Although we know that sunesis denoted some sort of intellectual virtue in Classical Greece, its precise meaning remains unclear. There is not even scholarly consensus as to the domain of objects that fall under its purview. Is sunesis a virtue concerned with ethical life? Does it involve the possession of technical skill? Or is it exercised when we draw upon prior theoretical knowledge in order to learn new things? There is textual evidence for all three suggestions, among others (e.g. Arist. Nic. Eth. 1142b34-1143a18; Hipp. de Arte Med. 7.1; Plato Crat. 412a). This lack of clarity is reflected in varied and often ambiguous translations of sunesis as “conscience” (Gauthier and Jolif 1958; Sorabji 2014; see also citations in Rodgers 1969 and Konstan 2017), “ethical discernment” (Simon 2017), “comprehension” (Bodeus 1993; Reeve 2013), “intellect” (West 1987), “intelligence” (Stewart 1892), and “understanding” (Engberg-Pedersen 1983).
The present paper will argue that if we consider the attestations of the word and its cognates (sunienai, sunetos) in the classical period, we see that sunesis refers to the insight into something’s deeper significance or value. To have sunesis is accordingly to be able to take the apparent features of an object and “put two-and-two together” (Smith 2000) in such a way as to grasp the object’s underlying significance or value. The objects into which sunetoi can have insight range across practical and technical contexts. They include the speech of oracles and poets, the feelings and intentions of others, situations both past and present, as well as matters of music, medicine, and military strategy. So, for example, those with sunesis can piece together meanings implicated by oracles (Herod. 5.80; Plato Alc. 132c), poets (Pindar Pyth. 3.80; Aristoph. Aves 946), and clever arguments (Aristoph. Ranae 876; Plato Soph. 249e; Demosth. de Corona 111). They can discern the feelings (Eurip. Androm. 919; Orestes 433) and intentions (Aesch. Suppl. 467; Thuc. 3.82.4) of others on the basis of what they say and do. Or they can recognize the full gravitas of a situation (Soph. Oed. Col. 976; Herod. 2.5.3, 3.63; Xen. Mem. 2.6.21). Given the limited presentation time, the paper will adduce only paradigmatic passages for each of these exercises in sunesis.
In light of this semantic analysis, I contend that there is little to no textual evidence that sunesis (i) finds expression principally in “theoretical contexts” in which we understand something by drawing upon something previously said or learned (Gadamer 1998, 14-15) ; (ii) is synonymous with syneidēsis (Sorabji 2014, 16); (iii) denotes our moral conscience (Gauthier and Jolif 1958, 519-533); (iv) involves the ability to grasp what we ought to do in the future (Simon 2017; 84); or (v) refers to the same state as phronēsis (Reeve 2013, 222-227).