BMCR 2019.07.62

Aristotle on Prescription: Deliberation and Rule-Making in Aristotle’s Practical Philosophy. Philosophia antiqua, 152

Francesca Alesse, Aristotle on Prescription: Deliberation and Rule-Making in Aristotle's Practical Philosophy. Philosophia antiqua, 152. Leiden: Brill, 2018. x, 273. ISBN 9789004385382 €151,00.


Studies of Aristotle do not often devote sustained attention to the idea of prescription. On the one hand, Aristotle does not focus explicitly on prescription as he does on deliberation, choice, practical wisdom, and other concepts. On the other hand, the idea of prescription seems to be associated with the ideas of concrete action-guidance and of rules or principles, and Aristotle’s practical philosophy has struck many as uninterested in offering concrete, action-guiding rules or principles. One prominent strand of interpretation sees Aristotle as a committed particularist, holding that there are few or no universal principles or rules and that excellent practical reasoning most importantly consists not in applying such principles, but in exercising a finely attuned sensitivity to the particular features of particular contexts of choice. Francesca Alesse’s rich and densely argued book seeks to give Aristotle’s thoughts about prescription the attention they deserve and to demonstrate the inadequacy of particularist interpretations. In the process, it explores many important and controversial topics in Aristotle’s ethics, psychology, and politics: practical reason and wisdom; desire, deliberation, and choice; akrasia and virtues of character; legislation, political deliberation, and authority. Scholars interested in these topics will want to spend time with this book.

Alesse’s main aim is “to show that prescription, far from being a marginal and secondary theme, is a central issue in Aristotle’s practical philosophy” (50). In fact, her thesis is quite strong: “Aristotle regards prescription as the essential character of practical reason” (158) and as “the most important function of practical reason” (52). ‘Prescription,’ for Alesse, names “the single and particular rule of conduct as well as the procedure of formulating rules of conduct” (1). The rules generated by this procedure have three characteristics: (i) they are conclusions of deliberative reasoning, (ii) they are particular insofar as they take into account the circumstances of the people for whom they are made, and (iii) they are “generally deliberated by someone for the conduct of someone else” (1). Prescription is, therefore, analogous to choice, but essentially involves rule-making and not simply decision-making; whereas decision-making may involve only “the individual, episodic choice to perform an action,” prescription involves “the identification of an action that will be performed by someone other than the deliberating subject, in all those circumstances that seem to require the performance of that action.” (51) For this reason, prescription and choice also bear different relations to desire; though both are the products of deliberation, the deliberation that issues in prescription need not proceed from any desire on the deliberating agent’s part for the acts he prescribes or for the goal for the sake of which he prescribes them (51, 246). Along with their implications for Aristotle’s psychology, these features of prescription shed light on his ethics and politics. Contrary to particularism, “Aristotle does aim to formulate a prescriptive ethics” (6), where prescription takes place at the level between universal but highly abstract norms and concrete decision-making; while universal norms tell us in highly abstract terms what to do, prescription answers questions about how to do it. Similarly, in politics prescription enters in most crucially not at the level of legislation, but in the application of laws as universal norms via the formulation of more specific practical rules to be applied in specific circumstances. The nature of prescription and its relation to deliberation also shapes Aristotle’s understanding of political community and the different sorts of relationships between citizens. Alesse’s investigation of prescription draws most of its evidence from the Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics as well as the Politics, but also finds ample material in the De Anima, De Motu Animalium, and even the Protrepticus, among other texts. Whatever one thinks of the book’s interpretations of these texts, it successfully shows that prescription plays a more important role in Aristotle’s thought than most of us have recognized.

After introducing the book’s central questions and outlining its main conclusions, Chapter 1 surveys Greek thought about prescription prior to Aristotle, beginning with didactic poetry and moving through the Sophistic movement towards Isocrates, Plato, and Xenophon. Though this survey attends duly to the language of prescription—ἐπιτάττειν, προστάττειν, and related terms—it is not narrowly lexical, but looks more broadly at debates about education and legislation. On Alesse’s reading, Aristotle critically systematized this tradition, arriving at the view that “prescription, both as the regulation of desire on the part of individual reason and the regulation of others’ conduct by an authority, is the act by which practical reason issues a given action or course of action as the best means to achieve an end or to apply in concreto a general norm” (50). Though he takes on much of Plato’s framework for thinking about prescription, he also, adapting the arguments of Plato’s Clitophon, criticizes Socrates for emphasizing exhortation in moral education to the neglect of prescription (29-45), and his reflections on the Republic lead him to view prescription not simply as a device for correcting flawed legislation, but as a necessary supplement to laws as universal norms.

Chapter 2 surveys recent scholarship on a number of topics: deliberation, the practical syllogism, particularism, and moral education. This survey will prove helpful for those not already immersed in these debates, but the chapter’s main work is to set out Alesse’s own conceptual framework for the chapters that follow. Chapter 3 focuses on deliberation and defends a detailed account of its structure, the role of desire, and the relationship between deliberation and the practical syllogism: Aristotelian deliberation is essentially means-end reasoning with a hypothetical form and a ‘problematic’ structure, as these are set out in the Analytics and the Topics. As such, deliberation does not have a syllogistic form, but can be converted into a syllogism that deduces a prescriptive conclusion from the goodness of a major term as an end and the efficacy of a middle term as an efficient or material cause of the end. Contrary to some interpretations, then, the practical syllogism need not simply explain why someone acted as he did, but can explain the correctness of a prescription arrived at via deliberation. So too, the conclusion of a practical syllogism need not be an action or a decision to perform a particular action, but a prescription, a general rule governing action in specific types of circumstance.

