30 August 2006

The Fleetingness of Beauty

To play devil's advocate a bit longer ...

What is at issue is whether one cannot substitute 'good' without loss for kalon, (or perhaps, in some circumstances, such bland terms as 'admirable' or 'fitting'), so that there are no grounds for holding that beauty, or moral beauty, is distinctively important in Aristotle's Ethics.

Gabriel Lear thinks that moral beauty is thus important: "according to Aristotle, not only are virtuous actions kalon-- beautiful, fine, noble--but the virtue agent chooses them for this reason". She offers a theory of moral beauty for the Ethics, claiming that:

  1. Aristotle holds that a good action is beautiful in view of its order, symmetry, and boundedness, which make such an action beautiful,
  2. Aristotle thinks of beautiful actions as essentially having a 'visibility' and 'showiness', and
  3. Aristotle regards "the visibility of the fine [as] also important as a condition of its causing (its proper) pleasure."
But I am wondering how this theory is supported by any texts in the Ethics. Lear concedes that there is no direct support for 1.: "Defining the fine as effective teleological order does not yet distinguish it from the good, however" (122). That is: one may substitute without loss 'good' for 'kalon' in all those contexts in which one takes Aristotle to be appealing to "effective teleological order" and dispense with talk of beauty.

She therefore has to put great weight on 2: "If we examine his other remarks about to kalon, we find that visibility or 'showiness' is essential to his conception as well." But she cites the Poetics in defense of this. When she turns to the Ethics she says "Aristotle does not emphasize showiness or quasi-aesthetic appeal in his discussion of virtue as an intermediate." Indeed. She then misdescribes a remark in Aristotle's discussion of magnanimity: "the great-souled person, who is the best and most worthy of public honor (IV.3.1123b28), acts on a grand scale specifically because beauty depends on size (IV.3.1123b5-7)". But that's not what the passage says: Aristotle does not say that the achievement of beauty is a motive of the magnanimous person. (On Lear's misconstruction of the passage, Aristotle would be committed to the view that the kalon could be achieved only in great actions.) Finally she quotes 1177b16-17 and says that "actions of the politikos and the soldier stand out in their magnitude and also in their beauty". But Aristotle writes kallei kai megethei, and why should we think that 'beauty' (kallos) here signifies the same as kalon, as that is applied elsewhere, to virtuous actions that don't 'stand out'?

Similarly Lear gives no compelling texts in support of 3. She defends the claim by appeal to a passage from the Rhetoric: "Whatever is praiseworthy, being chosen for its own sake, is kalon, or whatever, being good, is pleasant because it is good" (1266a33-34). But that passage seems, rather, to undermine her view, since it defines kalon in terms of goodness and pleasure. Accept that it gives the definition of kalon in the Ethics, and one has no need of a theory of beauty: kalon may be eliminated through definition.

29 August 2006

Is There a Theory of the KALON in Aristotle's Ethics?

As is well known, Aristotle uses a variety of words in the Nicomachean Ethics to refer to a good person: good (agathos); serious of purpose (spoudaios); decent (epieikes); and righteous (dikaios). But, for all that, no one would seriously suggest that there is a theory, say, of moral seriousness in the Ethics. To be sure, for Aristotle any good person has 'serious' and 'decent' aspects. Yet it would be absurd to puff this up into some special thesis in Aristotelian ethics. And if someone did wish to propose that sort of puffed up thesis, we might challenge him to find a passage in the Ethics where spoudaios, or one of the others, couldn't be replaced by agathos without loss (except perhaps in 'connotation' or 'tone').

When reading Gabriel R. Lear's contribution ("Aristotle on Moral Virtue and the Fine") to the recent Blackwell anthology on Aristotle's Ethics, I found myself wondering--in spite of my own past thoughts to the contrary--whether agathon and kalon don't work in much the same way as regards actions, and that it would be a mistake, then, to look for a 'theory of the fine' in Aristotle's Ethics. So in my mind I posed a similar challenge, and it was unclear to me that it could be satisfied: Is there any passage in the Ethics, where Aristotle describes an action as kalon, where one couldn't substitute agathon without loss (except in 'tone')?

In her essay Lear simply supposes that kalon has a special sense of 'beautiful' ("according to Aristotle, not only are virtuous actions kalon--beautiful, fine, noble--but the virtuous agent chooses them for this reason"), and then she explains what she thinks this can mean--by relying heavily on Plato, and on works by Aristotle other than the Ethics. But the case isn't so easy to make out, by working up from texts in the Ethics alone.

Indeed, she concedes that it is 'tempting' to interpret Aristotle's common claim that we do virtuous actions for the sake of the kalon, as meaning simply that we do them because of their goodness:

...there is truth in this assumption. What makes actions fine is also (in part) what makes them worth choosing for their own sakes. That is to say, goodness and fineness in action are in large part constituted by the same property (to anticipate: being well ordered by the human good). For this reason, we can learn a great deal about what Aristotle considers intrinsically valuable in the various virtues by examining his remarks on the specific ways in which they are fine.
"Nevertheless," she says, "according to Aristotle the concept of the kalon is not the same as the concept of the good, the agathon". And yet what text in the Ethics could support this claim? Aristotle never compares these 'concepts' there, and, indeed, as Lear admits on the next page, "Aristotle never explains in the NE what to kalon is"!

Furthermore, even if kalon were a different 'concept', it wouldn't follow that anything important hinged on its use (cp. agathos, spoudaios).

Tomorrow perhaps I'll look at the few NE passages that Lear considers and see if any can meet the challenge I mention above.

Books Not Fully Cooked

A paragraph you might have missed, from the end of a review of a recent book on Aristotelian teleology, raises indirectly a question that friends and I have wondered about -- whether standards for book production are dropping, and, if so, why.

Although the editorial production of a book is never entirely the author's responsibility, and in some cases mistakes are made that are not the author's fault at all, a significant number of editorial and typographical errata mar the overall presentation of the work and at times prove quite distracting. Throughout the book, sometimes on the same page, and in some instances even in the same line (75), the Greek for one of Aristotle's central teleological phrases—hou heneka—is incorrectly aspirated, wavering back and forth between hou heneka, ou heneka and even ou eneka. There are numerous errors of punctuation, incorrect italicization and inconsistent capitalization of titles, and accentuation of words in Greek. The capitalization and printing of column letters in the citation of Bekker pages randomly alternates between upper case and lower case; sometimes they are written in superscript, sometimes not. On the very first page of the book, the title of Aristotle Metaphysics is inconsistently italicized in the same line (p. 1 n.1). I caught over 50 typographical errors in the first 150 pages of the book, after which I stopped keeping track. Such errata seem unusual for a prestigious university press, and one hopes that this author's first book--worthy of inclusion in any research university's library--can be corrected in subsequent printings.
I must admit this baffles me. We’re all familiar with the startling experience of discovering a typo on a page that had been checked carefully in proofs by both author and proofreader. But how could multiple mistakes of this sort go unnoticed and uncorrected?

And the blame is to be shared by press as well as author: inconsistencies in citations and format should have been caught by the copy editor, even if an author might be excused for overlooking them.

Is this book, published by Oxford University Press, an exception, or is it part of a larger trend toward poor workmanship in books? And, if the latter, what could be the cause? One might have thought that modern methods of book production would have made it easier to notice and remove mistakes.

28 August 2006

Safe Haven

This time of year my mind turns to arguments as to why a beginning student might wish to study ancient philosophy, or an advanced student might wish to specialize in it.

Comparative arguments are perhaps more persuasive than absolute. For instance, I was persuaded to concentrate in ancient philosophy, in part because of a comparison I had drawn with the degree of scholarship I had encountered in Hume studies. Do you regard it as valuable to become a good scholar? But the scholarly problems in ancient philosophy are more difficult, greater minds had been at work on them, a longer tradition needs to be mastered, and greater skills arerequired, than, it would seem, in any other discipline of philosophy, especially Hume studies.

