Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Aristotle and Ideology

The discussion of θεωρια and φρονησισ (roughly meaning theory and practice) in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is very helpful in understanding what critics mean by 'ideological politics' and how non-ideological politics is even possible (something ideologues often doubt).

I'm working from a translation that renders 'φρονεσισ' as 'prudence,' which is fine, as long as one understands what is meant by that is practical sagacity, and not timidity or an unwillingness to take risks. Aristotle differentiates theoretical and practical knowledge: the former is about universals and gives us necessary truths, while the latter has more to do with particulars than universals and its truths are less certain:

"Scientific knowledge is supposition about universals, things that are by necessity... Prudence, by contrast, is about human concerns, about things open to deliberation... Nor is prudence about universals only. It must also acquire knowledge of particulars, since it is concerned with action and action is about particulars."

The difference between the two realms is significant enough that someone may be very sharp theoretically but a 'klutz' in terms of practical action:

"That is why in other areas also some people who lack knowledge but have experience are better in action than others who have knowledge... Indeed [to understand the difficulty and importance of experience] we might consider why a child can become accomplished in mathematics, but not in wisdom or natural science. [This surely applies far less to today's highly abstract physics than to Aristotelean natural science.] Surely it is because mathematical objects are reached through abstraction, whereas in these other cases the principles are reached from experience."

The above, in fact, points to a good definition of what constitutes a political ideology: An ideology tries, by creating an abstract world of political 'principles' (e.g., the 'non-aggression principle') to make politics, a practical activity requiring experience, into a theoretical activity that even a bright child can become adept at through textbook learning. As Oakeshott would have it, an ideology is a 'cheat sheet' for those lacking political experience.

However, the creation of an ideology rests on a confusion:

"It is apparent that prudence is not scientific knowledge; for, as we said, it concerns the last thing [i.e., the particular], since this is what is achievable in action. Hence it is opposite to understanding. For understanding is about the [first] terms, [those] that have no account of them; but prudence is about the last thing, an object of perception, not of scientific knowledge."

By mistakenly equating political prudence with scientific knowledge, the ideologue has made a crippling error. Not that he can actually conduct politics as a sort of theoretical activity: in fact, he will again and again fall back upon disguised practical reasoning in forming his supposedly theoretical conclusions. But the contortions involved in doing so are damaging; as Collingwood said, "A person may think he is a poached egg; that will not make him one: but it will affect his conduct, and for the worse."


  1. Gene,

    You seem to be arguing that prudence in the realm of politics cannot or should not make use of principles. Is this the case? If so, I think you are misusing Aristotle here. If not, then your argument against libertarianism per se falls flat.

  2. No, I am arguing that replacing prudence with a principle, like the NAP, is to try to replace theory with practice.

    "And we must have read Plato's Philebus and Aristotle's Ethics to very little purpose if we do not understand that, in principle, the fullest universal of character and consciousness will embody itself in the finest and most specialized and unrepeatable responses to environment; and that life, and especially its intensified forms as morality or knowledge, do not consist in observing general rules, but in reacting adequately, with logical, that is, with fine and creative adjustment to the ever-varying complexities of situations. Precision, measurableness, and universal law, these are in the moral act, but they are features of the solution of problems by constructive organization, and not of obedience to abstract rule, and the same thing is relatively true of the adjustments and arrangements of a highly unified society." -- Bernard Bosanquet

  3. Who replaces prudence with the non-aggression principle? Politics for a libertarian would be a matter of applying the NAP, which is a matter of prudence. To suggest that the NAP (as principle) is incompatible with politics is like suggesting that the Pythagorean theorem (as principle) is incompatible with carpentry.

  4. "Who replaces prudence with the non-aggression principle?"

    Oh, perhaps Murray Rothbard, when he reaches conclusions, as in The Ethics of Liberty, that it is aggression to coerce a parent to care for his/her infant? Or perhaps you, when you state politics is just a matter of applying the NAP, rather than carefully balancing the many principles that apply to politics.

    "To suggest that the NAP (as principle) is incompatible with politics is like suggesting that the Pythagorean theorem (as principle) is incompatible with carpentry."

    IF I had "suggested" that, you'd have me there, Daniel! What I really said was that someone who would claim that carpentry is just a matter of "applying" the Pythagorean theorem is a Pythagorean ideologue!

  5. The NAP may be a first principle of politics, but that does not imply that it is the only principle at work when a libertarian does political philosophy.

    Indeed, citing Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty is not a good illustration of the point you are trying to make, because he explicitly grounds the NAP within a natural-law framework and takes into account many particulars that make detailed cases, such as parent-child relationships, difficult. (I take it that I am reasonable in assuming that your disagreement with his conclusions is not per se a demonstration that Rothbard has abandoned prudence.)

  6. "and takes into account many particulars that make detailed cases, such as parent-child relationships, difficult..."

    I would say "rode roughshod over the many particulars."

    If there is a single work of modern politics that illustrates the sort of thing Oakeshott was criticizing in "Rationalism in Politics," it is The Ethics of Liberty. No crazed Marxist ever wandered as far from prudence in making their recommendations.

  7. I think Block is the worst offender, see the flagpole example.

    Anyway, this type of libertarianism is constructed with the purpose of being as principled as possible, else it just leaves room for the state and aggression. This is quite clear.

  8. "I think Block is the worst offender, see the flagpole example."

    Don't remember the flagpole example, but his "pry loose the fingers of the person who caught ahold of your porch while falling to her death" example is pretty damned bad.

  9. I think we are talking about the same thing, then. I always took that example as a reductio ad absurdum, refuting the NAP. When it is offered as an illustration of applying the NAP in practice it is quite hilarious.


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Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews