Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.48

Claudia Baracchi, Aristotle's Ethics as First Philosophy (paperback reprint of 2008 edition).   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. ix, 342.  ISBN 9781107400511.  $36.99.  

Reviewed by Dhananjay Jagannathan, University of Chicago (

Table of Contents.

Aristotle’s distinction between theoretical and practical kinds of knowledge invites a number of difficult questions about the nature of his own writings. In particular, what are we to make of works like the Nicomachean Ethics [EN] and Politics whose subject matter is practical, yet which seem to be a trove of theoretical reflections? Their subject is πολιτική, ethics-cum-politics, which we are told admits only of statements that hold good for the most part (ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πόλυ), but one straightforward reading of this claim is difficult to square with Aristotle’s confident declarations in the EN, e.g., that happiness is rational activity in accordance with virtue, that courage is the mean between rashness and cowardice, and that pleasure is an activity not a process. None of these seem straightforwardly amenable to analysis as holding good only for the most part. Moreover, we find out that in addition to any knowledge such works can provide, we must gain practical experience in order to become φρόνιμος or πολιτικός, possessed of ethical-political knowledge, ourselves. Do we thereby gain a distinctively practical form of understanding? What is the relationship between such understanding and the seemingly theoretical articulation of the human good and its constituents in the EN? How do these modes of knowledge fit into the schematization of knowledge in the Prior and Posterior Analytics? These questions cut to the core of how we comprehend Aristotle’s systematic philosophical thought. Though she does not frame the topic in quite this way, Claudia Baracchi’s Aristotle’s Ethics as First Philosophy, first published in 2008 and now out in a paperback reissue from Cambridge University Press, tries to dissolve these puzzles. According to Baracchi, interpreters have taken Aristotle’s distinction between theoretical and practical kinds of knowledge too seriously—either, following the Scholastics, by subordinating the practical to the theoretical, or, following Arendt and Gadamer, by merely inverting the point of emphasis and subordinating the theoretical to the practical. The Hegelian synthesis can perhaps already be discerned: first, Baracchi contends, the theoretical is always practical, since the exercise of theoretical knowledge is always embedded in a set of practices— in other words, there can be no philosophy, no pursuit of wisdom, without a cultural and dialectical context. Second, and harder to swallow, Baracchi argues that ethics, the highest branch of practical knowledge, turns out to be nothing other than first philosophy, an inquiry into the grounding of theoretical knowledge. Together, these claims constitute the book’s central thesis, that theoretical and practical wisdom or knowledge are indissolubly intertwined. The book mainly consists of commentary or close reading, the centrepiece of which is two long chapters treating the first seven and last three books of the EN. First, however, we get a brief introduction and then an opening chapter setting out a reading of the Metaphysics [Met.], alongside other texts in the corpus, in which Baracchi makes a prima facie case that Aristotle takes ethics to be first philosophy. And between the two main sections, Baracchi offers a treatment of Met. Gamma and Aristotle’s dialectical refutation of those who reject the principle of non-contradiction. Finally, instead of a conclusion, there is an unsatisfyingly short ‘Kolophon’ of less than two pages.

Baracchi consciously excludes discussion of the scholarly literature from the main text and limits her engagement in footnotes to the ‘barest indications’ (p. 15). Yet the abundance of untranslated Greek makes it clear that the book is scholarly.The implication of this avoidance of the literature, perhaps most clear in Baracchi’s indictment of ‘self- confidently hegemonic’ Western readers of Aristotle in the introduction (p. 3)—though nearly everyone from Theophrastus onward comes in for similar criticism elsewhere in the book—is that the scholarly literature obfuscates more than it reveals. Baracchi does laud the medieval Jewish and Arabic inheritors and interpreters of Aristotle such as Maimonides and al-Farabi as well as a handful of more recent French and Italian successors, and these are almost exclusively the recipients of the minimal treatment promised in the footnotes. Hegemonic types need not apply.

Given this approach, the success of the book turns on the quality of the readings of individual passages, taken singly and collectively. Unfortunately, this is just where the book is most disappointing. Instead of elucidation, the reader often finds a summary of Aristotle’s position or argument followed by speculation that seems only loosely connected to the text just cited. Fairly typical is Baracchi’s reading of EN 1101a23-31, a passage where Aristotle entertains the thought that the conduct of friends can affect one’s status as εὐδαίμων; Baracchi concludes that ‘this entails the emergence of a dilated, choral sense of oneself out of the experience of interdependence’ (p. 101). But there is no mention of one’s sense of oneself (if such a concept can even be attributed to Aristotle) in the passage. Indeed, one of the challenging aspects of Aristotle’s conception of εὐδαιμονία is that it is not subjective, as the modern notion of happiness often is; Baracchi glides by this difficulty in order to cast Aristotle as a kind of proto- existentialist. Likewise, in explaining the way in which the virtues are mean states with reference to EN 1106b18-26, Baracchi characterizes such a state as ‘being there fully, reading to embrace that condition without reservations; ready to be that condition, to affirm it, as it for all time, for it completely is what it is, lacks nothing, is perfect’ (p. 126). The extravagance relative to prevailing standards of interpretation, promised in the introduction (p. 12), is here in full evidence. While Baracchi is happy to characterize a Levinasian understanding of first philosophy as ‘remote from Aristotle’s horizon’ in her introduction (p. 3, n. 2), anachronism and a barely disguised 20th century philosophical agenda drive the book very far from Aristotle’s horizon indeed. Perhaps Baracchi is right to criticize the continued dominance of ‘Scholasticism’ in modern interpretations of Aristotle, but replacing ‘Scholasticism’ with Heideggerianism seems to me to be no improvement.

More generally, a number of flawed argumentative strategies mar the book’s inventive and occasionally plausible interpretations. First, Baracchi takes Aristotle’s endoxic method, his use of what others have said as a starting point for his inquiry, to reduce his conclusions to having merely dialectical validity. But a more natural reading of Aristotle’s own description of his method at EN 1145b2-7, alongside his evident confidence in our ability to come to understand the phenomena directly (e.g., in Met. A 1), is that the reputable opinions (ἔνδοξα) are likely to have hit on some portion of the truth, and that by evaluating them side-by-side we may advance beyond them to an independent and more complete understanding of whatever phenomena we are considering1. Hence, when Aristotle approves of the (Eudoxan) view that the good is what all things seek in the first lines of the EN, he is not construing his own view as dependent on Eudoxus’s and thus only dialectically valid, as Baracchi would have it (p. 56). Rather, he is dispensing judgment from on high, affirming that one of his predecessors managed to get hold of some small parcel of the truth which he has discerned in full. The seeming modesty of Aristotle’s frequent use of δοκεῖ ‘it seems, it is thought’ is therefore false. (Humility, after all, is an Aristotelian vice.) Second, Baracchi seriously overreads analogies; any time that a model from one domain is imported by Aristotle to explain a point in another domain, Baracchi concludes that the two domains are linked at some more profound level. From Aristotle’s innocent comparison of the need for physics to know both matter and form to the artisan’s need to do so (Physics 194a22-7), Baracchi outrageously infers that ‘[i]t is, therefore, the human involvement in bringing forth [sc. ποίησις] that opens up certain paths of inquiry and molds the investigative posture’ (p. 184). Tenuous connections abound: Baracchi claims that Aristotle sees the science of first principles as authoritative (in order to connect it to similar claims he makes about ethics) on the grounds that the adverb κυρίως appears in Met. 1027b29-1028a4, but κυρίως here simply means ‘in the strict sense’ (p. 56). Authoritativeness (κυριότης) is not being predicated of the science of first principles.

A strength of the book is its adept use of the other ethical works in the Aristotelian corpus: the Eudemian Ethics , the Politics , and the Magna Moralia []. In light of this refreshingly broad range, I was surprised to find that Baracchi did not choose to discuss a fascinating passage at the end of the first book of the , which deals explicitly with the relation of theoretical to practical wisdom. This passage, which has no parallel in the other works, suggests that practical wisdom (φρόνησις) plays an executive role like the domestic manager (ἐπίτροπος) in a household without thereby ruling over theoretical wisdom (σοφία), which is like the master of the house ( 1198b9-20). By contrast with the other ethical works, the De Anima is noticeably absent, receiving fewer entries in the index locorum than even De Caelo. More attention to Aristotle’s psychology might have prevented slips such as Baracchi’s account of (αἴσθησις) as merely a passion rather than a faculty (p. 18); likewise, the distinction between first and second potentialities in De Anima II.5 might have resolved Baracchi’s puzzlement over the way in which we can be said to have λόγος (p. 112).

While I found Baracchi’s sections on justice (EN V) and friendship (EN VIII-IX) less subject to these shortcomings, the book as a whole is hard going for the reader. The prose is awkward and occasionally ungrammatical. Some sentences make more sense when translated (back?) into Italian. ‘Autarchy’ is written for ‘autarky’ and, more confusingly, ‘motifs’ for ‘motives’ throughout. Renderings such as ‘desire having seen’ (p. 17) for τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται at Met. 980a21 and ‘a habit bringing forth with true reason’ (p. 181) for ἕξις μετὰ λόγου ἀληθοῦς ποιητική at EN 1140a11, which can only be described as un-English, cast doubt on Baracchi’s decision not to follow a standard translation. The same crucial passage (EN 1096a12-16) is translated differently on p. 102 and p. 270. Another mildly irritating idiosyncrasy is that Pierre Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy? is translated from the Italian version rather than being translated from the original French or being quoted in the English translation available from Harvard University Press.2 Errors are mainly confined to transliteration of Greek.3

Aristotle’s Ethics as First Philosophy puts forward a striking thesis, but it hardly opens the way for a reconfiguration of our approach to Aristotle, let alone to classical Greek philosophy, as the book summary inside the cover trumpets. As a contribution to the humbler task of improving our understanding of the relationship between theoretical and practical wisdom in Aristotle, the book achieves some success in highlighting the extent of the difficulties and in bringing a wide variety of texts in the corpus into contact. Nevertheless, the weaknesses in argument and presentation will likely dissuade all but those for whom the thought that Aristotle was a proto- existentialist is congenial.


1.   See, e.g., G.E.L Owen, ‘Tithenai ta phainomena’ in Aristote et les Problèmes de Méthode, ed. S. Mansion, Louvain: Publications Universitaires de Louvain, 1961, pp. 83-103; Terence Irwin, Aristotle’s First Principles, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, ch. 1-2; and Christopher Shields, ‘Aristotle’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, section 3, ‘Phainomena and the endoxic method’.
2.   Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy, trans. Michael Chase, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
3.   Corrigenda: p. 17, n. 2, ‘Werner Jäger’ for ‘Werner Jaeger’; p. 48, ‘tupoi’ for ‘tupōi’; p. 70, ‘λογον’ for ‘λόγον’; p. 88, n. 9, ‘Che cos’è philosophia ontica?’ for ‘Che cos’è philosophia antica?’; p. 90, ‘theēria’ for ‘theōria’; p. 134, ‘logon ekhon’ for ‘logon ekhōn’; p. 192, ‘aplōs’ for ‘haplōs’; p. 194, n. 44 and p. 203, ‘Alexander of Aphrodisia’ for ‘Alexander of Aphrodisias’; p. 282 and p. 286, ‘euergein’ for ‘euergetein’.

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