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What Must We Know to Benefit From Aristotle's Lectures on Ethics?

Carlo DaVia

Aristotle asserts that if listeners are to benefit from his ethics lectures, they must have grasped "the that" (ta hoti) (cf. EN I.4, 1095a30-b7). Many scholars seem to think that ta hoti in ethics refer to “concrete judgments about how people, actions, or states are similar or different and better or worse than one another" (Salmieri, “Aristotle’s Non-‘Dialectical’ Methodology in the Nicomachean Ethics,” 322). In order for listeners to possess these correct concrete judgments, they must have been brought up sufficiently well; they need not have been raised so well as to now be practically wise, but they must at least be akratic, possessing correct concrete judgments, but perhaps not always able to act in accordance with those correct judgments. 

I argue that this view mischaracterizes what Aristotle means by ta hoti, and thereby mischaracterizes the intellectual demands that Aristotle places on his listeners. My paper begins by recalling that to hoti and to dioti are technical terms coined by Aristotle in order to explain scientific knowledge and how we acquire it. As such, the terms appear almost exclusively in the Analytics. In those discussions, to hoti represents a scientific fact: for example, that thunder is a noise in the clouds. For this reason, when we speak of ta hoti as "facts," we should remember that these are rather rarified ones. When Aristotle insists that ethical inquiry begins from ta hoti, he does not mean that we begin from facts in the Fregean sense of “true thoughts,” nor does he mean that we begin from facts in the Austinian sense of  “phenomena or states of affairs” in the world. For ta hoti do not include contingently true states of affairs or true propositions about them. We only possess to hoti when we grasp a feature of some phenomenon that is either a necessary or sufficient condition for the existence of the phenomena in general. For this reason, the only ethical judgments that count as ta hoti are those that express some necessary or sufficient feature of ethical phenomena. 

But what, then, are ta hoti in ethics? In the case of happiness, the ta hoti can be found among the endoxa enumerated at I.4, as well as those appealed to in I.8 in order to confirm his definition of happiness. So, for example, the judgment that happiness is wealth counts as a fact, since wealth is a necessary condition for happiness. And we can come to appreciate why this is the case when we come to understand that happiness is the exercise of virtue, and that the exercise of virtue depends upon our being sufficiently well off.

From all this it follows that Aristotle does not require that his listeners possess all these correct concrete judgments about practical affairs, but only the judgments expressing necessary or sufficient conditions of the ethical phenomena that he wishes to discuss. Of course, these lectures will only be of practical use to those listeners who have sufficiently good control over their appetities and who exercise sufficiently good practical judgment. But this does not preclude listeners who possess ta hoti from getting at least a clearer conceptual understanding of the good life. And this should be a relief to any of us who worry - as Aristotle himself warns us - that teaching the Nicomachean Ethics to undergraduates might be a fool's errand...

Session/Panel Title:

Friendship and Affection

Session/Paper Number

32.3

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