On Intellectual Virtues

Chicken photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mcbarnicle/

After my entry on intellectual virtues and perseverance, my friend Heath suggested that a more clear explanation of intellectual virtues might help to make things more clear, so I thought I would take the opportunity to do that today. This will be a bit more technical than usual, but hopefully the examples will help clarify things.

In discussing intellectual virtues, Aristotle distinguishes between ‘sophia’ and ‘phronēsis.’ Whereas phronēsis is practical wisdom, sophia is better understood as intellectual accomplishment or theoretical wisdom. Sarah Broadie suggests that this distinction is significant because it is one not made by Plato; Aristotle may have been the first to make it. With this distinction made, it then becomes quite important to understand exactly what it is that Aristotle means by practical wisdom, which encompasses the intellectual virtues. Aristotle explains in a passage that has been interpreted in many different ways:

It is [practical] wisdom that has to do with things human, and with things one can deliberate about; for this is what we say is most of all the function of the wise person, to deliberate well, and no one deliberates about things that are incapable of being otherwise, or about the sorts of things that do not lead to some end, where this is a practicable good. And the person who is without qualification the good deliberator is the one whose calculations make him good at hitting upon what is best for a human being among practicable goods. Nor is [practical] wisdom only concerned with universals: to be wise, one must also be familiar with the particular, since [practical] wisdom has to do with action, and the sphere of action is constituted by particulars. That is why sometimes people who lack universal knowledge are more effective in action than others who have it – something that holds especially of experienced people. (NE 1141b10-18)

This passage contains a subtle account of practical wisdom which now needs to be explored. At first blush one is able to see that practical wisdom relates to things about which one can deliberate and relates to both universals and particulars. For Aristotle, universals are general ideas of things. The wise person must have mastery of both universals and particulars, and I consider why below.

It is unfortunate that within the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle follows up this passage on practical wisdom with an example about health and diet, rather than a more straight-forward moral example, which perhaps would have made his discussion of practical wisdom easier to understand and interpret. Aristotle’s example is as follows: “Suppose someone knew that light meats are easily digestible and so healthy, but not what sorts of meat are light: he won’t make anyone healthy, and the person who knows that meat from birds is light and healthy will do so more” (NE 1141b18-23).

This example deals with relationship between universals and particulars. The universal claim is that light meats are healthy. The particular is that this bird, or this chicken, to be more specific, is a light meat. If one knows only the universal or the particular, this knowledge is of little or no help in the effort of becoming healthy. If one knows both that light meats are healthy and that chickens are light meat, then he knows that eating chicken is healthy, and further that his eating this particular chicken constitutes an action which benefits his health. One must know certain facts, i.e., “I know that light meat is healthy.” While this is a necessary part of practical wisdom, it does not constitute the whole of practical wisdom – practical wisdom is more action-oriented. Practical wisdom might be able to suggest, for instance, that we ought to eat this particular piece of meat because it is chicken, which is a light meat and therefore healthy.

Of course, despite this, we ought not to eat it if we are already full, among other possible reasons. To reiterate, what I call practical wisdom here is not just knowing that light meat is healthy, but rather knowing, all things considered, whether we should eat this particular piece of chicken in front of us at this moment in time. In this way, practical wisdom is achieved through an understanding of the universal, but must always deal in the particular. This seems extremely simple in the case of the chicken example because it is extremely simple in this case. However, in other areas, especially in areas of direct moral concern, the application of practical wisdom is not always so simple.

Gerard Hughes provides a parallel moral example: an author asks for an opinion on the novel he is developing and we know it is not very good. In the original example the reasoning was: light meats are healthy, this piece of chicken is light, therefore, this piece of chicken is healthy. In the new moral example, our reasoning might go like this: Being kind is virtuous, saying ‘this will never sell’ now is being kind, therefore, saying ‘this will never sell’ now is virtuous. This situation provides a better example of how practical wisdom would function in a more straight-forwardly moral decision.

Where does practical wisdom enter into this chain of reasoning? I argue that practical wisdom draws upon the other intellectual virtues such as understanding and perception in order to apprehend both premises, and then takes the very practical role of helping one see the way from the correct premise to the correct conclusion, or action. At least part of the practical difficulty in this example is determining that the middle statement is correct: saying ‘this will never sell’ now is being kind. Determining which action is kind is the difficult step in knowing what the virtuous choice is. On a different interpretation, we would not be hard pressed to conclude that telling the author his work will not sell is cruel. Practical wisdom determines that, at least in this particular situation, this apparent surface cruelty is actually the greater kindness, from which follows the action of actually telling the person that their novel will never sell. Hughes explains:

[Practical wisdom] also involves the ability to discern in this particular instance whether saying ‘This will never sell’ would be an act of kindness or an unsympathetic lack of encouragement to a nervous beginner. The ability to discern in this way requires not merely an understanding of what kindness is, but also the experience to use that understanding correctly.

Practical wisdom, then, draws heavily on both universals and particulars, and being able to see these universals and particulars correctly requires intellectual virtue.

If you’re interested in reading more about this,  I develop my own neo-Aristotelian epistemology more fully in my book, Now In Technicolor:

Now in Technicolor: How Television Prevents Us from Living the Good Life

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