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Essays on Aristotle's mean and on universals


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Aristotle's mean and on universals
Date: 10th August 2010 12:55

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 2 August, with your essay for the University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question,

'Is Aristotle's doctrine of the mean either an empty abstraction or a recommendation of mediocrity?'

and your essay for the Metaphysics module in response to the question,

''Resemblance between particulars requires the existence of a universal, so there is no way to eliminate universals from our ontology.' How convincing is this argument?'

Thanks also for your comments on 'egotism' and 'egoism' which I will deal with first. Now that I think about it, one would never say, in UK English, 'He's so egoistical'. You would say 'He's so egotistical'. I don't know why that is. However, in general, dictionaries tend to follow not only vernacular or everyday usage but also try to keep up with advances in the various disciplines. In the US 'egoism' is a recognized philosophical theory (associated with Ayn Rand). In the UK, it isn't (or not yet!). If you said, 'He's an egoist' this would be taken in the same spirit as 'He's a transcendental idealist'. In other words you are describing someone's philosophy.

What to say in an exam? The important point is that 'egoist' can have negative or positive connotations. In it's positive (or neutral) sense, it carries an implicit reference to a philosophical theory (Ayn Rand) while in its negative sense, it merely denotes a fault in character. Arguably, an Aristotelian would no more accept the description 'egoist' when intended as praise than they would accept this when intended as criticism.

Doctrine of the Mean

This is a good essay which deals sympathetically with Aristotle's doctrine of the mean. You can't help feeling admiration for the way everything in Aristotle's theory of the virtues seems to hang together. Your judicious choice of quotes shows that Aristotle was fully aware of the dangers inherent in talking about virtue as a mean between two vices.

In the first quote (the second on page one) Aristotle emphasizes that the mean isn't simply determined by calculation. You need to take account of the circumstances. So the mean will be located at different points between the extremes for different persons in different ethical predicaments, just as there is no single correct portion of food for an athlete in between the extremes of excess and deficiency - it all depends on the athlete and what he/she is training for (consider the demands of Sumo wrestling).

So far so good. But Aristotle shows in the second quote (page 2) that it is not enough to simply say, the degree which a 'practically wise person' would determine. That's what we are trying to find out. What is practical wisdom in this sense? how is it acquired? We know the kind of expertise possessed by an athletics coach, or a physician, what considerations determine the correct amount of food/ exercise or the correct dose of a medicine: what is the correlate in the case of ethical judgement?

You comment that Aristotle 'never really delivers' on his promise. But you go on to make a brave show of it. The doctrine of the mean gives us a method of neatly tabulating the virtues and vices. Just like the Periodic table of elements, the gaps tell us that there are virtues (or vices) which we haven't yet found a name for, but which must surely exist.

But still the main problem posed by the question remains. You almost say this, but it would do with being emphasized, that the alternatives 'empty abstraction' and 'recommendation of mediocrity' are essentially linked - hence the two quotes from Aristotle. But it's no defence against a criticism, that you are fully aware of the criticism. You have to give an answer. I don't think Aristotle has one.

If I was attempting a defence, I would tend to interpret Aristotle's doctrine dialectically, as rejecting certain false views about the nature of moral judgement. Moral judgement is intrinsically something for which there can never be a decision procedure. It's something you learn, through practice. It isn't a science like gymnastics or medicine, and we shouldn't expect ethical knowledge to be capable of being set out as a 'science'. But did Aristotle see this? Or was his 'Ethics' a mere prolegomena to a fully developed ethical science?

Universals and resemblance

You've interpreted this question as a pretext for discussing just about everything you know about universals and different theories of universals, particulars and different theories of particulars. Unfortunately, as a result the main point of the question has been overlooked.

I told another student a few days ago that an examiner expects to see an indication of what your answer is, or where you are going with your essay, by the end of paragraph two. I don't mean that you should follow the traditional (bad) rule of 'Telling the reader what you are going to say, saying it, then telling the reader what you said.' Just say it, that's all the examiner wants. But you haven't, at least so far as I can discern.

The question proposes an argument, a very simple argument, which (prima facie) you don't need to cover all the different possible theories of particulars and universals in order to appreciate. What is that argument?

I actually think there are two possible arguments here: one is the argument that Russell makes (in 'Problems of Philosophy' I seem to recollect), to the effect that even if you eliminate every universal, the one universal you can't eliminate is similarity.

The other argument, which is eloquently put forward by Goodman in his 'Languages of Art', is that there is no such thing as a (brute) concept of similarity. Whenever we compare two objects, there is always a linguistic dimension, in other words, we are applying concepts in order to determine what counts as 'similar'.

Russell's argument would show, more modestly, that we need just one universal (similarity). But this might be thought of as an advance, on the basis of Occam's Razor. It's better to admit just one universal than be saddled by lots of universals. But is that really a saving?

However - and this is where you get the opportunity to discuss the various theories of universals - the one thing the argument doesn't do is establish that we need a traditional, realist theory of universals. Why won't some form of nominalism do? Why not say, along with Frege, that there are sets (abstract objects) and concepts (as essentially 'incomplete' entities) but given these we don't need a third category of 'universals'? Frege's standpoint is, at one and the same time, both throughly realist and throughly 'lingualist'. Universals are dispensable.

Apart from the lack of focus, I think an examiner would worry about the fact that you don't refer specifically to any contemporary philosophers involved in debate in this area. Everything is covered at too high a level of generality.

All the best,