Photos and Opening Remarks: Practical Truth and Virtue

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On April 21-22, our co-PI, Jennifer A. Frey, hosted a philosophy workshop at the University of South Carolina titled, “Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition.”  Frey hosted an international group of philosophers on campus in Columbia, SC to discuss the importance of the concept of practical truth, both historically within the Aristotelian tradition and in terms of its relevance for contemporary philosophical debates about action, practical reason and virtue.  She is currently pursuing the possibility of publishing the essays in an edited volume.

In her opening discussion of practical truth, Professor Frey discussed her reasons for thinking the concept of practical truth is central to a philosophical account of virtue. What follows is a condensed version of her basic argument.

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Let us start with the claim that the knowledge the virtuous person possesses is a distinctive kind of knowledge, what the ancients and medievals called practical knowledge or practical wisdom. What marks the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge and wisdom?  Well, traditionally the thought was that it is grounded in the distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning, which Aristotle differentiated in terms of distinctive ends or aims (their distinctive work or operation as modes of reasoning).  Theoretical reasoning, Aristotle argued, aims at an understanding of being or what is, and its measure is truth; such reasoning is finished (i.e., its work is done) when truth is grasped intellectually.  Theoretical wisdom, the perfection of theoretical reasoning, aims to know general and timeless truths about the highest or best objects of contemplation.  But practical knowledge, by contrast, aims at praxis, at realizing or making actual a good human life through deliberative choices of certain actions and activities; it aims to realize what is truly good in particulars, in human actions.  If we say that its measure is also truth, it must be truth of a special kind, one that somehow hooks up with realizing what is truly good.  It cannot be a truth that ends with an intellectual grasp of what is; rather, it would have to be a truth that is achieved in the living of a certain life, in a praxis.

It is worth noting, in this regard, that Aristotle thought one could possess theoretical but not practical wisdom—theoretical but not practical truth.  Suppose, for instance, that someone excels in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and general cosmology.  Such a person grasps the way things are ordered at the most basic and fundamental level, and he can apply these most general principles to explain much of what happens in the world.  Suppose he has devoted his life to this kind of knowledge.  Of course, this in no way guarantees or even tends to the cultivation of his moral virtue. Perhaps he is lascivious with women outside of the lab; perhaps he is willing to lie, steal, and cheat when it allows him more time and grant money to pursue his passion for science, perhaps he is a coward and incapable of helping others in need; and so on.  None of this necessarily impacts his ability to do great science; and, more importantly, nothing about doing great science inoculates him against developing a gross moral character.

It wouldn’t change anything, I suspect, if we added theology to the list of studies to which our imagined knower dedicated himself.  Being able to argue about the metaphysics of the Trinity does not necessarily make you a loving or good person either.  A mere change of topic won’t cut it.  For the same reason, one might even be a great moral theorist and have a bad moral character; that is, one might have theoretical knowledge about practical subject matters but not the practical dispositions that lead to making good decisions and living well.

This goes back, once again, to the different inherent teleologies or inherent aims of the two different kinds of reasoning.  Practical reasoning is not practical in virtue of having a special kind of content; it is not ordinary theoretical thought and inference suddenly turned to the topic of human good. Practical reasoning is practical because it aims to realize some good or end that the agent desires—most especially the desire to live well or to flourish.  Such reasoning depends on the agent wanting to realize some end or objective or good; thus desire for some good is essential to practical reasoning, it is the arche or starting point of such reasoning.  This explains why Aristotle defines practical truth as “truth in accordance with right desire.”

Now, if practical knowledge and reasoning essentially aims at action, and if such thought depends for its teleology upon a certain appetitive orientation, then it can only be successful when the agent brings about the goods in question through the use of this very thought and reasoning.  So it is somewhat misleading to say that the practically wise man knows how to live, because again, he may know this as a theory rather than as a praxis.  To come to know the praxis would require a different kind of training that the one the moral theorist typically receives.  What we might strictly speaking say of the practically wise man, if he is really practically wise, is that he knows he is living well, not simply that he knows how to live well, generally speaking.  For the knowledge is operative in the practically wise and is the explanation of what he does—of his choices and actions.  The manifestation of the knowledge is primarily in what he does rather than what he says.

