Candace Vogler on Aquinas and Practical Wisdom | Our Scholars at Oxford for Jubilee Centre Conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue, January 5-7, 2017

Inside New College, Oxford, and its Gardens. Photo by JR P (Flickr).

In early January, four of our scholars—Howard Nusbaum, David Carr, John Haldane, and Robert C. Roberts—and our 2 Principal Investigators—Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler—all participated in a conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue held January 5, 6, and 7, 2017 at Oriel College, Oxford, UK, sponsored by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. We are pleased to feature their abstracts and papers here on the Virtue Blog, with many thanks to the Jubilee Centre.

vhml-candace-vogler-photo-by-marc-monaghan20150918_0001_1Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), as well as essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, and gender and sexuality studies. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

Below is her abstract, introduction, and link to her keynote paper, “Aquinas on Practical Wisdom.”

ABSTRACT: “Aquinas on Practical Wisdom”

Various aspects of Aristotelian work on virtue seem to move around each other in circles—correct practical knowledge seems to be measured by right desire, and right desire seems to be measured by correct practical knowledge; having the moral virtues seems to require having practical wisdom, but having practical wisdom seems to require having the moral virtues. Aquinas’s account of practical wisdom is deeply indebted to Aristotle, but Aquinas finds a kind of grounding for practical wisdom in an understanding of human nature at some remove from Aristotle’s, developing a moral psychology that is, in many respects, both richer and more powerful than what we find in some contemporary neo-Aristotelian work. Aquinas devoted considerable attention to both the character of virtue and the nature of vice. He provided a special account of the way in which human beings were oriented toward human good and away from bad that allowed ample room for accounting for the many ways most of us routinely fail to lead entirely well-ordered lives. I will take us into some of the detail of Aquinas’s account of practical wisdom in search of theoretical wisdom about virtue, vice, and human nature.



I will start with what ought to be a commonplace—it is a condition on the intelligibility of animal movement that an animal moves toward what is good for an animal of its kind and avoids what is bad for an animal of its kind. There are exceptions, of course, especially among domestic animals. While even a domestic goat knows to avoid eating tansy, this aversion seems to be beyond the capacities of domestic sheep, and cats and dogs that spend too much time as objects of intense human emotional engagement become strange. But when a non-human animal seems incapable of going for the things that it belongs to such animals to go for, or else avoiding the things that it belongs to such animals to avoid, one wants to know what has gone wrong. Is the animal sick? Are we seeing the unhappy aftermath of myopic animal husbandry practices?


That is the sort of point at issue in the commonplace. And the commonplace frames study of animals generally. For example, there will be certain things one looks for in the course of identifying a new species of animal that point to what animals generally have to seek or to avoid, such as: How does this sort manage nutrition? How does it protect itself? How does it reproduce? In this sense, understanding living things immediately catches us up in very general and rudimentary concern over good and bad, given the kind of living thing in question.[i] I take it that no one engaged in serious study of, say, gray wolves, will become concerned over the possibility that she may be wrong in thinking that Wolf #355 is interested in breeding. She may be wrong in thinking that interest in breeding is what drives Wolf #355 to haunt the edges of that pack this week. He may be after food. He may be trying to join the pack even though membership rarely carries opportunities to breed. But there is no question that food, pack membership, and breeding possibilities are attractive to wolves—the sorts of things that wolves pursue, things that are, for the wolf qua wolf, good.


In short, if we want to understand what is going on with an animal, the framework for our investigation—the thing that sets the terms for our work—is some growing understanding of specific good—that is, what is good for that species of living thing. This is so even when we move from the level of the whole living thing in its characteristic environment to concern over detailed aspects of its biology.


Why does the chemical composition of the primate’s breast milk change? The infant’s need for such-and-such is communicated to the mother’s body during nursing, and the production of breast milk matches the infant’s need. At this level of description, it does not matter whether or not the primates are human beings.


