Aristotle on Understanding

In the tenth section of the sixth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle continues his examination of practical wisdom or prudence.

In the previous section he looked at the component of prudence called “good deliberation.” Now he’s going to discuss Understanding (a.k.a. Judiciousness, Apprehension, Intelligence, Moral Discrimination, or Appreciation).

By this, he doesn’t mean some specialized department of understanding (medicine, say, or geometry), or the sort of conclusory opinion about absolutes or scientific knowledge about particulars he’s mentioned in earlier sections.

Understanding is “about things which may become subjects of questioning and deliberation” — the same basic subject matter as good deliberation. But while deliberation is meant to help us choose a course of action, Understanding doesn’t concern itself with choice but only with judgment: discovering the nature of a thing or situation. (This can then be fuel for deliberation, of course.) As such, it is distinct from but connected with prudence.

You can use your Understanding to draw conclusions, for instance, about what someone else says when they discuss matters in the domain of practical wisdom. Even if you don’t know enough to judge the specifics of the case, your Understanding can help you decide whether they know what they’re talking about and to incorporate their wisdom into your own — to learn from the wisdom of others, to know a piece of good advice when you hear one.

You can also use Understanding to evaluate the choices of others. Remember that you only deliberate about things that are in your power to decide; but you can use your understanding to come to conclusions about things that other people decide.

Remember how Aristotle said that moral choice happens when reason and desire combine? It sounds to me like maybe Understanding is the reason-half of a morally correct moral choice. But I would think that if this were the case that Aristotle would have made this explicit (or that some of the commentators in my panel would have pointed it out), so I think my Understanding must be weak here.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics