Sunday, June 28, 2009

Index of Greeks Terms

aretê praxis
logos New! theoria
mythos New!
I have in mind a glossary of Greek terms, since my understanding of Greek is largely self-taught, and hard fought for. And since I tend to talk about the Greeks regularly, I thought this might make it easier for others. I intend to pool the resources I have available--explication of the terms is largely a selection of passages from books I happen to have on my shelf. These are what I learned from, so now it's a little more public for others to peruse.

This is a work in progress, so the list will expand, and old terms will be returned to as I find more bits to include and round out what is there. The object is to give a wide selection of authority, so not all the scholars will agree with each other. Conflict, in this case, is good to get a sense of scholarly controversy, which gives an amateur, like ourselves, a better sense of how far we might go in our meandering through the material.

One note on the Greek spelling: this is all cobbled together, none of it from any kind of teaching I've received. One of the difficulties of reading ancient Greek for an amateur is that, when you read writings from over a 100 year span, a single word evolves in its "look" as scholarship evolves (ideally, becomes better and better). Just as around the age of fifteen, I learned that Chiang Kai-shek was now Xiang Kai-shek, so we learn that the proper transliteration of Greek letters into Roman is not "Socrates," because Greek does not have a "C," but actually "Sokrates." However, the weight of tradition bears down, and no English-speaking classicist I've read actually spells it that way. Not so with other words however, as I learn that a "Y" is actually a "U": its neither "mythos" nor "physis," but "muthos" and "phusis" (so far as I can figure). And that's not even talking about the accents above the Roman versions, and let alone the proper Greek spellings (which themselves have changed as versions of the ancient texts have gotten better).

Because of all that, I've taken no principled measures at standardization, for how could I: the whole exercise is built out of my lack of professional training and knowledge, which is the only thing that would give me some principles to go by. Instead, I've done this--except in the case of aretê (which is Nehamas' version), I've eliminated all accents in my Roman transliterations. I have then used that single transliteration for all occurrences in passages I've chosen, thus giving the appearance of scholastic continuity. The reason for choosing one transliteration over another, however, is purely ad hoc: the weight of tradition (and most of my books) gives me still yet "mythos," but I like Hadot and he uses "phusis."

I'm intending to use, roughly, four different kinds of scholars. 1) The out-dated scholar (e.g., Zeller, Snell, Dodds)--these are the authorities who taught; 2) the current scholar (e.g., Nehamas, Vlastos, Nussbaum)--these are people, though sometimes now dead (Vlastos), are still presiding authorities in the field (as far as I can tell); 3) the scholarly philosopher (e.g., Bernard Williams, MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Rorty)--these are people more interested in their own projects then "getting the Greeks right," but still produce fascinating insight into the Greeks and how they might be relevant today; 4) people lower down the foodchain--some you can tell more rely on other people's authority in their Greek explication (like me), some are scholars that I've never heard of from other scholars (and so, as far as I can tell, they are less authoritative figures). But they still tie together stuff interestingly and usefully sometimes.

I have two notes to the above:

1) All seven of the examples in (2) and (3) are professional philosophers, by which I mean none of them are classicists, in the strict sense, who should be my standard 2-types as opposed to 3-types. Nehamas, Vlastos, and Nussbaum I think all count (based on their work) and my only trouble is holding Williams off into (3), when a good demarcation point would be, say, "Has the person given the Sather Classical Lectures (one of the top honors for a classicist)?" Nehamas has, but then so has Williams. I hold Williams over into (3), though, partly as fanciful retribution for his jerky attitude to Rorty over all those years (it would pain him to be classed so), but mainly because I find that while Williams' cavalier ironing out of cultural differences serves him well in dealing, e.g., with some of Snell's more extravagant claims about the Greek Mind, I'm also not sure he allows for as much difference as there is (which is a tricky question he was certain to acknowledge). For people familiar with Rorty's categories, (2)-people are intellectual historians and historical reconstructors, while (3)-people are rational reconstructors and Geistesgeschichte-writers.

2) There are two people I foresee including that fall outside my four types: Heidegger and Walter Kaufmann. In Heidegger's case, it is well known that he talked a lot about Greek words, but willfully shaped them for his own purposes. He's a hyper-(3), and so I wish to be very explicit--take him as an historical authority at your own risk. He is very interesting, however.

