Aristotle’s analysis of akratic action

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Introduction. The question whether akratic action is possible, for Aristotle, is first and foremost the question whether it is possible for people to understand that they should not perform some specific action (e.g., to have the drink that they are being offered) and nevertheless to act against that understanding. Aristotle’s analysis of akratic action in NE vii 3 is one of the most-discussed passages in Aristotle’s corpus. Its interpretation has been, and continues to be, highly controversial. The present chapter offers a reconstruction of Aristotle’s train of thought in that chapter. Some parts of that reconstruction may be familiar; other parts may not. We shall focus on the central passage that deals with the manner in which the akratic person, while she acts akratically, understands that she should not do what she is doing. Before turning to that passage, we should consider two passages in the chapter that precedes Aristotle’s analysis of akratic action, in which he articulates the difficulty that his analysis is meant to resolve. They may offer some clues as to how Aristotle conceives of akratic action. The first passage (NE vii 2.1145b22-31) is one in which Aristotle briefly discusses Socrates’ position about akrasia. According to Aristotle, Socrates thought that nobody acts contrary to what is best, while holding the appropriate correct supposition. Rather, acting contrary to what is best is always a matter of acting because of ignorance, where this must mean not only lack of understanding but also lack, at the time of action, of the correct supposition concerning what is best. Aristotle points out, reasonably enough, that Socrates’ conception manifestly conflicts with what appears and is widely held to be the case. Nonetheless, Aristotle is notably prepared to take seriously the possibility that the affection in question, by which he means the defeat of understanding or correct supposition at the hands of some passion, comes about because of ignorance. “One should investigate,” he says, “about the affection, if it does come about because of ignorance, what manner of ignorance that turns out to be” (1145b28-29).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781139022484
ISBN (Print)9780521192767
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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