13 February 2007

Interlude on Nic. Eth. I.1

Everyone is familiar with the chestnut about the opening lines of the Nicomachean Ethics:

In arguing from "Every craft and mode of inquiry aims at some good" to "The good is what all things aim at", does Aristotle commit a Quantifier Shift fallacy?
One way out is simply to say that the conclusion, ta)gaqo&n, ou{ pa&nt' e0fi/etai, means "Goodness is what anything aims at"; it's a definition rather than a claim about unique existence.

I've liked this solution, but I wonder if there isn't a better way out. Here's my idea. Tell me what you think of it.

This solution depends on our recognizing that it is common for Aristotle to propose a generalization that, he thinks, is meant to be applied by our adding appropriate qualifications to both the subject and predicate. That is, frequently he intends that a generalization serve as a schema for a class of resembling statements. He often does this when he thinks that the resembling statements are related analogically.

Suppose we understand "The good is what everything aims at" in that way. Then it is a schema that is meant to be applied through the addition of appropriate qualifications to each side of the 'equation'. For instance:
The good in medicine is what everything in medicine aims at (viz. health).
The good in shipbuilding is what everyting in shipbuilding aims at (viz. a vessel).
The good in generalship is what everything in generalship aims at (viz. victory).
These claims are true definitionally. That is, if something associated with generalship does not aim at victory, then, strictly, it does not fall under the craft of generalship. 'The good' for generalship simply is what collects together various actions, practices, and instruments, and allows us to identify them all as belonging to generalship. Thus there is an essential connection between a good and everything collected together under that good.

We misunderstand the intent of Aristotle's statement, because we take "everything" to be an unrestricted universal quantifier that ranges over the universe. But that's not Aristotle's meaning. As far as he is concerned, the 'universe of discourse' for the quantifier is not yet fixed. One could use the quantifier in that unrestricted fashion, but then to signal this one would have to qualify each side of the equation accordingly:
The good of the universe is what everything in the universe aims at.
Now, observe that this interpretation accords well with Aristotle's subsequent argument, where he is precisely concerned with the correlation of goods with crafts (1094a8-9, cp. 1097a16-17), which he then uses as a starting point for an argument about how crafts are in turn collected together under higher crafts. Are there any signs that in I.1-7 Aristotle has an interested in isolated actions? No, his concern seems to be with actions as collected together under crafts.

Now suppose that this is the correct interpretation of "The good is what everything aims at". Does that follow from the first line of Nic. Eth.? Would the opening lines of the Ethics escape the charge of fallacy? Obviously so: from the observation that "Every craft and every method aims at some particular good", it follows trivially that generally the good of a craft (or method) is that at which everything that falls under it aims.

Now what might seem to be a hitch in this interpretation is the second phrase of the opening line. Recall that the opening line in full is:
Pa~sa te/xnh kai\ pa~sa me/qodoj, o(moi/wj de\ pra~ci/j te kai\ proai/resij, a)gaqou~ tino_j e0fi/esqai dokei.
Rowe translates:
Every sort of expert knowledge and every inquiry, and similarly every action and undertaking, seems to seek some good.
Ross has:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.
Doesn't this line speak of individual actions and 'undertakings' as also aiming at a good? That wouldn't fit with the inference to the claim that everything under a craft aims at the good of that craft.

But look again at that opening line. Notice that Rowe and Ross supply a quantifier in that second phrase which is not explicit in the Greek. Presumably they wish to carry over the force of the two quantifiers in the first phrase (pa~sa te/xnh kai\ pa~sa me/qodoj). But why is Aristotle careful to quantify separately 'craft' and 'inquiry' but not quantify at all 'action' and 'pursuit'?

In fact it's not unnatural to take that second phrase as something of a parenthetical remark:
Every sort of expert knowledge and every inquiry--and action and undertaking similarly--seems to seek some good.
Then this parenthetical remark can be handled in either of two ways.

1. Take it to be referring to those actions and undertakings that fall under the crafts and modes of inquiry already mentioned. After all, what is a craft or inquiry except some way of organizing actions, undertakings, along with instruments? We would correctly view a craft as something that is precisely constituted by actions and undertakings. Compare: "Every orchestra and ensemble, and instrument and instrumentalist likewise, ...." Doesn't the second phrase naturally mean the constituents of what are mentioned in the first phrase? In fact, pra~cij is used in just this way, to refer to sorts of actions as constitutive of a craft, a few lines later, at 1094a12: au3th de\ kai\ pa~sa polemikh_ pra~cij u(po_ th_n strathgikh&n.

2. Alternatively, understand pra~cij and proai/resij here to mean, simply, a craft or mode of inquiry. (In which case the parenthetical remark adds nothing.) Strange idea? Think again: pra~cij is used in just that way at 1094a7 (pollw~n de\ pra&cewn ou)sw~n kai\ texnw~n kai\ e0pisthmw~n polla_ gi/netai kai\ ta\ te/lh), and proai/resij at 1102a13 (ei0 de\ th~j politikh~j e0sti\n h( ske/yij au3th, dh~lon o3ti gi/noit' a2n h( zh&thsij kata_ th_n e0c a)rxh~j proai/resin).


Anonymous said...

"One way out is simply to say that the conclusion..."

I wonder about the characterization of the point as a "conclusion"; it is introduced by "dio"--mightn't it be read as a kind of confirmation of the point with which he begins. ("Every art etc. seems to aim at some good; that's why it's been well said that the good is that at which all things aim.")

Note that I 2 begins with a conditional: "IF there is some end etc." Of course Aristotle thinks there is such an end (it is the end aimed at by he politike); and later he argues that it is eudaimonia, b/c eudiamonia meets certain formal criteria for being such an end. In a way, both of these could be seen as (providing materials for) arguments that there is such an end; I mean (so to speak) "the argument from he politike," based on what A. conceives to be its architectonic relationship to other human endeavors, and "the argument from eudaimonia," based on the idea that there is something, eudaimonia, which meets the criteria that would qualify it as such an end.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

It's true, the way the 'chestnut'about Nic. Eth. I.1 is usually developed depends up one's reading dio as 'hence' (or the equivalent).

If we read it, much more weakly, (and more appropriately), as 'that's the reason why', and note furthermore that the thing being explained is an identification that people make (admittedly, 'correctly so'), then the charge of fallacy certainly goes away.

On my interpretation, too, our wanting to maintain that "the good is what everything (in a domain) aims at" is not a (deductive) 'conclusion' so much as something that gets accounted for by what is reported in the opening observations.