When we turn our attention to human beings’ voluntary acts, however, even though we operate within the same framework of good and bad that guides study of organic chemistry or neurobiology or vision or digestion, we start to lose our grip. What counts as a good human act? What counts as a good way for human beings to manage the reproduction of living individuals? of the species? of modes of social life and interaction?


I have some confidence that I will not be able to interact with a seriously disturbed person in a healing way unless I can see the sense in which her way of moving around in the world is meant to secure a good sort of thing for a human to secure, or else to avoid something that is a bad sort of thing for one of us. Still, the last thing I usually would say straight off when confronted with someone who avoids bathing, screams profanities when approached, and scuttles into dark places rather than make eye contact with anyone is that she is engaged in reasonable pursuit of human good. The merely formal point—living things seek what is good, given the kinds of living things that they are, and avoid what is bad for such kinds of things—may frame our understanding of what people are up to. Nevertheless, what is understandable in humans’ ways of moving around in the world dramatically exceeds the range of ways of organizing one’s life that count as tending to reasonable and harmonious pursuit of human good, or avoidance of what’s bad. Folly, greed, pettiness, cowardice, injustice, despair, cruelty, negligence, callousness, selfishness, and a wide range of more unusual, boutique practical orientations can be perfectly understandable in this minimal sense: they can qualify as directed toward human good, or away from things that are bad for humans. For all that, if we can make sense of these orientations in ourselves or in others, this is because we can see them as attempts—however benighted—to move toward good or away from bad.


Aquinas takes this bit of wisdom about species of living things from Aristotle and develops the point with reference to voluntary human acts in ways that draw from other sources—notably from Augustine, but also from Ambrose, from some strands of Stoic thought, from saints, from scripture, from his teacher, his contemporaries, and others. Aquinas provides a fairly rich and strangely elegant map of human moral psychology. Our choices and actions are all inflected by reason in the sense at issue in treating us as going toward real or apparent human good, away from what is or seems to be bad. This is how what we are up to is potentially understandable even when we are acting in ways that are recognizably unpleasant, short-sighted, or foolish so that human appear, as my youngest sister once put it, to “lack the sense that God gave to mammals.”[ii]


On Aquinas’s schema, we are the animals with intellect. This is, for him, a metaphysical point rather than just an observation about the relative complexity or range of our sort of thinking, feeling, and wanting as contrasted, say, with the sort we think that we find in other species. And part of what is interesting about us, as we find ourselves, is that reasonable and harmonious pursuit of human good is a problem for us. Acquired virtues are cultivated, learned ways of coping with that trouble. And acquired practical wisdom is, for Aquinas, a cardinal virtue.


For obvious reasons, acquired virtues—strengths developed through education, acculturation, practice, and such, the nascent forms of which may begin in dense and complex attachment to caretakers very early in life—are the strengths of interest to most people in my line of work, to educators, and to social scientists. The other sort of virtue important for Aquinas is infused virtue—strength that comes from God and orients us to a supernatural end. I am among those fans of Aquinas who think that we ignore infused virtue at our peril if we are interested in his account of human life, human nature, and the place of substantive good in understanding how things go for human beings. Nevertheless, in what follows by virtue I will mean acquired virtue.


I will begin by giving a quick and crude sketch of Aquinas’s understanding of human moral psychology, by way of introducing his diagnosis of how it is that acting well can be such a problem for us. Moral virtue will come into the story to help us begin to address the problem, without entirely solving it, and practical wisdom—an intellectual strength—will help steady and steer the vessel whose patches and ongoing repair have been the work of moral virtue.

[i] The best work on this topic in contemporary philosophy is by Michael Thompson. For his most concise treatment, see “Apprehending Human Form,” in Anthony O’Hear, editor, Modern Moral Philosophy, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004), pp.47-74.

[ii] Lisa Winans in conversation.

For the full paper and others in this series, visit

Or click here for the paper: Aquinas on Practial Wisdom