Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Phronesis as Poetic: Moral Creativity in Contemporary Aristotelianism

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Phronesis as Poetic: Moral Creativity in Contemporary Aristotelianism

Article excerpt

IN BOOK 6 OF HIS NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, Aristotle distinguishes phronesis or "practical wisdom" from poiesis or "art," "production." Neither deals with the universals of pure science or theoretical wisdom but rather with "things which admit of being other than they are," "the realm of coming-to-be." But phronesis "is itself an end," namely "acting well" (eupraxia), whereas poiesis "has an end other than itself" (heteron to telos), namely a work of art or a product. (1) Phronesis is realized insofar as it is practiced well in itself, and it involves right deliberation about goods internal to human action such as courage and justice. Poiesis is realized insofar as it produces something good beyond itself, in the making of noninternal goods such as crafts or goods imitative of action such as stories. Aristotle is here modifying Plato's limitation of the role of the poets in his moral republic, but in a milder form that does not see the poets as actively distorting morality but rather performing a different kind of activity. Practical wisdom and poetics are both teleological practices--that is, practices aimed at some end--but the first finds its end within the practice itself, the second finally beyond it.

Such a distinction between ethics and poetics has had an enormous influence over Western moral thought. Augustine's Confessions condemns rhetoric and public amusements as morally corrupting to the soul. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica repeats Aristotle's distinction almost word for word. Immanuel Kant's second and third critiques draw a sharp line between the objectivity of the moral law and the subjectivity of aesthetic taste. The Romantics and Friedrich Nietzsche turn the opposition on its head, contrasting the stultifying laws of morality with a more authentic inner creativity "beyond good and evil." (2) Today, Jurgen Habermas, for example, can uncontroversially divide moral intersubjective "normativity" from poetic inner-subjective "expression." (3) We hold artists, storytellers, craftspeople, and scientists accountable to moral criteria governing the uses of their creative products (as in limits on pornographic viewership or the employment of nuclear weapons); and artists may deal with moral subjects. But the activity itself of making or creating that defines "poetics" is generally assumed to be different in kind from the activity of living an ethically good life.

This paper explores a range of contemporary Aristotelian perspectives on ethics to suggest new ways in which, beyond Aristotle himself, phronesis or practical wisdom does in fact involve a necessary element of poetics, making, or creativity. After examining ethics and poetics in the rather different appropriations of Aristotle made by Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum, I then go farther a field to the more innovative and postmodern use of Aristotle made by Paul Ricoeur. Each of these contemporary ethicists takes us a step deeper into the relation of moral phronesis and poetics. On these bases, I then challenge this ancient quarrel between the philosophers and the poets and argue that phronesis holds promise as a vital moral category today precisely insofar as it is conceived of as creative at its core.

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Let us start by asking why the distinction between phronesis and poetics is important to Aristotle himself. It has been noted that the Nicomachean Ethics has two related but different definitions of phronesis. (4) The first definition concerns the human good or end. Phronesis here is "the capacity of deliberating well about what is good and advantageous for oneself." (5) It is the "intellectual virtue" specifically concerned with understanding the moral good. One deliberates through phronesis not just "in a partial sense" but regarding "what sort of thing contributes to the good life in general." Thus, the phronimos, or practically wise person, is good at grasping the nature of the good as such. He understands, for example, what it means to be courageous or just, and uses this understanding to act courageously or justly in actual situations. …

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