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  • Aristotle and the Appearances
  • Paul Nieuwenburg


G. E. L. owen’s influential article Tithenai ta phainomena1 has had a very special efficacy in converting long-standing suspicions into the certainty of what one might call, without exaggeration, an orthodoxy. One of Owen’s arguments is widely thought to remove, in a quite definite way, all doubt surrounding the interpretation of the ambiguous term ta phainomena, usually rendered ‘the appearances,’ as it figures in one of Aristotle’s reflections on ‘the methods of ethics.’2 And indeed, as the pun on Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics suggests,3 the argument paves the way for extracting from Aristotle’s instructions [End Page 551] a telos not unlike that of a certain modern conception of ethics—a coherent body of propositions wrought from our common-sense intuitions about moral matters.

Point of departure is a quotation of the methodological reflection from the Nicomachean Ethics (EN 1145b2–7), the subject of the argument in question. The reflection sketches the procedure to be followed in the treatment of akrasia, or the phenomenon of, to put it in a rather slipshod manner, doing what one knows to be wrong. It will be helpful to comply with standard practice and to give Owen’s own translation of the bulk of this passage (b2–6), supplementing it with the missing final clause (b6–7).

Here as in other cases we must set down [tithentas] the phainomena and begin by considering the difficulties [diaporêsantas], and so go on to vindicate if possible all the common conceptions [ta endoxa] about these states of mind [peri tauta ta pathê], or at any rate most of them and the most important; {for when both the difficulties are solved and the endoxa are left [kataleipêtaı], it would have been proven sufficiently [dedeigmenon hikanôs].} (EN 1145b2–7)

Owen argues that W. D. Ross’ ‘empiricist’ construal of the term phainomena (‘observed facts’) cannot be consistently maintained in a dialectical examination of beliefs on moral matters—and we shall presently see why this should be so. Indeed, the term must be systematically ambiguous, referring to ‘hard’ empirical data in one context (notably APr 46a20) and to endoxa (or legomena [EN 1145b20]), i.e., ‘common conceptions’ in the other.

As a consequence, the method outlined in this passage would look like this. First, you have to assemble and present a collection of beliefs (tithenai ta phainomena) on the relevant subject-matter. Since it is most likely that tensions will disfigure the set of endoxa you have garnered, you must, second, by way of preliminary exercise ‘go through the perplexities’ (diaporein) they raise, in order to pinpoint the inconsistencies and infelicities barring the way to endoxic coherence. The removal of these frictions will result in a ‘maximal consistent subset’ of endoxa on the matter, namely, when the perplexities (aporiai), or difficulties (duskherê), are solved. Sufficient proof has been given when all, most, or the most important (kuriôtata) endoxa reappear in this final set. “And then? And then nothing: your philosophical task is over. “4

The intersubstitutability of ‘appearances’ (phainomena) and ‘reputable beliefs’ [End Page 552] (as I prefer to render endoxa)5 is buttressed by a fairly general consensus in contemporary Aristotelian scholarship. Many authors assume that in the text under consideration and, in its wake, in certain other ethical contexts, both terms have the same reference, without, however, being synonymous.6 Henceforth, I shall label this assumption (I) (for ‘intersubstitutability assumption’), covering both Owen’s conclusion and the argument leading up to it, on the obvious supposition that espousing the conclusion entails a commitment to the validity of the argument. Against all appearances, however, (I) is not as foolproof as its widespread acclaim suggests. Although extensions of (I) to other methodological contexts in Aristotle’s ethical writings (in particular EE 1214b28–1215a) prejudice a due understanding of Aristotelian ethics, the point is, I believe, worth arguing in its own right.

In what follows, I shall first lay bare a ‘perplexity’ latent in (I). It will emerge that its premises do not as firmly support the conclusion as it has seemed to many writers. Therefore, I shall not side with those...


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pp. 551-573
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