- Aristotle on Practical Truth by Christiana M. M. Olfert
Olfert argues that Aristotle's account of practical reason pays equal deference to the value of truth and to the value of acting well; she further argues that the key to a proper understanding of the relationship between these two values lies in Aristotle's heretofore overlooked notion of practical truth.
Practical truth is not the truth of a motivational state (a desire or a decision), nor is it a truth that is made true by actions, nor is it even a correct assertion about the means to the obtainment of one's desires, though this last view is closest to Olfert's own. Instead, practical truth is "the truth about what is unqualifiedly good relative to a particular person in a particular situation" (105). In context, "unqualified" (haplos) signifies the highest or most complete human good, so that practical truth is the truth about what counts as happiness insofar as it is realized in the concrete circumstances of a particular individual. Practical truth is true in a straightforward Aristotelian sense: it cognitively mirrors (via the combination [End Page 749] or separation of the elements of thought or speech) reality, here the reality of the human good. When the agent appreciates the truth about this good—that it is the end for her, personally—this truth also carries motivational force and hence is practical. Practical truth is thus unlike other forms of truth due to its peculiar relationship of normative agreement with desire. Practical truths are true, and correct desires are correct, due to one and the same fact, namely, whatever it is that happiness amounts to in the relevant concrete instance. It is primarily due to its concern with this special form of truth that practical reasoning is distinct from other forms of reasoning, a view that sharply separates Olfert's position from what she labels the "Objects View," the traditional view that practical reason is distinct on account of its subject matter, that is, variable things.
Olfert acknowledges a problem for her view of the equal primacy of action and truth that seems to arise because of Aristotle's identification of the end of practical reason with acting well (and not truth). Two explanations of the relationship between practical truth and action will not do. Practical truth cannot be subordinated to a concern with action, as would be the case if we cared about certain truths simply because they allowed us to act well. Nor, in the other direction, should we overemphasize the role of truth by making good actions themselves forms of practical truth, thereby attributing truth to non-truth bearing entities. Olfert seeks to chart a middle way between these alternatives without collapsing the distinction between thought and action: rational motives and rational actions express a concern for practical truth and thus in some sense count as an extension of practical truth. What it is to express such concern takes different forms. Especially interesting (and likely controversial) is Olfert's depiction of rational action as expressing a concern with practical truth insofar as it is structured and informed by practical reasoning. Olfert argues that action is best understood as a matter of instantiating the good we find (through reasoning) antecedently in the world, rather than as an attempt to make the world be a certain way. Acting virtuously thus involves going beyond simply mirroring features of the world (as happens in rational thought) to become those features.
Olfert is explicit about her narrow focus: her goal is to illumine the centrality of Aristotle's concept of practical truth and to explore some related implications; and so, some well-worn topics, such as the practical syllogism, do not appear. This is a good approach, but Olfert grounds much of her argument on the first two chapters of Nicomachean Ethics VI, a focus that is arguably too restrictive for her purposes. Outside these chapters, Aristotle's concern often seems to be more with what makes practical reason inferior to, rather than merely distinct from, theoretical reason...