In his Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life, Jonathan Lear reckons with what, it seems, is a long-standing unease about the opening of Aristotle’s Ethics: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good is thought to be that at which all things aim.”
Lear explains: As generations of commentators have noted, the inference is invalid. From the fact that every art, inquiry, action or choice aims at some good, it simply does not follow that there is one good at which all things aim. There has been no shortage of articles criticizing Aristotle—here the oedipal struggle and the desire to get tenure converge—but are we really to think that the founder of formal logic committed such a flagrant fallacy? More insightful commentators assume that Aristotle could not be making such a blunder, and so there have also been ingenious attempts to make this sentence come out right. According to one of the best attempts to make sense of this sentence, Aristotle is here trying to state what the supreme good would be (if there were such). The problem for this interpretation is that there is no textual indication that Aristotle is speaking hypothetically; indeed he seems to emphasize that the good as “rightly been declared” to be that at which all things aim. I suppose one can add “if there were such a thing,” but it seems an interpretive stretch.
Lear does not attempt to resolve the dilemma, and instead, characteristically, cuts a far more interesting path through the thicket, at an angle different from that which others have pursued. But I think the interpretive dilemma can be met with some satisfaction, if we think along the recent work of Sebastian Rödl, whose Self-Consciousness and Objectivity draws on a reading of Aristotle’s account of the human power to know. In Rödl’s reading of Aristotle’s De Anima, Aristotle offers an account of the human power to know, by which the first power to know is determined, or given shape, in a first act as a power to know something (a science), which second power is realized in a particular act of knowing something specific and particular. Looking in the other direction, that knowing of something specific, that second act of knowledge, is understood, by way of inference and the rules of logic, in reference to those principles of science, which are understood as a determination of the initial unformed power to know. This manifold is apprehended as one, when something is known; the movement from first poweràfirst act/second powerà second act does not take place in two steps of judgment, but itself constitutes any single judgment of what is the case.
Rödl’s is an account of knowledge and knowing—but he suggests, in his explanation, that it would be doubled in an account of practical action, which is the subject of Aristotle’s Ethics. Here is Rödl, in the same passage I quoted in my previous post:
Where there is a division of first and second power, the first power is not a power in the primary sense. It does not put its subject in a position to do what it is a power to do. This is to say that the threefold division of power, power/act, act is not a sequence of two twofold divisions. The first power to know does not relate to its second powers in the way in which a simple power relates to its acts. While acts of a simple power spring from this power, a second power to know does not spring from the first power to know. The first power is not a power to acquire a second power to know; the power to acquire a second power is that second power.
If the power to acquire a second power is that power, then a second power comes from itself. And this is what Aristotle says. In Nichomachiean Ethics, 1103a, he distinguishes virtues and crafts (technai) from powers like sight in this way: the former spring from their acts; the latter precede their acts. A power that precedes its acts is one that its subject has by nature (“phusei”), while those that spring from their acts it does not have by nature…This is a distinction of primary powers, that is, powers that enable her who has them to do something [in Rödl’s account of human knowing, the second power acts as a primary power, but the first power does not–OB]. A primary power that its subject has by its birth is a simple power; and when what the subject has by birth, or “phusei,” is not a primary power, then the primary power is a second power. Neither the Metaphysics nor the Ethics identifies a first power that underlies virtues and crafts as second powers. But we can give it a name: it is the power to act, or live, well; it is the power to know the good.
We said a second power comes from itself. Aristotle says a second power comes from its acts. This is the same. For, a second power comes from its own acts, acts of it, this second power, therewith it comes from itself. One might argue that this is impossible: a power cannot come from itself, coming from acts that come from it. For, one would have to have it in order to acquire it, which shows that one can never acquire it. Aristotle calls this argument sophistical, and responds that there is no first instance in which one is acquiring a science, just as, in general, there is no first instance in which something is moving; being in the process of acquiring a science, one has already acquired it (some of it), just as what is moving has already moved (some) (1050a). And surely this is right: there is no time when a child comprehends what she knows through general principles. Any judgment of what is, and is happening, here and now—a second act—always already involves an understanding, however inchoate and vague, of how things are, and what happens in general—first act.
Aristotle does not identify a first power underlying the virtues. Yet he suggests that we bear a relation to the virtues by nature: we are constituted so as to receive and sustain them (“dechesthai”, “lambanein”). This constitution is the first power to act well, or know the good. By virtue of this first power, we are subjects of powers, acquiring and sustaining them, that are not “phusei,” but spring from themselves. (121-122)
The implication is that we could re-write the opening passage of Aristotle’s Ethics as if it were an account of (theoretical?) knowledge, along the following lines: “Every science is thought to aim at some knowledge; and for this reason the knowledge (or perhaps the science, to use Rödl’s own terminology) is thought to be that at which all sciences aim.”
That is to say, that we can read Aristotle, in the opening of the Ethics, not as positing some substantive notion of “the good” any more than we would, on this re-writing, read him as positing some specified body of knowledge. Instead, we can read him as explaining what any specific determination of the good must entail and imply—a broader, undetermined power to know the good. I do not know whether this would be a first power distinct from the first power Rödl describes—but whether or not it is that power or whether it is another first power as it were (something else undetermined of which we are, as it were, formed without it having form in itself, prior to our knowing it through our acts), the parallel holds and we can make sense of what Aristotle means in this opening passage of the Ethics. There need be no anxiety that Aristotle cannot specify the contents of “the good”; we should not expect that any more than we can expect any specific science to specify the contents of “the knowledge” or all of reality. He is, instead, characterizing its nature and its relation to the acts in which it is determined, by which it must be known, and the understanding of which (in the self-conscious setting of ends for oneself) it makes possible.