Chapter 4 turns its attention to practical reason as a faculty of the soul, practical wisdom as the virtue of this faculty, and the relationship between practical wisdom and virtue of character. Though this chapter is especially wide-ranging, perhaps its central contention is that practical reason is essentially prescriptive and practical wisdom has an essentially prescriptive function. Practical reason prescribes to the desiring soul as well as to other people, and practical wisdom’s excellence in prescription depends on its “argumentative and discursive nature” (181-2). Practical wisdom is “argumentative” in the sense that it enables its possessor not only to deliberate well and make good choices or prescriptions, but to argue for those choices and prescriptions by giving good reasons for them. On Alesse’s view, this ability depends on the knowledge of causes: “final and formal causes are invoked to account for a prescribed conduct, when both the utility of the prescribed conduct and the general normative principle that inspired it are unclear . . . When the ultimate end that provided the starting-point for deliberation is known, those who choose to perform or who prescribe a certain action adduce the material or efficient causes justifying their preference of a practical option over other options” (182). Practical wisdom is “discursive” in the sense that “it can deduce particular rules from general norms” (186), but it remains non-demonstrative because its conclusions cannot achieve the same degree of necessity as strict demonstration. For this reason, prescriptive rules will have a flexibility that the conclusions of demonstrations do not, and it will be possible to adjust or even suspend those rules in some circumstances. This flexibility and context-sensitivity, so far from supporting a particularist interpretation, tell against it: the rules are adaptable to different cases and may occasionally be suspended, but they are not thereby violated and they do not lose their action-guiding role (186-7).

Chapter 5 turns to the role of prescription in politics and other relations of authority. It sets its discussion within the framework of Aristotle’s distinctions between function (ἔργον), use (χρῆσις), action (πρᾶξις), and production (ποίησις), and between prescriptive and auxiliary sciences or arts. On Alesse’s view, we can regard the same activity as both action and production, and likewise we can regard the same activity, science, or art as both auxiliary to a higher one and prescriptive to others. Hence, while political authority ultimately depends on causal knowledge and deliberative ability of a sort not likely to be widely shared, ordinary citizens will frequently engage in political deliberation and prescription at an intermediate level, rather than simply receiving prescriptions from their rulers. Political prescription itself has an auxiliary character even at the highest level, since it is undertaken for the sake of the common good. Politics crucially involves “architectonic order,” the hierarchical arrangement of activities and ends, and there is a “basic consistency between the structure of deliberative reasoning and the architectonic arrangement of the ends” (241), one that is reflected in the division among citizens of tasks involving different levels of deliberation or prescription, from legislation to application and regulation to ad hoc prescriptions and judgments for particular cases. Prescription is thus at the center of political life.

This summary of the book’s chapters does not adequately capture its complex, subtle, and wide-ranging analysis and argument. The book presents challenging and controversial interpretations of a variety of texts and issues, and for that reason will be of interest to specialists in Aristotle’s practical philosophy. Yet the book poses difficulties as well. It is densely written, and it is at times difficult to keep hold of the guiding thread through its labyrinthine explorations of so many regions of the Aristotelian corpus. The book’s interpretations at times seem less fully supported by argument than one might have hoped, and prominent alternative readings do not always receive the consideration that their proponents would wish for. The argument is also imprecise at times in ways that leave it unclear just what its claims are. To take one example, Alesse seems to hold quite explicitly that practical wisdom is essentially prescriptive (158), yet also to hold that prescription essentially involves deliberating for and guiding the conduct of others (e.g. 1, 51, 161, 181, 246). Yet surely practical reason does not essentially deliberate and prescribe for others; I can also deliberate and decide about what to do for myself. We are also told that within the soul practical reason prescribes to the desiring part (181), so perhaps individual deliberation preserves this other-directed feature of prescription. Yet Alesse’s insistence that prescription is analogous but not identical to choice (1, 246) suggests that one can deliberate and choose without prescribing, and this conclusion seems to be sufficient to show that practical reason is not essentially prescriptive. Similarly, it is at times unclear what counts as a prescription and what does not; it would seem that law-making is prescriptive, but merely less prescriptive than political deliberation (3-4), yet we are also told that laws are universal norms, which are in turn contrasted with prescriptions (4-6, cf. 181). This sort of imprecision recurs throughout the book and makes it difficult to pin down exactly how to understand its claims. On the broader question of particularism, the book makes an impressive case that flexible rules play an essential role in Aristotle’s thought, but it is not clear whether this poses a problem for particularism, especially because the book does not engage at length with particularist interpretations.

Despite these imperfections, the book largely achieves its goal of showing that prescription is central to Aristotle’s thought. Specialists in Aristotle will learn from reading it.