textual evidence for this--of the (by then) standard objections and criticisms to these viewpoints, rather than imagine that Aristotle has somehow worked his way back into a state of innocence, perhaps by surrounding himself with students who thought just as he did, or, as Broadie puts it:

Aristotle and his audience, then, largely accept Aristotle's equation about flourishing as naturally and willingly as a carnivore accepts in a practical way the equation of food with flesh.
(I sigh when I read a sentence such as that, at the harm that Hume has done, of teaching us to accept psychological explanation as a replacement for reasoned justification: it is Hume's way to reply to "Why should we think this?" with "We do think it; that is all." But Hume is at least prepared to underwrite the latter by an appeal to human nature: "It is human nature to think this.")

This mention of human nature leads to another way of stating my dissatisfaction in Broadie's omitting any serious consideration of the Function Argument. One might alternatively put the point: she gives no weight to the Aristotelian idea, even in the interpretation of his philosophy, that there is a single, uniform, ergon for human beings, which we have by nature (and all that would be implied by that).

Of course, it would be perfectly understandable if she held that that sort of conception of nature is not something that "we" (i.e. those who hold to the dominant views in contemporary moral philosophy) can today endorse. But then, surely, that difference becomes one of the crucial differences that sets Aristotle apart from contemporary ethics, as Alasdair McIntyre rightly stressed in After Virtue.

And yet, Broadie's essay nowhere explores the differences that follow from the acceptance, or rejection, of an Aristotelian understanding of nature.


Fido the Yak said...

Pardon the intrusion, but I am interested in what the human being is "by nature" and all that implies according to Aristotle. Where's a good place to start? (Please don't say the beginning of the Metaphysics because that's what's troubling me--I don't know what Aristotle means by the phrase "by nature.") Any pointers would be much appreciated. Thank you.

Michael Pakaluk said...


The obvious place to start is NE I.7, which is related to Rep. I. But there's much more scattered throughout NE. I don't know that anyone's gathered it together in a single treatment.


Fido the Yak said...

The practical life? That section is to the point about "human nature," but I'm still curious about what Aristotle means when he says "nature," "naturally" or "the nature of things"--well, I have some inklings. According to the Perseus lookup tool there are 120 instances of "phusei" in the NE. Does he ever come out and define exactly what this nature thing means to him? Perhaps I'm missing something obvious. Anyway, thanks for the reference to NE 1.7--it's pretty much up my alley.