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Method in the Nicomachean Ethics

Carlo DaVia

In a well-known methodological passage prefacing his discussion of akrasia in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle articulates the so-called “endoxic” method.  Perhaps the most prevalent English translation of that passage is offered by W.D. Ross, and reads as follows:

"We must, as in all other cases, set the phenomena before us and, after first discussing the difficulties, go on to prove, if possible, the truth of all the reputable opinions about these affections or, failing this, of the greater number and the most authoritative; for if we both resolve the difficulties and leave the reputable opinions undisturbed, we shall have proved the case sufficiently." (VII.1, 1145b1-7)

The standard interpretation of this method can be characterized by three claims: (1) the method involves a three-step procedure whereby Aristotle first sets forth the relevant ethical phenomena, then raises difficulties concerning those phenomena, and then resolves those difficulties in a way that preserves as many of the relevant reputable opinions (endoxa) as possible; (2) the first step of “setting forth” the phenomena consists of enumerating the relevant reputable opinions; and (3) the relevant opinions enumerated in the first step are the same as those whose truth Aristotle goes on to prove in the third step.  This interpretation of the endoxic method has been consistently held at least since the Paraphrast Heliodorus.

In this paper I will argue that each of the three claims that characterize the standard interpretation is incorrect.  I will instead defend an interpretation of the endoxic method according to which: (1′) the method involves a two-step procedure whereby Aristotle first sets forth the relevant ethical phenomena, and then goes on to show how his account accords with certain reputable opinions; (2′) the first step of “setting forth” the phenomena consists not of enumerating relevant opinions, but rather of developing a philosophical account of the subject matter under discussion, an account that requires first raising theoretical difficulties pertaining to the subject matter; and (3′) the reputable opinions proven true by the philosophical account need not be mentioned while developing that account.

One important upshot of my interpretation is that it can adjudicate a contemporary debate amongst scholars about the scope of the endoxic method.  The majority of scholars in the last century have regarded the endoxic method as the method by which the entirety of the Nicomachean Ethics proceeds.  Some scholars have even seen it as the method guiding all philosophical inquiry for Aristotle.  A growing minority of scholars, however, have come to doubt that the endoxic method is, in fact, the method by which the Nicomachean Ethics (henceforth: EN) proceeds.  My deflationary interpretation involving claims (1′)-(3′) allows us to discern more clearly the cases in which the endoxic method is being applied, both in the Nicomachean Ethics and elsewhere.  Although the method does not, in fact, guide the entirety of the Nicomachean Ethics, it nevertheless finds application in a number of passages beyond the account of akrasia in Bk. VII.

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Problems in Ancient Ethical Philosophy

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