Aristotle's practical epistemology

Auteur Michael HERTIG
Directeur /trice Alexandrine Schniewind
Co-directeur(s) /trice(s)
Résumé de la thèse

Practical knowledge is the cognitive state that enables one either to be aware of what one is doing, or to know what one should be doing. It has therefore two possible determinations, a descriptive and a normative one. It is usually agreed that Aristotle's concept of phronêsis is practical knowledge, although phronêsis can also be understood as practical wisdom or practical reason. Phronêsis is an intellectual virtue, which is only possessed by virtuous people. As a cognitive state, it mixes the two possible determinations of practical knowledge: it has an informative role as well as a normative one. The agent informed by it knows what he is doing and what is going on in the present situation, on the one hand, and he knows what is the best thing to do, on the other. Therefore, phronêsis is not only a cognitive excellence but also a moral one. Above all it constitutes a very strong, infallible epistemic state.

However, Aristotle has not left extensive comments about the proper epistemology of such a state. In the Aristotelian corpus, there is not much explanation to be found about such things as: in virtue of what is it knowledge? what psychological faculties explain phronêsis? what is its proper object? and so on. Moreover, as an intellectual virtue, it is not shared by many people. This entails as a consequence the rather implausible view that non-virtuous people have no cognitive access to the object of practical knowledge, or only a reduced one.

In my PhD dissertation, I intend to study Aristotelian practical knowledge from a morally neutral point of view. I first enquire the notion of practical knowledge by stressing its proper cognitive features and by distinguishing it as much as possible from the moral side of phronêsis. My claim is that Aristotle has a concept for non-virtuous practical thought and knowledge, which he calls dianoia praktikê. I show the structure and proper object of such a state, as well as its relation to phronêsis.

Then, I enquire the specificity of the epistemology of practical knowledge by explaining its epistemic strength. The Aristotelian account of it tends either to relativism or to an arbitrary elitism. The epistemic superiority of phronêsis is based on itself. Phronêsis is its own norm for the determination of what is practically true or false, i.e. of what definite action as a good or a bad one. I argue that, once the cultural, historical background is removed, there still are elements that explain the strength of practical knowledge as knowledge. Aristotle himself was aware of these elements, even if he didn't treat them as main themes of his research. Such elements are: sufficiently good conditions of observation, confidence in one's belief or decision to act, and a sort of motivation for truth ("absence of bad faith"). At last, I evaluate this position.


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