Thus it seems to me that there is a difference between a theoretical conception of living well, which the moral theorist might possess, and a practical conception of living well, which only the practically wise possess. It also strikes me that the good or happy life is one that displays a kind of truth about human nature and human beings—a truth about what our good is.  But again, this is a distinctively practical kind of truth that is displayed in living well, not simply in the possession of correct general propositions or principles.  One sees practical wisdom and practical truth principally or paradigmatically in action, as it were, not standing behind it.

In contemporary virtue ethics, there is almost no discussion of practical truth.  But if the line of reasoning I have outlined is roughly correct, virtue ethics needs an account of a distinctively practical notion of truth just as much as it needs a distinctively practical account of knowledge and wisdom.  The point of the workshop (and eventually, the collected volume of papers) is to begin to advance such an account in light of our understanding of the Aristotelian tradition, broadly construed to include Aquinas and the work of Elizabeth Anscombe.

April 21-22: Join us online for these Keynotes for the workshop Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition

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Join us online for these Keynotes of Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition:

IS PRACTICAL TRUTH A CHIMERA? QUESTIONS FOR ANSCOMBE
Anselm Mueller, Trier University | University of South Carolina
4:30 pm EST, April 21, 2017

THOMAS AQUINAS, THE BEARER OF PRACTICAL TRUTH, AND THE RATIONALITY OF ACTION
Stephen Brock, Holy Cross University | University of South Carolina
4:00 pm EST April 22, 2017
For more information about this workshop including the speaker list, schedule, and to live-stream the keynotes, visit https://virtue.uchicago.edu/aristotle

https://virtue.uchicago.edu/aristotle

Live streaming from UofSC April 21-22: Stephen Brock and Anselm Mueller

If you’re not able to attend, join us online April 21-22 for each of the two keynotes of the workshop “Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition”. We’ll be live streaming the two keynotes from the University of South Carolina at  https://virtue.uchicago.edu/aristotle

brock_1Stephen Brock, Holy Cross University – “Thomas Aquinas, the Bearer of Practical Truth, and the Rationality of Action”

Interpreters of what Aristotle calls practical truth differ about what its bearer is or what it is properly said of.  As a result, they also differ about the distinction between practical and theoretical truth.  It is generally agreed that the bearer of theoretical truth is an assertion or a judgment about some matter, and that such truth consists in the judgment’s describing the matter correctly.  But while some hold that the same account applies to practical truth, others hold that its bearer is an action, and that what it consists in is the action’s conformity with right desire.  Thomas Aquinas thinks the bearer of practical truth is a judgment.  In this paper I present his position, consider some objections on behalf of the opposing view, and suggest what he would think is at stake the issue.

Stephen Brock’s keynote will be April 21 at 4:30 pm eastern time.

11Muellerevent_20160411_2364Anselm Mueller, Trier University – “Is Practical Truth a Chimera? Questions for Anscombe”

In a number of papers, Anscombe raises the “great question”: What is practical truth (PT)? Her answers are not elaborate but clear enough to raise further questions such as: Does PT have truth-conditions? What can be rendered practically true, and by what? – What Anscombe calls PT appears to be secured by actions’ being implemented in conclusion of a valid practical inference in which you derive a way of acting from good ends. But whose truth can be thus secured? If it is practical thought, its PT will require two seemingly separable conditions: goodness of ends, and implementation of the practical conclusion. This would deprive the notion of PT of the unity Anscombe’s explorations insinuate. If, on the other hand, PT is exhibit by actions, how can it also be produced by implementation of practical thought (= action!)? – A solution to the problems I have hinted at is suggested by consideration of the fundamental teleology of human nature.

Anselm Mueller’s keynote will be April 22 at 4:00 pm eastern time.

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Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition | UofSC April 21-22, 2017

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Free and open to the public | Registration (required): click here

Contact Person: Jennifer A. Frey

The term ‘practical truth’ can be traced back to Aristotle. Although there has been much recent work into the importance of the concept of practical knowledge for our understanding of human action and ethics, very little work has been done on whether there is a distinctively practical notion of truth that accompanies it. This workshop brings together historians and contemporary theorists to better understand the nature and importance of practical truth–both for our understanding of the Aristotelian tradition and for contemporary moral theory.

