Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Aristotle Says You Know More Than You Think

Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics. I don't remember why they're Nicomachean.
I used to sit on the back bumper of my truck to read philosophy. If I went anyplace comfortable, I'd end up taking a snooze. Gradually though, I became trained into the thinking and it became a snap. Like every other skill, it takes practice. So I was reasonably cocky when I got to Kant. (Whoa.) Talk about overwhelmed.

This Scholar's Choice?
The part I turn to over and over again in the Ethics is the "kinds of knowledge". Everybody knows a ton of things, but they're not on the same level--how to tie a shoe, how to execute a warrant so all exits/entries are safe, what is seen and unseen . . . Aristotle calls the different kinds of knowledge "states of the soul."

There are a number of blogs on my roll and elsewhere that deal with better skills, better mindset, a deepening awareness and a wider view. So this seems relevant to their conversation. I simplified about six or twelve pages in my old text. These are All Paraphrases unless in quotes. Use of the Greek term frees you a little from previous usages of the word "intelligent" or "crafty" or even  "idiotic".

6.2 Scientific thought: episteme--
Episteme is concerned with what is demonstrable, things we know by necessity. It is reasoning--induction and deduction. Episteme is ultimately based upon the unknowable. Think about your geometry class. The first thing you learned is the difference between an axiom and a theorem. You learned a few axioms (unprovable) that were necessary for every theorem and geometry proof you did for the rest of the year.

6.3 Craft knowledge: Techne
Techne is reasoning used in production, reason used toward the craft of making things. How to sharpen a spear, cook a dinner, set a broken arm, bind a book. It is also poetry, which is a "made thing", a production rather than an action. Sometimes craft is Not about perfection. Think about Greek statues, the development of "true to life" sculpture. Then think about caricature--a deliberate, often pleasing attempt to be Not perfect.

6.4  Intelligence, sometimes translated as Prudence: Phronesis
Phronesis is concerned with living well. "We call people intelligent [in a certain field] whenever they calculate well to promote some excellent end [in that field], in a place where there is no craft." In other words, phronesis is about strategizing an action rather than a production, and that action is supposed to get you to a better place.

The Scope of Phronesis is wider than that of Episteme or Techne: it is concerned with "living well" and therefore it is about prudent behavior (such as proper manners) which tend to extend across fields of endeavour. These are Teachable things. They get passed down and across in society. I think the implication here is not moral in the sense of spiritual things. And yet it seems moral, for instance, to treat people well. Aristotle goes back and forth over this, and I think in the end that Prudence is a powerful component of the word. To do well what is expedient. To consider the community good, in Aristotle's classifications, is considered more intelligent, than considering one's personal good by itself.

Little footnote: the "idiot" in Greek is "the person who thinks only of himself". (Bet you know a bunch of them.) This means an idiot is not necessarily "stupid" but "self-centered."

6.5  Understanding: Nous
The grasp of first principles. It comes before the other three, and is concerned with the way we know the "unreasoned out"--the "understanding" or realization of the axioms necessary to scientific thought, technical craft, and intelligence. It is the basis of the first three.

6.6 Wisdom: Sophia
Wisdom is not concerned with action or with craft. It is a combination of episteme (induction/deduction) and nous (understanding). Aristotle says it is NOT Intelligence or even Political Science (the rules of governing men) because Man is not the most important thing. It is a thinking about Universal Principles such as goodness or honor that extend past man. It is the use of Reason to divine what these universal principles are and how they relate.

Comprehension: a little hairsplitting by Aristotle.
Once you make distinctions, you find you have to cover all the bases:
Comprehension is the rapid understanding of other arguments, which may or may not be true. Here Aristotle's translator uses the word "considerate" for comprehension, and he doesn't mean "mannerly" but "taking things under consideration". Comprehension is the ability to "get" what other people are saying. It is different from intelligence, because what you "get" from another might not be true or proven. Yet it is different from nous/understanding, because it will be derived from another person's true/false episteme/intelligence rather than a first principle.

For an example
Take an ambulance run, where the EMS passes information to the ER staff: quick, based on episteme (science-rapid deduction/induction) and phronesis/expedient knowledge (intelligence, protocols, strategies). The ER staff is going to comprehend the EMS report, verify all of it with better tools and hopefully more time, and accept or reject the preliminary findings by a second set of episteme. In the meantime they are all practicing craft (techne)--driving, entubating, ACLS, then surgery or aftercare, to produce both Health and, a stable city-state.

Beyond this, both the E.R. and the EMS are guided by a Universal Principle that doing Good is most important (Sophia/Wisdom), and a societal Intelligence/Phronesis that human life should be preserved. The system is frequently gamed by idiots who think of nothing but themselves (or their drug habit)--but we say they have false principles and less Phronesis/intelligence.

One last virtue in Aristotle that seems relevant to my friends in blog-land:
Sophrosune, or Temperance: The virtue of self-control, or restraint in action, thought, governance, and even production.

Okay, that's your philosophy lesson for the month and maybe even the year from Ann T. Hathaway.
I hope you found this a light but useful tour. Just think how much you know and in how many categories!!

Reference: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin, Hackett Publishing.


Mrs. Bunker said...

Beautiful summary! I think that's more than I learned in my undergrad class. Could you do a metaphysics review please? I never got to the point of reading it easily. Kant's the best; "unsocial sociability". That I get.

Slamdunk said...

Wow, I think you should work on a "Philosophy for Dummies" like me. I appreciate being challenged to learn something and you never disappoint here Ann T.

I did laugh at your "reading on the bumper" trick for dense material. My approach is to read and pace (which usually includes a wall bump or two).

Ann T. said...

Dear Mrs. Bunker,
Attempting metaphysics at this time, ah. Would take much sitting on bumper of truck. The truck no longer exists in time or space (perception or reality?) But with a "good will" in time it may be possible.

I'm glad you two enjoyed this. Just the whole act of separating things out is pretty interesting. I've been thinking about the different knowledges as I read other blogs, so it was a nice review for me too!

Slamdunk, I think it was Hemingway who used to type his manuscripts standing up. . . . we are in good company!

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.