Friday, July 22, 2016

Aristotle: Challenges in Interpretation

Aristotle's theory of well-being, as Richard Kraut presented it, is a tangled mess.

I am reading through the Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Bing, trying to prepare for graduate school. The second article in this anthology, "Aristotle on Well-Being" is proving to be a slog.

The problem begins with the fact that Kraut's term for that which constitutes well-being is "advantage". That which constitutes the ultimate end of human action is supposed to be that which is valued for its own sake and not for the sake of someone else. Yet, "advantage", as I understand the term, refers to an instrumental good - as something that is useful.

For example, in a battle, one side may have a height advantage or an advantage of interior lines of communication. A chess player may have a positional advantage, or a runner may have an advantage in virtue of having trained at higher altitudes. In each of these cases, what gives a person an advantage is something that is useful - something that serves some other end (typically, winning).

This might simply be an idiosyncrasy on my part having no impact on the argument. However, when Kraut argues for this in part by pointing out that Aristotle uses the term to refer to several crafts - all of which happen to be useful.

To read him in this way, we need only observe that every activity Aristotle mentions, after his opening line, can plausibly be understood as an endeavor that seeks some goal on the assumption that it brings some advantage to someone. He is, in other words, implicitly offering an inductive argument for a narrower and stronger claim than the one with which his treatise begins. “Health is the end of medicine, a boat of boat building, victory of generalship, and wealth of household management” (1094a8–9). In each case, it is advantageousness that motivates a pursuit. Similarly for all of his remaining examples: bridle making, horsemanship, generalship. The doctor is not aiming at pleasure (his own or that of his patient) or at something beautiful, fine, and noble. He is trying to benefit a sick individual. Similarly, each of the other activities mentioned is obviously designed to bring about some beneficial consequence.

Boats and bridles are both useful. Medicine concerns such things as the absence of pain or discomfort (the counterpart to pleasure) or with restoring mobility, the use of a limb, or other biological functions that an agent finds useful. Victory in military matters - the concern of the general - similarly serves whatever ends that motivated the battle to start with. These are not things valued only for their own sake.

There is an additional problem in that we are looking at things written long ago in a different language. Perhaps "advantage" is not the best translation. Or, perhaps, it is my understanding of "advantage" that is flawed. The meanings of words change over time, and within certain communities. Perhaps there is a linguistic community that uses "advantage" to refer to something that is an end rather than a means - that uses the term as I may use the term "privilege" or "status", for example.

These are the complications of language - and they are always with us.

This is not a posting about Aristotle as much as it is a posting about difficulties in communication. Some people read as if a phase wears its meaning on its surface. Instead, every phrase comes with a huge context that is relevant to its meaning. Sometimes, it takes real effort to figure out what somebody is saying. An individual unwilling to put in the effort ends up swatting at air.

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