Keynotes:

Stephen Brock, Holy Cross University

Anselm Mueller, Trier University

Speakers:

Samuel Baker, University of South Alabama

Patricio Fernandez, University of Navarra

Jennifer A. Frey, University of South Carolina

Matthias Haase, University of Chicago

Adrian Haddock, University of Stirling

Christiana Olfert, Tufts University

Sergio Tenenbaum, University of Toronto

For more information or to register, visit https://virtue.uchicago.edu/aristotle

Days 1-2 Working Group Meeting in Chicago – photos

Our 2nd working group meeting of scholars met June 6-10, 2016 at the University of Chicago in the beautiful Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. Although the sessions were closed, you can read our scholars’ abstracts for their June Meeting Topics here and see more photos up in our Flickr album for the week.

 

 

Rationality & Virtue: Interview with Anselm Mueller

 

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Anselm Mueller delivering a public lecture “What Do We Live For?” on April 11, 2016.

Rory O’Connell, PhD student at the University of Chicago interviewed our visiting scholar  Anselm Winfried Mueller in June 2016.

 

Rory O’Connell: When did you first become interested in the topic of virtue? 

 

Anselm Mueller: I am not quite sure, because it must have happened about half a century ago. My PhD thesis, on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, betrays quite different interests. When I came to Oxford in 1965 to do more research in philosophy and was made to write brief essays for supervision sessions, I picked up, for this purpose, all sorts of topics that were in the air at the time – a time when philosophy was flourishing in Oxford. I remember that the philosophy lecture list announced more than 100 classes for any one term, many of them offered by big names. My interests still related to theoretical philosophy. But I did go to a lecture on “Virtues and Vices” that Philippa Foot then gave. Being new to the place, I was not aware that what she was doing in that lecture – e.g. approaching ethical questions via examining the ascription of goodness to components of plant and animal life – was not at all typical of Oxford moral philosophy, which at the time was dominated by Richard M. Hare’s Utilitarian Prescritivism. However, when I studied the lecture list, I myself could not help feeling that the topic of virtue was somehow soft and marginal if not out-dated! Why on earth did I nevertheless attend that lecture?

My first supervisor in Oxford was Anthony Kenny, himself an expert on Aristotle’s Ethics and his account of virtue. It must have been the wise and kind advice given by Tony that made me choose Philippa’s lecture. Later on I was supervised by Elizabeth Anscombe. Among the many topics that I discussed with her was that of practical reasoning, which her book Intention had brought to the attention of philosophers and which I suppose drew me into the philosophy of action and later ethics. It was through Elizabeth also that I got to know her friend Philippa well. Over the years we had many conversations about questions of moral philosophy, esp. in 1998-99, when I was on sabbatical leave at Corpus Christi College, and Philippa was in the course of writing her wonderful book Natural Goodness. Without the influence of these three brilliant philosophers as teachers and friends I would probably not have found virtue such an intriguing and fertile subject matter.

 

RO: So there was a degree of luck in it! What are your own research interests in relation to virtue now?

 

AM: You do not need to do “Virtue Ethics” in order to be interested in the notion of virtue. In the moral philosophy of Kant, for instance, the ideas of autonomy and law are central; nevertheless he published a voluminous treatise half of which he brings under the title “Doctrine of Virtue”. And neither Philippa Foot nor Elizabeth Anscombe (whose famous paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” tells her colleagues to replace the study of “moral obligation” by that of virtue) wanted to be classified as Virtue Ethicists. They treated the notions of human nature and practical rationality as central to ethics.

In the Aristotelian tradition, the virtues of character are viewed as reliable dispositions to act well in the various domains of human life. This may give rise to the investigation of questions such as: what kind of constitution makes the virtues reliable, how they may come to be formed (and lost), whether they leave room for freedom and individual ideals, whether there is a continuum of moral qualities between virtue and vice and whether virtue allows for weakness of will; or: to what extent an objectivist understanding of morality can accommodate cultural and historical variation in the specification of the virtues; or: what is the source of the distinction between different virtues, what a life of virtue looks like in regard to physical needs, to relationships, to one’s roles in society, to the cohesion and welfare of a political community; or: how it relates to one’s well-being, self-interest, pleasures, goals and, ultimately, happiness.

