Phenomenology and Virtue Ethics
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Phenomenology and Virtue Ethics

Kevin Hermberg, Paul Gyllenhammer, Kevin Hermberg, Paul Gyllenhammer

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Phenomenology and Virtue Ethics

Kevin Hermberg, Paul Gyllenhammer, Kevin Hermberg, Paul Gyllenhammer

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The correlation between person and environment has long been a central focus of phenomenological analysis. While phenomenology is usually understood as a descriptive discipline showing how essential features of the human encounter with things and people in the world are articulated, phenomenology is also based on ethical concerns. Husserl himself, the founder of the movement, gave several lecture courses on ethics. This volume focuses on one trend in ethics-virtue ethics-and its connection to phenomenology. The essays explore how phenomenology contributes to this field of ethics and clarifies some of its central issues, such as flourishing and good character traits. The volume initiates a conversation with virtue ethicists that is underrepresented in the current literature. Phenomenology and Virtue Ethics offers contributions from prominent phenomenologists who explore the following issues: how phenomenology is connected to the ancient Greek or Christian virtue tradition, how phenomenology and its foundational thinkers are oriented toward virtue ethics, and how phenomenology is itself a virtue discipline. The focus on phenomenology and virtue ethics in a single volume is the first of its kind.

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Part I
Phenomenology and the Tradition
Phainomenon and Logos in Aristotle’s Ethics
Lawrence J. Hatab
If we want to know how phenomenology can address virtue ethics, surely we must begin with Aristotle as the first phenomenologist who thought about virtue.1 How are we to understand him as a phenomenologist? Aristotle seems unique in the Western tradition up until the nineteenth century: for Aristotle, human beings belong in the natural world and are at home in it. There is no other reality than the world we inhabit. Unlike Platonism, medieval philosophy, or even modern philosophy, human existence is not subject to some fundamental flaw (respectively: embodiment, the fall, or common sense) that philosophy is called upon to repair. For Aristotle, the ordinary world of our experience is fully prepared and meant to elicit philosophical understanding. Philosophy, therefore, will begin with how the world already appears to us in various ways, before we philosophize. Philosophy amounts to an explication, clarification, and improvement of natural experience, especially through gathering patterns and organizing concepts (see Physics, 184a16–21).
Aristotle’s phenomenology is therefore a philosophy that begins with natural and cultural appearances, an orientation that can be understood in four main ways:
  1. Investigation should begin with observable phainomena, through which the search for explanations can properly proceed (Parts of Animals, 640a15ff). Phenomena are the “witnesses” and “paradigms” for philosophical inquiry (Eudemian Ethics, 1216b26ff). Contrary to speculative metaphysics and etiological stories, Aristotle insists that the “why” and the “what” of things cannot be examined before the “that” (to hoti) of things; to reverse this order “is to inquire into nothing” (Posterior Analytics, 93a15–28). Aristotle takes his point of departure, not from theoretical constructions, but from what is immediately apparent in perceptible encounters. These phenomena should be understood essentially as perceptible wholes, in the way that things (like trees) present themselves to us in ordinary experience—an orientation that distinguishes Aristotle’s thinking from Platonic transcendence and the elemental reductions of earlier natural philosophers and atomists.
  2. Investigation will be guided by language. Aristotle often begins by consulting what “is said” or what “we say,” by taking certain meanings or usages as given.2 He then proceeds to think with and through these linguistic inheritances toward clearer and deeper insights. In general terms, Aristotle assumes an intrinsic correlation between language and being; the elements of being cannot be understood apart from what is said of them (Metaphysics, 992b19–22).3
  3. Philosophy should consult both “the many” and “the wise,” that is, both common beliefs and refined insights (Topics, 100b22ff). The implication is that philosophical findings should be neither so unusual as to violate familiar senses of things nor so familiar as to rest solely with ordinary experience.
  4. With respect to “the wise,” Aristotle begins most of his investigations with a survey of historical precedents that have marked philosophical understanding so far, with the aim of sorting out what in these sources is appropriate or inappropriate to phenomena. Contrary to some readings of Aristotle that take his surveys to be simply setups meant to valorize his own thinking by contrast, Aristotle seems to genuinely believe that philosophy should build from beliefs that have already found a place in human thinking (see Metaphysics, 993a30ff). For Aristotle, it is hard for human thinking to be entirely in error.4
