- Bridging the Gap between Aristotle’s Science and Ethics ed. by Devin Henry and Karen Margrethe Nielsen
The central conceit of this volume (hereafter BtG) is that the question, “To what extent do Aristotle’s ethical treatises make use of the concepts, methods, and practices that the Analytics and other works characterize as ‘scientific’?” (2), should be answered as follows: to a far greater extent than recent interpreters of Aristotle tend to assume.
Thus BtG’s project of “bridging the gap” conspicuously proceeds in a direction opposite to the one taken by a more familiar approach, associated with, say, G. E. L. Owen’s classic 1961 paper, “Tithenai ta phainomena” (rpt. in Owen, Logic, Science and Dialectic, ed. M. Nussbaum [Ithaca, NY 1986], 239–51). Drawing on EN 7.1.1145b2–6—a passage also examined by several contributors to BtG—Owen argues that Aristotle’s term “appearances” (phainomena) applies [End Page 570] not just to the observable phenomena the sciences study, but also and more importantly to the “common conceptions” (about a subject) and “what would normally be said” (about it); in short, the phainomena include endoxa (“reputable opinions”; see Top. 1.1.100b21–23, tr. J. Barnes, and also the contributions to BtG by Karbowski and Devereux). Indeed, Owen argues that even in the Physics, it is really this second kind of phainomena that are at issue: the treatise’s “problems are accordingly not questions of empirical fact but conceptual puzzles.” We thus could say, oversimplifying only slightly, that he and many others understand the method(s) of theoretical inquiry as being more akin to the less “precise” method employed in the EN (cf. the famous remarks about akribeia at EN 1.3) than to science—whether in our, or in Aristotle’s, sense.
Owen further stresses that Aristotle’s practice in the Physics fails to match what he says about the deductive structure of a genuine science (epistēmē) in the Analytics: by the standards of the Analytics, the arguments of the Physics cannot count as scientific. The editors of BtG use an analogous observation about the Ethics (to seek) to defuse a potentially powerful objection to their project. Given that Aristotle insists on various differences between theoretical and practical reasoning (cf., e.g., EN 6.1.1139a6ff.), a sharp divide between epistēmē and ethics is seemingly built into the two enterprises, ab initio. If, however, the Ethics are not in the business of practical reasoning, the EN and EE can look to be theoretical inquiries, since they address fundamental issues for ethics (e.g., what is a happy life? How do we become good? How does ethical deliberation work?). And since these inquiries are not instances of practical reasoning, they are not precluded from counting as scientific in the Analytics’ sense. The editors and contributors are to be applauded for paying attention both to Aristotle’s first-order philosophical practice in his works of theoretical and practical philosophy, and to his higher-order (call it metaphilosophical) thinking about what makes for a genuine epistēmē; indeed, the challenging issues this distinction (in levels of inquiry and reflection) raises deserve still greater attention than they receive in BtG. The insights gleaned here can, however, be used to argue in the opposite direction: if even the Physics fail to be scientific in the relevant sense, why expect the Ethics to be so? Correctly observing that the Ethics do not exemplify practical reasoning does not warrant our concluding that the reasoning actually employed is scientific, properly speaking.
There are further, more basic reasons for doubting that Aristotle believes there can be a self-standing science of ethics. First, Aristotle nowhere speaks of such a science. More importantly, if ēthikē were to have a place in the three sciences he actually does identify—theologikē (the study of the divine), phusikē (the science of nature), and mathēmatikē (mathematics) (see Metaph. 6.1, esp. 1026a18–19; cf. also Metaph. 12.1)—it could only...