Do you wish not simply to be clever but also to become learned? But how many philosophers could count as learned? And isn't the case that those to whom one might naturally apply that word (Burnyeat, Nehamas, MacIntyre--one might think of) have expertise in ancient, or medieval, philosophy?

Again, what sort of mind do you wish to develop and have? What do you want your intellectual personality and character to be like? Here there can be strange correlations between the sort of material one studies, that is, the kinds of argument one typically thinks about, and the intellectual characteristics one acquires for oneself--strange, because sometimes philosophers who might seem especially 'analytical' or 'hardheaded' seem to gather about them disciples who write in an opposite and completely unappealing way. Apparently, someone's mind may become more analytical, and clearer, by studying Plato than by studying, say, Quine.

This last point was decisive for me, too, when I began to focus on ancient philosophy--I noticed clarity in the followers of Aristotle, but obscurity in commentators on supposedly rigorous analytic philosophers--as I was reminded when I read a recent review of a book on Quine in NDPR, containing such paragraphs as the following:

There is a continuing strain of contention, running through the relevant literature, one not effectively avoided in the present book, between interpretation of Quine's thesis and evaluation of it. If we assume that the indeterminacy of translation (and meaning) simply is a matter of underdetermination by evidence (of our theory of what is meant), then this threatens to beg the question against Quine: nothing distinguishes the status of translation proposals from empirical theories or hypotheses; nothing affects translation beyond the "usual underde­ter­mination of theory by evidence;" there is nothing "additional." Still, stated as a conclusion of an argu­ment, this is one way to reject Quine's distinctive semantic theses. On the other hand, if it is emphasized that to understand Quine's thesis we must acknowledge that there is something "additional," an impor­tant difference between indeter­mi­nacy of meaning and underdetermination of theory by evidence, then this threatens to beg the question in Quine's favor, though it is also a way to state the conclusion of Quine's argu­ments.
... and ...
This reader senses that the quasi-positivistic owl of Quine's physical­istic-behavioristic reduction of meaning to stimulus meaning always flies at dusk -- after the semantic work of science has established new concepts and meanings along with new theories. Similarly, Quine's totalizing and holistic physicalistic system is found to sleep eternally, remaining, so far as we know, ever incomplete. Again, we may mystify instead of clarify the concept of meaning by exclusively seeking an integrative, physicalistic paraphrase, consis­tent with contemporary physics, of statements we seek to understand.
The first paragraph is attempting to put forward what, I think, is a good objection. But look at how it is written! What person trained in accurate thought (say, an average engineer or accountant) would find this sort of writing admirable?

The second paragraph shows that the reviewer, ultimately not sympathetic to Quine, has apparently been so drawn in by the mysticism of 'indeterminacy of translation', as to write with fantastical images and in near complete obscurity.

Would a mind trained on Leibniz or Scotus, or someone who was used to puzzling through the Categories or Philebus, naturally think in that way?

Me and My Shadow

Or perhaps 'other self'? Either way, a case of willing confusion of identity.

From a pilgrimage to the Vienna Kuntshistorisches Museum.

11 August 2006

Dissoi Blogoi to Resume Monday, August 28

First a move to Cambridge, Mass., and since then traveling, to Washington, D.C., and then to Vienna, Austria ... despite my good intentions, I have lacked stability in my schedule sufficient to blog.

Since it would seem incompatible with smoking fine cigars in Viennese coffeehouses, to castigate myself for not keeping to a resolution, I prefer to guarantee my fidelity, by hereby resolving not to blog until after I return, on Monday, August 28.

Enjoy the rest of the summer! And let's meet again nearer to the end of the month. I'll be looking forward to another academic year of argument, contention, criticism and comment.