Choice and Action in Aristotle

in Phronesis
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There is a current debate about the grammar of intention: do I intend to φ (whose content is an act), or that I φ (whose content is quasi-propositional)? The equivalent question in Aristotle relates especially to choice (prohairesis). I argue that, in the context of practical reasoning, choice, as also wish (boulēsis), has as its object an act. I then explore the role that this plays within his account of the relation of thought to action. In particular, I discuss the relation of deliberation to the practical syllogism, and the thesis that the conclusion of the second is an action.

Choice and Action in Aristotle

in Phronesis



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Charles 198485-6 infers from ae B.2 1139a21-6 that the object of desire is a proposition which ‘is represented as a mode of accepting the conclusion which reason has asserted to be true (e.g. φ is good)’. So whereas an assertion might be represented as ‘as. (x is an apple)’ desire can be represented as ‘des. (φ-ing is good)’. This respects in a way the requirement for a good choice that it pursue the same things that the logos asserts (1139a25-6) but yields a ‘des.’ formula that cannot be read on the model of ‘as.’; for one can assert that x is an apple but not desire that φ-ing is good. (One might desire that φ-ing be good but that would not yield a choice to φ.) Aristotle’s view must rather be that a correct choice pursues what a true logos declares to be good (or the like—no predicate is specified). Such a reading suffices I think to accommodate recurrent assertions of an intimate link between judgement and choice (cf. ae B.2 1139b4-5; ee 2.10 1227a3-5; dma 6 700b23); and it is consistent with en 3.2 1112a3-7 about which Charles 1984 is silent. However Charles has paid attention to those lines since. He now cites them in distinguishing ‘preferential choice’ from ‘the conclusion of practical reasoning’ (2011 193 n. 9). Most recently he has written as follows (2015 80): ‘Preferential choice is not identical with any opinion because it is a distinctive type of truth-assessable state directed to action in which desire and intellect are inextricably connected.’ Here he also cites 1111b33-4: opinion ‘is distinguished by falsity or truth not by badness or goodness while choice is distinguished rather [or more mallon] by these.’ It is unclear to me how he understands mallon which can be either a comparative (‘more than’) or an excluder (if x is ‘rather’ F than G it is not really or precisely G). A comparative reading makes little sense here: if a good choice is also true how is it more one than the other? So I take Aristotle’s meaning to be that unlike opinion choice is strictly not ‘truth-assessable’.


So Gauthier and Jolif 1970ii. 234; cf. Rhet. 2.12 1389a34-5 which says that logismos is of the advantageous virtue of the noble.


Kenny 1979111-12 has doubted whether 1144a31-2 should be so construed; but cf. Price 2011 220 n. 36.


Broadie 1991247 well characterizes the point at which deliberation is complete: ‘The agent’s view of the facts is sufficiently determinate (and the rational choice is made) as soon as he perceives a means immediately within his power and at the same time knows that how precisely he handles it is of no negative evaluative significance.’


See Nussbaum 1978342-3. In trying to make sense in a different way of 701a18-23 Charles 1984 93-4 claims that lsj takes sumperasma within the phrase hupo to sumperasma in APr. 2.1 53a17 to signify ‘the subject matter of the conclusion’ i.e. not a proposition but ‘the objects referred to the proposition’ thus avoiding ‘a use / mention confusion’. If we apply this to dma 7 it is not the conclusion of a practical syllogism but its subject matter that is identical to an action; which replaces a paradox by a truism (although far from facilitating the flow of the text it impedes it). But Charles misreads lsj: what they say is that the term may signify not ‘conclusion’ but ‘subject of the conclusion’; they are in no disagreement with Ross 1949 426 who glosses the APr. phrase as ‘subsumed under the minor term’—a usage that is of no help to us.


Cf. Fernandez 2014179 n. 50: ‘On Aristotle’s view the conclusion of practical reasoning (in the rational case) is the thought of an action as to be done (on the basis of the premisses) which in its turn is not distinct from the actual doing of the action but constitutive of it.’

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