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The End of Practical Wisdom: Ethics as Science in the Thirteenth Century

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 33, Number 2, April 1995
pp. 225-243 | 10.1353/hph.1995.0029

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The End of Practical Wisdom: Ethics as Science in the Thirteenth Century ANTHONYJ. CELANO ThE DESCRIPTION of the nature of ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) pre- sented a difficult problem to the masters of the thirteenth-century university, who viewed an important element of their philosophical task to be the rigor- ous classification of human knowledge. The specific problem of moral specula- tion concerns its nature as science: is ethics truly a "science," similar to other philosophical pursuits, such as metaphysics or natural philosophy, or is it more akin to what we call art, in the manner of sculpture or literary endeav- ors? Despite Aristotle's own statement about ethics as science -- that concern- ing it we can indicate truth only roughly and in outline (NE lo94bze-z3)--his meaning is far from clear. The greatest part of the NE examines the origin and practice of moral virtue, which admits a variety of human customs and habits. The principles of the "science" of ethics depend not upon the immuta- ble laws that govern natural phenomena, but rather upon the actions of hu- man beings. The variety and diversity of human practices which may be called good seriously undermine the scientific nature of ethics. While many modern commentators on the NE may ignore the problem of a science that speaks of subjects, premisses, and conclusions that are, at best, "true only for the most part" (NE lo94b16-2~), Aristotle acknowledged those who thought ethics existed merely by convention.' Aristotle's ethics is, in a sense, more art than science, since he knew that a subject without demonstrative conclusions de- ' NE lo94b14-~ 7. Aristotle's raises the question here whether moral excellence exists by nature or by convention. He does not answer the question until VI.11 where innate talents of judgment, intelligence, and understanding are combined with the conventional teachings of wise persons within the society to produce moral wisdom (l 14366 - 14). Like many of his philosophical conclusions, this one transcends previous solutions by incorporating aspects of conflicting ac counts into his final position. [~5] 226 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 33:2 APRIL 199 5 duced from immutable first principles was not strictly scientific. Aristotle main- tains a semblance of scientific reasoning in his ethical treatises not by mimick- ing scientific method, but rather by appealing to a standard which, though flexible, is not entirely dependent upon individual desires and societal prac- tices. That standard is the phronimos or practically wise person. The unity of Aristotle's ethics arises from his understanding of phronesis, the virtue of practical wisdom, which allows human beings to judge correctly in the practical matters that comprise a moral life. The phronimos, the practi- cally wise person, is able to judge correctly about the ends of actions as well as the proper means to attain them. Despite Aristotle's appeal to the standard of the practically wise person, the difficulties associated with locating the stan- dard of conduct in particular human beings can lead to doubt concerning the validity and efficacy of his moral teachings. One could argue that if the crite- rion for judging the rectitude of a moral act lies in an appeal to what the phronimos or spoudaios ~ would do in similar circumstances, the one who judges must already have accepted the moral worth of the standard's actions. In a very real sense, Aristotle's ethics begs the question of moral goodness, since the actions of the phronimos are said to be good, and moral goodness is mea- sured by how an act compares to the conduct of the phronimos.3 Aristotle would likely agree with this criticism of his position, but would respond that ethics, unlike other sciences, does not seek independently veri- fied principles. He would argue further that the science of ethics depends upon the actions of human beings, and its goal is to affect human behavior. When Aristotle says "regarding practical wisdom we shall get at the truth by considering those who are the persons we credit with it" in Book VI of the NE (114oa24-25), he reconsiders the question of the unity of ethical experience that he mentioned in Book I. Ethics...

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