Aristotle’s philosophy
As opposed to the transcendent tendencies in Platonism and the abstract deductions typical of earlier philosophers, Aristotle was a thoroughgoing realist and naturalist, and his thinking stressed particularity and plurality. Consider Aristotle’s concept of ousia, the primary sense of being as the unified reference for descriptions. Ousia, for Aristotle—unlike the Platonic conception of being and the connotations of the Latinate “substance”—is primarily a “this something” (tode ti), an imminent, concrete presence in experience (Categories, 3b10–12). Species and genera are ousia in a secondary sense, in that they reveal something about being, but not in a primary sense (2b29–31). Secondary ousia (e.g. the universal “tree”) does not exist in its own right (hence Aristotle’s critique of Platonic Forms). The primary sense of ousia suggests the radicality of the “that” over the “what,” the sense of presence in temporal experience.
Aristotle’s ontology of nature is essentially about temporal finitude, motion, and change. In the Physics, he investigates the explanations and ordering principles of nature (phusis), which is directly identified with movement and change (Physics, 200b12). Things of nature have an intrinsic principle of movement, as distinct from things brought into being extrinsically by production (192b10ff). Phusis, then, has to do with self-manifesting beings. The task of analysis is to make sense out of change and movement, which Aristotle accomplishes by way of the concepts of matter and form, which are given a dynamic quality in the concepts of potentiality (dunamis) and actualization (energeia). It is important to stress that both dunamis and energeia are active concepts, for Aristotle. The two together represent a single model of process (201a10ff). Dunamis as potentiality is not simply possibility, but an active power, a capacity to develop; and energeia as actuality is not simply a finished state, but being at work (ergon) in the actualizing of potential. Form (eidos), then, cannot be understood simply as a static “shape,” but rather as the active self-organization of a developing being (194b27). Notice that energeia and dunamis are coordinated with telos (end) in Aristotle’s coinage of entelecheia (literally “having-an-end-in” one’s being), so that the movements of phusis involve a being-toward, a self-emerging being on the way toward a not-yet that can-be, which is to say, a coming to presence of an absence (Physics, 191b13ff). In thinking ousia as a concrete occurrence in natural experience, Aristotle is able to give movement, change, time, and negation their appropriate senses of being.
In Aristotle’s text on the soul (psuchē, understood as life), we have a phenomenology of an active, temporal movement animated by potentiality. The soul is the form of the body’s matter, not as something separate from the body but as the gathered actualization of potentials in a living being, an active capacity to function and develop (De Anima, II.1). For Aristotle, the self is essentially an activity, not a static entity. There is a unified coalescence of capacity, activation, performance, and being in human nature in such a way that we are a living and a doing (NE, 1167b31–1168a10).
Unlike the subject-object bifurcation in modern philosophy, Aristotle’s reflections on the soul offer a bipolar conception of self and world. Though sensation and its object are not the same being, they have one and the same energeia (De Anima, 425b27–9, 426a16–18). In an analogous way, thought is potentially the same as the things it thinks (429a13–17). Thinking is nothing until it thinks something in the world and what it thinks must be in thought (429b3–431a1). The actively thinking soul is the things it thinks (431b16–18). In this account of activity, Aristotle alludes (417a15–18) to a discussion in the Physics (III.1–3) where he claims that in activity the agent and patient are a single process of actualization (illustrated by teaching and learning, building and a house being built). The agent is not something self-contained in an interior zone, “cut off” (apotetmēmenē) from the object of its activity (202b2). The potential of both is actualized in a single bipolar process. Not only does Aristotle accept the existence of the external world without question (Physics, 193a2–3), his realism goes so far as to claim that mind and world are a single joint activity, that the mind is meant to know the world and the world is meant to be known by the mind. We have here a single correlation rather than a relation between two separate spheres. The very being of thought is essentially correlative with what it thinks (Metaphysics, 1021a27ff).
