Tuesday, 15 May 2018

An Interpretation of Aristotle's Epistemology

Aristotle’s Epistemology

            Book Six of the Nicomachean Ethics deals with the intellectual virtues and what is essentially Aristotle’s working epistemology. Aristotle answers how it is a human being comes to understand things. He gives five instances in which humans understand but quickly reduces them to four. He writes, “Let us assume there are five ways in which the soul arrives at truth by affirmation or denial, namely; art, science, prudence, wisdom and intuition.”[1]

Each of these deserves some commentary in relation to education, leisure and the intellectual life. However, these translations can be problematic and misleading. Therefore, some Greek translations and certain Latin translations will be used. 
            The first is techne, which is translated as skill, art or craft and involves general know how.  The possession of technemeans one has certain skills for a certain type of production. This could be the production of a sculpture, the production of good health by a physician or the production of music by a musician. It can be thought of as applied science, which deals with production. However, Aristotle curiously says that it is less like knowledge and more like luck. Aristotle writes  “there is a sense in which art and luck operate in the same sphere.”[2]There can be four different ways that the soul arrives at truth, or understands something. In this sense, it is not counted as an intellectual virtue.  


The second way to arrive at truth is episteme, which is translated as science, or more accurately as scientific knowledge. However, it sometimes deals with the functioning of nature (physis) and the world of necessity. “The object of scientific knowledge is necessity.”[3]This is based on the empirical observations[4]and the classification of nature, which Aristotle popularized. Episteme deals with knowledge for its own sake and in regards to leisure, philosophy and science tend to form a continuum, since they are both part of the intellectual life of the mind. In the Posterior Analytics Aristotle technically defines epistemeas knowledge of a universal through its causes. In the MetaphysicsAristotle explains all forms of change and rest with his explanation of the four causes: the material, formal, efficient and final causes[5]of a bronze statue. However, episteme has no actual access to the first principle and in this sense is a detached and truncated form of knowing. 

The third is phronesis, which is translated as practical wisdom and sometimes as prudence (which can be misleading).Phronesis deals with particulars, things that could have been different and is the subject matter of ethics and politics. Aristotle writes, “Clearly then prudence is a virtue and not an art… Yet it is not merely a rational state, as is indicated by the fact that such as state can be forgotten, but prudence cannot.[6]
While one can think about making a good choice, phronesisis an engrained habit of character. That is why he distinguished it from a rational state and it is something deeper that can be easily forgotten. This is the nature of habits. Aristotle also thought that some people naturally had the practical wisdom to live well. While most people need to be educated and learn from experience to gain good habits for life. 

The fourth is Sophia which is generally translated as theoretical wisdom. It involves the skill of thinking in universals, such as the subject matter of mathematics of logic. It is also translated as simply, wisdom, and refers to one who is very wise and engages in acts of genius. It is famously, if not inaccurately said that Plato had written over the door of his Academy, “Let no one enter, who is ignorant of geometry.”[7]This meant that one needed to be familiar with universal truths and was wise before studying philosophy. However it needs to be noted that Plato used the term sophiaas wisdom to refer to both practical and theoretical wisdom. Therefore, the technical distinction between the two forms of wisdom comes in Aristotle. He uses sophiato specifically mean theoretical wisdom which is a synthesis of epistemeand nous. As Aristotle writes, 
The wise man must not only know all that follows from the first principles, but must also have a true understanding of those principles. Therefore, wisdom must be intuition and scientific knowledge: knowledge ‘complete with head’ (not truncated or having separation between first principles and their demonstrations) of the most precious truths.[8]

Finally, the English word philosophy is based on the combination of philia (loving friendship) and sophia (theoretical wisdom). Therefore, a philosopher was someone who was a lover of wisdom. A philosopher is someone who is free to pursue the theoretical life. 

            Finally, the fifth way of human understanding is νοῦς (nous)which is often translated as intellect and related to intuition. This topic can lead to some confusion, since at the time of Aristotle nous could refer to intelligence generally. Plato writes in the Philebus that, "all philosophers agree…whereby they really exalt themselves…that νοῦς is king of heaven and earth. Perhaps they are right."[9]The importance that Aristotle gives to νοῦς is seen in his definition of human nature as uniquely intelligent. "Therefore for man, too, the best and most pleasant life is the life of νοῦςsince the intellect is in the fullest sense the man. So this life will also be the happiest.”In the Phaedo, Socrates on his deathbed states that it was his discovery of the concept of νοῦς in the pre-Socratics, namely Anaxagoras, as the ordering principle of the universe, which had stimulated his life of philosophy.  While the concept ofnous can be the subject of debate, for the present purposes, his definition in the Ethicswill be used. He defines nousas that which grasps the fundamental principles of things in thought. It is the mind’s eye, which involves the intelligibility of things and is similar to the vision of the eye, which makes sight possible. 
Scientific first principles of nature cannot be known through episteme, which deals with the invariable nor through phronesisand techne since they deal with things demonstrable and variable. As Aristotle writes, 
Nor again are first principles the concern of wisdom, because the wise man possesses the ability to demonstrate some things. So if the state of the mind by means of which  we reach the truth , and are never led into error, with regard to things, both variable and invariable are episteme, phronesis, sophia and nous: and if it cannot be any one of the three of them, namely phronesis, episteme, and sophia; what remains is that state of mind that apprehends the first principles is nous.[10]

Therefore, nous is the capacity to think like a human and the unifying principle of the mind. Finally,nous has also been associated (controversially) with the idea of immortality in Aristotle. Nousis sometimes considered the portion of a human being that survives bodily death, when based on certain interpretations of Aristotle’s De Anima.


[1]Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 1139b15.
[2]Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 1140a20.
[3]Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics1139b25.
[4]Plato’s idea of the divided line has a hierarchy of knowledge and reality starting with singular pieces of empirical data, up to beliefs based on experience and repetition, into the grasping of reason and knowledge of the forms, and finally and ultimately the vision of the Good itself. 

[5]Aristotle, TheMetaphysics,1013a30.
[6]Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 1140b30.
[7]Socrates says at the very least that: “geometry will draw the mind towards truth, and create the spirit of philosophy”.Republic527.
[8]Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 1141 a16.
[9]Plato, Philebus,28 C.
[10]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics,1141 a37.

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