- Action & Character according to Aristotle: The Logic of the Moral Life by Kevin L. Flannery
Kevin Flannery’s recent book is a significant contribution to our understanding of Aristotle’s theory of action as the foundation for his ethical thought. While it is surely of interest to Aristotle scholars, I would argue that those working in contemporary virtue ethics would also benefit from a close study of it. Flannery argues in meticulous detail that the central moves Aristotle makes in his ethical treatises are grounded in his account of the internal [End Page 647] structure of particular human actions. In so doing, Flannery demonstrates how and why Aristotle conceived of ethical theory as having its proper foundation in philosophical psychology and action theory.
Flannery begins by stressing the centrality of Aristotle’s conviction that the perception of singulars is the coin of the practical realm. This explains why ethics is not a proper science—that is, why it cannot yield proper syllogisms from which we could construct a specifically practical epistêmê. And yet this perception is distinctive of rational life. Aristotle likens it to the perception of a particular triangle in a geometrical proof, which is an object not of the senses but of the intellect. Flannery suggests that Aristotle adopts the language of perception in order to pick out a unique mode of presentation of the particular to the intellect: for “it is through perception by means of sight that we recognize the form present in each individual” (Top. 2.7.113a31–32).
If ethics is not a proper science, then what sense can we make of the practical syllogism? Flannery insists that any legitimate account must explain how the realm of thought and knowledge, which is general, and the realm of action, which is particular, interact with each other. In his rich discussion of this problem, two points stand out. First, one can only move from knowledge to action through desire, which moves one toward a particular object. Second, knowledge and action are unified by the principle that underlies all reasoning and intelligibility: the principle of noncontradiction. Flannery notes that Aristotle understands this principle as grounded in the perceptual order, since it is only at the level of particulars that it is impossible for something to both be and not be a certain way, in a certain respect, at a certain time. He concludes that the “subject matter” of philosophical psychology is singulars, and therefore, when properly conducted, it must begin with an analysis of particular human acts, rather than universal propositions about acts.
The purpose of chapter 2 is to show that the structure of action is a determination of the broader genus of motion. Here Flannery demonstrates that for Aristotle an act gets its species (its form as an instance of a general kind) from its end. He stresses that for Aristotle an end cannot be cut off from its object. For instance, teaching is the actualization of the one who can teach in the one who learns; the action is fundamentally a movement toward an object that provides a limit and measure of its success or failure. To remove the object—to say that in teaching the teacher learns—results in a violation of the principle of noncontradiction. Flannery concludes that the distinction between agent and patient, subject and object, is fundamentally grounded in the principle of noncontradiction, such that the bipolar structure of human action is demanded by it. This in turn shows that the nature of particular acts is not solely determined by the subject; the object upon which the subject acts also makes a contribution to its intelligibility.
Chapter 3 shows that the rationally articulate internal structure of action is the necessary foundation for Aristotle’s account of the degrees of personal responsibility. For Aristotle, an action is voluntary to the extent that is it [End Page 648] unforced and in accordance with the knowledge...