Aristotle on How to Possess Truth

In the third section of the sixth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes another list.

This time, “the states by virtue of which the soul possesses truth by way of affirmation or denial are five in number.” Or, as our panel of translators would have it:

faculties habits mental states states of mind modes means instruments
whereby by which in virtue of which in which by the aid of which
the soul the intellectual faculty the mind
attains truth arrives at truth is true enunciates truth arrives at truth and is in a state of truth
in affirmation or negation in affirmation or denial in whatever it asserts or denies in its decisions affirming or denying whether affirmative or negative

Got that? Basically, there are five methods people use, to come to conclusions about how things are, that are the sort of methods that can be made better or worse in terms of how well they draw true conclusions.

Anyway, those five are (again, using the often wildly divergent translations of our panel):

  1. art (on this one, the translators agree)
  2. science (a.k.a. scientific knowledge, knowledge, deductive science)
  3. wisdom (a.k.a. practical wisdom, prudence, good sense, thought)
  4. philosophy (a.k.a. philosophic wisdom, science, wisdom)
  5. intuition (a.k.a. intuitive reason, intuitive apprehension, intellect, reason, insight, induction)

(Two others, hypolepsis — a.k.a. judgment, supposition, conception, or impression — & opinion, Aristotle says are inherently prone to error and so aren’t included among the five. Taylor explains: “hypolepsis is the assent of the soul to each term of a syllogistic process; and opinion is the assent of the soul to the conclusion solely of a syllogism.”)

Fortunately, Aristotle plans to cover each of these in some detail, so the odd translation-overlaps shouldn’t trouble us much longer.

The first of the five that he delves into is #2 on the list above: science. Science concerns those things that are invariable, eternal truths. We reach these truths by starting with things we already know and then using induction to determine general rules from particular known instances, or syllogism to derive particular truths from general rules. In either case, you have both scientific knowledge and access to the method by which you came upon it — that is, you can demonstrate the logical path that led you to the truth.

“Scientific knowledge,” Aristotle says, is “a state of capacity to demonstrate.” He also says that he goes into this in greater detail in the Analytics, which I haven’t cracked.

Your take-away from this is that science is the ability to get at the truth about invariable/eternal things by using a demonstrable logical process starting from other such truths.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics