Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.03.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.03.39

Devin Henry, Karen Margrethe Nielsen (ed.), Bridging the Gap Between Aristotle’s Science and Ethics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  Pp. xiii, 304.  ISBN 9781107010369.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Sophia M. Connell, Selwyn College, University of Cambridge (


Given that it concentrates on a philosopher born 2,400 years ago, this volume breaks a surprising amount of new ground. In connecting Aristotle’s ethics and his science it opens up avenues long closed off by two ideas. The first is that ethics has practical rather than theoretical aims and, as such, is inexact. Moral phenomena are variable and content-dependent (Nicomachean Ethics [EN] 1094b14-16, 1103b27-1104a8). Added to this, ethical reasoning employs premises that hold only for the most part (EN 1094b11-29, 1103b34-1104a10), thereby not accommodating theoretical models of enquiry. The second idea is that ethics does not require theoretical knowledge; it is stated that the study of the soul, for example, should not be undertaken with ‘rigour’ (EN 1102a20-6).

The first idea has often been thought sufficient to prevent attempts to connect Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and its methodology to the ethics. The second means that the student of ethics need not know about natural science. Thus has Aristotle’s ethics been allowed almost complete autonomy from the rest of his philosophy. This book shows decisively why we ought not to continue this orthodoxy. Although Aristotle contrasts practical wisdom (phronêsis) and theoretical knowledge (epistêmê), the way in which practical reasoning is structured is greatly illuminated by lining it up with similar structures underpinning theoretical reasoning (see Part I). When it comes to methodology in the ethical works, close analysis shows the necessity of overturning the view that Aristotle employed a ‘dialectical’ method. The ethical works contain much that counts as theoretical knowledge – such as definitions of happiness (EN 1), virtue (EN 2.3-6), justice (EN 5), friendship, pleasure and the voluntary. Although not the ultimate aim of ethics, such theoretical knowledge is a crucial part of ethical inquiry for Aristotle and may well be necessary in order to know what we ought to aim for in our practical pursuits. Also, the fact that ethics employs only ‘for-the-most-part’ propositions is not an impediment to these being demonstrable first principles (see Part II). As for the separation of ethics from natural science, and in particular biology: this is unsustainable. A robust understanding of human nature and the soul is vitally important for understanding Aristotle’s positions in his ethical works (see Part III).

Space prohibits detailed discussions of all the articles here, although each has merit. This is particularly so as, unlike some collections that result from conferences, there are important overlaps and interconnections between the contributions. Multiple re-readings of the passages noted above reinforce each other, building up layers of new insight.

Karen Margrethe Nielsen provides a well-crafted introduction to Aristotle’s ethics, including a division into ‘dogmatic’ and ‘parainetic’ parts—the former containing the fundamentals of ethics, the latter telling us how to act. EN, she urges, is a theoretical treatise, which gives us ‘ethical universals’ from which we can each derive action-guiding principles. In her ‘Aristotle on principles in ethics: political science as the science of the human good’, she shows that part of the project of ethics is a scientific enquiry into the human good. It is simply not the case that the student of ethics has no need for general principles. Her particularist opponents make a number of unfounded assumptions such as confounding theoretical inquiry into the human good with practical deliberation. The latter, she agrees, does not result in knowledge of universals but the former, by which the student of ethics sets her goals, can do so.

The essays by James Allen, David Charles and Mary Louise Gill all compare the processes of practical and theoretical reasoning. Allen in ‘Practical and theoretical knowledge in Aristotle’ finds useful points of similarity and contrast between the state of mind of the person undertaking practical deliberation and that of the person who is coming to understand theoretical knowledge. Theoretical knowledge is exercised or actualised as contemplation, practical inquiries as action—but the processes have various important structural similarities and both are hard won, achieved conditions.

In ‘Aristotle on practical and theoretical knowledge’ David Charles argues that, because practical reasoning lines up with aspects of theoretical demonstrative knowledge in the Analytics, Aristotle can offer us a completely different way to think about the combination of reason and motivation in ethics. Working with interpretations of de Motu Animalium, de Anima and the Rhetoric, as well as Aristotle’s ethical works, Charles makes a compelling case for there being only ‘one psychological state’ that constitutes a rational desire and a desiderative thought. Thinking that something is good is just the same mental state as wanting it. He shows why this ‘third way’, a pre-Humean perspective, is preferable to other interpretations of Aristotle’s account of practical reasoning. This is a strikingly original piece of research that ought to be studied by all those interested in practical reasoning in ancient and modern ethics.

Joseph Karbowski’s ‘Endoxa, facts, and the starting points of the EN’ begins Part II by urging that the dominant methodology of the EN is not dialectical but scientific. He argues first of all that the presence of endoxa (reputable opinions) is not enough for the methodology to be dialectical, which is described as a three-stage process in the Topics. Thus, although the discussion of akrasia in EN 7.1-10 refers to endoxa extensively, it is not dialectical. When it comes to EN1 on happiness, rather than endoxa, Aristotle concentrates on facts—which are more typically the starting points of scientific enquiry.

Daniel Devereux’s ‘Scientific and ethical methods in Aristotle’s Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics’ further enriches Karbowski’s position, providing a more detailed account of the methodology in the EN and its relation to scientific methodology. Devereux argues that a sort of ‘method of endoxa’ that is not properly dialectical, but has its own parameters, can be found in certain sections of the EN, such as that on akrasia. In EN 1, however, Aristotle does not try to save the endoxa. Instead he treats the endoxa here like the starting points of scientific empirical investigation which aiming at truth rather than mere consensus of opinion.

Carlo Natali’s article (‘The search for definitions of justice in EN 5’) falls in line with the previous two. Natali urges that the method employed in EN 1-4 is not dialectical but more like a search for scientific definitions which begins with finding out if the object one wishes to define exists, and moves on to give a nominal definition, before finally discovering the thing’s essence. In this essay, Natali expands his analysis to EN 5 on justice. An in-depth analysis reveals a mixture of different approaches, with EN 5.1-9 following the procedure as above and the latter part of the book employing variously diairetic and dialectical methods. Natali ends by suggesting that this book is an independent treatise that places together divergent discussions of its subject matter.

Part II ends with an outstanding piece by Devin Henry (‘Holding for the most part: the demonstrability of moral facts’). Working from his knowledge of Aristotle’s scientific methodology and the content of his natural science, Henry shows that there are three different kinds of for the most part (FMP) phenomena. Only one of these makes demonstration impossible, i.e. propositions that state correlations without causation. We can also see that FMP propositions can fit the requirements of necessity according to the Posterior Analytics because they happen due to causal necessity. Henry’s conclusions about the ethics are muted: it is merely possible for there to be demonstrable knowledge of ethics since some ethical phenomena are not mere correlations. This possibility can, however, be seriously doubted when we consider the ontological status of the objects of ethical study, which do not possess stability. (This is argued for by Charlotte Witt in the last article in the volume.) Although the applicability of distinctions between different FMP propositions to ethics is questionable, it has far-reaching implications for how Aristotle applies his methodology from the Posterior Analytics to other fields of study.

Part III begins with Lennox’s ‘Aristotle on the biological roots of virtue’. Lennox here explores Aristotle’s attribution of virtue and practical reasoning to non-human animals. Animals (and children) are supposed to have only ‘natural’ virtue, whereas human beings, by adding phronêsis, can achieve proper virtue (EN 11144b1-16). However, animals are also said to possess phronêsis (e.g. HA 611a16) and so it is unclear why they are barred from proper virtue. The solution is twofold. First of all, Lennox points out that terms such as ‘practically wise’ and ‘courageous’ are applied to animals in an extended sense—they are ‘traces’ of what are found in us (HA 7-8). Secondly, he shows that the reasoning of non-human animals is kept strictly separate from their virtuous tendencies and so it is only in people that the two are integrated. Lennox concludes that Aristotle would have agreed with Darwin that the seeds of virtue are natural. The paper invites further investigation into the training of animals and the moral education of children—as Lennox notes, the latter has never been linked to discussions of the virtues of animals even though Aristotle repeatedly puts together children and animals in his ethical writings.

Mariska Leunissen in ‘Aristotle on knowing natural science for the sake of living well’ discusses what sort of theoretical knowledge of biology is required for the student of ethics. Her thorough analysis of key passages makes a convincing case for the student of ethics needing more than mere basic understanding of Aristotelian natural science. She argues that moral concepts, given Aristotle’s moral naturalism, must be tested against a biological understanding of human life. So, for example, the fundamental biological fact that we desire to live together must form part of an account of happiness. Meanwhile, EN 1102a7-26 is read by some to indicate that only a very rudimentary knowledge of human psychology is needed for study of ethics. But Leunissen draws our attention to an analogy Aristotle makes in the passage with the physician, who surely must grasp theoretical truths about medicine. Similarly, ethics will require detailed knowledge of aspects of human psychology. Another example comes from the so-called function argument, which will require the student of ethics to be educated in science. That a whole animal could have a function analogous to parts is something that is established by in the GA and PA. Leunissen notes a probable difference between those who are theoretical scientists as opposed to those who are well-educated (PA 639a1-10). The latter do not come up with scientific demonstrations but rather are able to judge those made by others. This point nicely links back to Nielsen’s first article, where she urges that in ethics theoretical knowledge will ultimately be undertaken not for its own sake but for the sake of right action. The next article, by Christopher Shields, covering some of the same ground, provides further support for the thesis that a detailed knowledge of the science of the soul and human nature is necessary for ethical studies.

The subject matter of this volume might spark some worry that, by making connections between Aristotle’s ethics and science, we will render his thought less attractive to the modern philosopher. Actually Aristotle’s engagement with theory and science in his ethical thought falls in line with modern philosophical ethics, which is increasingly influenced by theoretical modelling coming from other disciplines, such as economics, as well as with neuroscience. Furthermore, aspects of these articles, such as Monte Ransome Johnson’s argument that Aristotle first came up with constitutive moral luck and David Charles’ new way of conceptualising practical reasoning, are valuable for the modern study of ethics. This book ought to be read by anyone interested in Aristotle’s ethics or ethics more generally, from advanced undergraduate students upwards. There is also plenty of scope for further engagement with and development of the ideas found here in both ancient and modern ethics.

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