I have tried to take up these questions in a book I published in 1998 under the title Was taugt die Tugend? Elemente einer Ethik des guten Lebens. But already in that book, and later in some articles written in English, my chief interest was in the sort of rationality that the virtues seem to incorporate and confer on ways of acting well. This topic is itself one that branches out in a number of directions. But it is, I think, fundamental to a correct understanding of what a virtue is. And you have to get reasonably clear about it in order profitably to tackle those other questions.

 

RO: If you were forced to summarize, what would you say the importance of rationality to virtue was?

AM: To get clear about this, we must first of all distinguish two uses of the word “reason”. More particularly, we may ask on the one hand: “Why is it that human beings ought to practise virtues such as justice or courage?” and on the other, questions like: “Why ought you (as justice happens to require here and now) to give 200 dollars to NN”? In answer to the first question we have to mention a reason that explains the fact that the practice of those virtues is good for a community of human beings, whether these are aware of that fact and its explanation or not; perhaps we will show that they cannot get on well, or at all, without them: that the virtues are “rational” in the sense of functional. An answer to the second question, by contrast, will tell us what leads you to act as you do when you act as you ought to. Here, the reason is a consideration that prompts you to give someone 200 dollars. And this consideration is not the functionality of justice but rather, e.g., your having borrowed 200 dollars from them. In giving them the money, you are then not acting justly unless you do it because you borrowed 200 dollars from them. The rationality of virtue here amounts to this: Acting justly does not consist in giving the money, but rather in letting yourself be guided by a kind of reason that is characteristic of justice.

What, however, about the question “Why act justly”? It seems to sit somehow between the two questions just considered. On the one hand, it is not answered by the particular reason that you may have here and now, in accordance with justice, to give someone 200 dollars or, say, to treat two people alike. Nor, on the other, will our reasons for acting justly typically be the same as the reasons why justice is functional or necessary for a human community. Well, in general, our reasons for acting justly will be rather indeterminate, mixed and inarticulate. You may have a vague idea that you have to follow your conscience, or that you want to be this kind of person rather than that, or that by acting justly you will qualify for an eternal reward – or whatever. (And, by the way, some kinds of such “background motivation” would actually call your justice into question; e.g. if your “just” conduct is a matter of satisfying others’ expectations, or of appearing to be just.)

So there are these ways in which the idea of virtue raises questions of rationality. But there are others. Thus, it can be virtuous – or vicious – to treat a certain sort of situation as a reason not to act in a certain sort of way. (Honesty requires you to treat the falsehood of a claim as a reason not to make it.) Again, it can be virtuous – or vicious – not to treat a situation as a reason to respond in a certain manner. (Courage requires you not to treat a small risk as a reason to abandon an important aim.) Nor is it only ways of acting whose virtuous or vicious character is determined by what I call a “motivational pattern”. An emotion, too, can be morally good or bad: on account of the kind of behaviour or thought the emotion’s subject inclines towards in response to relevant situations. (Think of, say, compassion on the one hand, envy on the other.)

We can also ask whether virtue or vice are at work wherever we can speak of reasons for this or that sort of conduct; whether the implementation of the virtues in varying circumstances requires a kind of deliberation that is qualified specifically to cope with ethical challenges … – and other questions concerning practical reason. Further, various issues raised by an Ethics concerned with the virtues seem not to relate to their rationality at all: How are the virtues identified, and counted? How are they formed? Can they be lost? Do not many virtues primarily serve other people rather than the virtuous agents themselves? If so, how can great philosophers claim that acting well is constitutive of happiness? And so on. On inspection, however, almost none of these questions can be adequately answered unless we first gain a clear understanding of the ways in which the notion of a virtue involves the notion of practical rationality.

 


Anselm Mueller is Professor Emeritus, University of Trier, and a Visiting Professor with the project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life”. A student of Elizabeth Anscombe and Anthony Kenny at Oxford in the early sixties, Professor Müller has taught philosophy at Oxford University, Australian National University, University of Trier, University of Luxemborg, and Keimyung University. He has written many books and articles in the following areas: ethics, rationality, action theory, philosophy of mind, and the history of philosophy.

Rory O’Connell is a PhD candidate in philosophy at The University of Chicago. He works on practical reason and the philosophy of action.