The realism of Aristotle is not of a uniform kind. First, there is the plurality of being: “being is spoken of in many ways” (Metaphysics, 1003a34). Whatever unity there is in the notion of being will at best be analogical, since being cannot provide a universal genus (1042a23). Different forms of being all “point” to ousia, but not in a uniform way (1003a33–4). Aristotle also gives a pluralistic account of truth in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics. There he stipulates two basic modes of the soul’s “having logos” (logon echon): (1) that involving beings whose origins cannot be otherwise (necessary being), and (2) that involving beings whose origins admit of being otherwise (contingent being), which calls for bouleusis, or deliberation and decision (1139aff). The “virtue” of each mode is its own proper function or work (ergon) in relation to the different spheres of being. What follows is a discussion of five “intellectual virtues”: pertaining to the first mode of logos are epistēmē (scientific knowledge), nous (intuitive grasp of indemonstrable principles), and sophia (wisdom); pertaining to the second mode are technē (skill in making) and phronēsis (practical wisdom or acting well in human affairs). Aristotle then identifies these five virtues of thought with five modes of truth, which are defined as the different functions and dispositions of the different virtues; indeed, the virtues are five ways in which the soul is alētheuei or “in the truth” (1139b12–18). Aristotle is here connecting truth with the very being of the soul. Moreover, it is evident that truth is not limited to statements of scientific exactitude; it also applies to inexact modes of discerning appropriate action in spheres such as ethics. For Aristotle, there is truth in human living (praxis) that is different from conclusive, demonstrative forms of truth.
Aristotle’s ethics is prepared in his analysis of the soul. As indicated earlier, the human soul is not something separate from the body, but the active capacity to lead a natural life. And the capacity (dunamis) that moves human life is desire (On the Soul, 433b1), understood as a striving toward conditions in the world affecting the actualization of potential. Desire (oreksis) cuts across all three parts of the human soul: as appetite in the vegetative part, emotion in the sensitive part, and wish in the rational part (On the Soul, III.10). Desire involves the experience of an absence with respect to a desired condition (orekton), which opens up the structure of striving toward a desired end (telos), as well as the need for deliberation and choice regarding different ways of actualizing potential ends. Deliberation about desire has an essentially temporal structure in considering future possibilities in terms of present aims in the light of past experiences (433b5–10). This brings us to the sphere of ethics.
Aristotle’s ethics
For Aristotle, ethics, like any other area of inquiry, must begin with phainomena before relevant questions are sorted out (NE, 1145b2–8). In the following passage, notice how a phenomenology of ethics includes the main elements sketched earlier in this investigation (the “that,” language, the many, and the wise):
One ought not to demand an explanation [aitian] in all things alike, either, but it is sufficient in some cases for it to be shown beautifully that something is so [to hoti], in particular such things as concern starting-points [archē]: the “that” comes first and is a starting-point. And of starting-points, some are beheld by way of examples [epagoge], others by perception, others by becoming experienced in some habit, and others in other ways. So one must try to go after each of them by the means that belong to its nature [pephukasin], and be serious about distinguishing them rightly, since this has great weight in what follows. For the starting-point seems to be more than half of the whole, and many of the things that are inquired after become illuminated along with it. And in connection with the starting-point, one must examine it not only from its conclusion and supporting premises, but also from the things that are said about it [legomenōn].
. . . Some of these things are said by many people and from ancient times, others by a few well-reputed men, and it is reasonable that neither of these groups would be wholly mistaken, and that they be right in some one point or at least or even in most of them (1098b1–30).5
An additional element in Aristotle’s phenomenology of moral life is that we must already be ethical to a certain degree before we think about ethics. Here the importance of upbringing and the inheritance of ethical shaping are essential to ethics (1103b22–5). Moreover, the extent to which normative factors are already operating in human life is indicated in the first line of the Nicomachean Ethics:
Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim (1094a1–3).
The ubiquity of the good means that Aristotle does not pursue metaethical questions such as moral skepticism or the is-ought divide, because human life is value-laden all the way down.6 So the question is not whether ethics can be justified, or whether one should be ethical, but rather how one should be ethical.7 A good deal of Aristotle’s ethics is simply stipulated (e.g., the nature of virtue), or taken as given, or accepted from precedents—a phenomenology that can surely frustrate the justification agenda marking so much of Western philosophy. Thinking about ethics, for Aristotle, b...


  1. Cover-Page
  2. Half Title
  3. Series
  4. Title
  5. Contents
  6. Notes on Contributors
  7. Phenomenology and Virtue Ethics: An Introduction Kevin Hermberg
  8. Part I Phenomenology and the Tradition
  9. Part II Theoretical and Contemporary Comparative Accounts
  10. Part III Application of Phenomenology as a Virtue Discipline
  11. References
  12. Index
  13. Copyright