Kaufmann's case is the opposite--I know very little about Kaufmann's place in the academic power-grid known as "authority." I've pieced together quite a bit about a lot of people from all sorts of different avenues, but Kaufmann is a virtual blank space. What I do know is that he was the authority on Nietzsche for a long time (comparable to Vlastos on Socrates and Plato). I think he was well-respected on Hegel. But otherwise, he was a maverick philosopher, who had a certain sort of--well, contempt for fellow professional philosophers. I have never found reference to his work on the Greeks, despite the fact that I find a lot of nourishment in them. So I'm including them, but I have no idea in what frame we should read them. One thing I do know is that Kaufmann, Vlastos, and Rorty all taught at Princeton at the same time (and Nehamas, I'm pretty sure, took classes from all three while there), and my guess is that Rorty--who was hired by Vlastos to teach Greek philosophy--over the course of his 15 some years there strayed from Vlastos (the consummate professional) to Kaufmann (the maverick, continental-lover). That's just my guess.

In addition to the Greek, I will also include when I can a Latin equivalent, culled from the helpful glossary Richard McKeon (the infamous Chairman of ZMM) appended to his Selections From Medieval Philosophers, Vol. II. He says there that the glossary's purpose "is to clarify the terms and distinctions used in the preceding translations." (422) This means that information he provides is in part conditioned by the scholastic tradition of philosophy, rather than common usage. As he says, the "writers in the middle ages had constantly in mind detailed distinctions and precise usages." (He also mentions that his selections, which determine the relevant list of terms, have focused on epistemology and logic, rather than ethics, politics, theology, metaphysics, and physics.) Since Greek philosophy has in part been handed to us through Latin mediators, I thought it would be useful to supply where possible some of the interconnections (and disconnects) between our Greek and Latin heritages.


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1958, 1998. (theoria)

Bloom, Allan. The Republic of Plato. Trans. with notes and interpretive essay. (New York: Basic Books), 1968. (aretê, logos, mythos)

Cornford, F. M. The Republic of Plato. Trans. with introduction and notes. (New York: Oxford University Press), 1941, 1945. (mythos)

Crisp, Roger. "Logos" in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert Audi. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1995, 1999. (logos)

De George, Richard T. "Praxis" in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. ed. Ted Honderich. (New York: Oxford University Press), 1995. (praxis)

Dent, Nicholas. "Logos" in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. ed. Ted Honderich. (New York: Oxford University Press), 1995. (logos)

Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1951. (aretê)

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy. trans. P. Christopher Smith. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1978, 1986. (theoria)

-- --. Praise of Theory. trans. Chris Dawson. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1983, 1998. (logos, mythos, praxis, theoria)

-- --. Truth and Method. 2nd rev. ed. 1st ed. trans. W. Glen-Doepel, 2nd ed. rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. (New York: Continuum), 1960, 1975, 1986, 1989. (theoria)

Guthrie, W. K. C. The Sophists. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1969, 1971. (aretê)

Hadot, Pierre. What Is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1995, 2002. (aretê, theoria)

Hallie, Philip P. "Carneades" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 2. ed. Paul Edwards. (New York: Macmillan Publishing), 1967. (theoria)

Harrison, Jane Ellen. Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. Rev. with additional chapters by Gilbert Murray and F. M. Cornford. (Cleveland: Meridian Books), 1912, 1927. (mythos)

Jaeger, Werner. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, 3 vols. trans. Gilbert Highet. (New York: Oxford University Press), 1939, 1945, 1965. (aretê, theoria)

Kennedy, George A. On Rhetoric. (New York: Oxford University Press), 1991. (logos, theoria)

Kerferd, G. B. "Aretê/Agathon/Kakon" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1. ed. Paul Edwards. (New York: Macmillan Publishing), 1967. (aretê)

-- --. "Logos" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 5. ed. Paul Edwards. (New York: Macmillan Publishing), 1967. (logos)

Kidd, I. G. "Socrates" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 7. ed. Paul Edwards. (New York: Macmillan Publishing), 1967. (aretê)

Lee, Desmond. Plato: The Republic. 2nd Ed. Rev. Trans. with introduction. (Baltimore: Penguin Books), 1955, 1974. (mythos)

McDowell, John. Plato: Theaetetus Trans. with notes. (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1973. (logos)

McKeon, Richard. Ed. and Trans. Selections From Medieval Philosophers, Vol. II. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons), 193, 1958. (aretê, logos, praxis, theoria)

Nehamas, Alexander. The Art of Living. (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1998. (aretê)

Pembroke, S. G. "Myth" in The Legacy of Greece: A New Appraisal. Ed. M. I. Finley. (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1981. (mythos)

Randall, John Herman, Jr. Aristotle. (New York: Columbia University Press), 1960. (logos, theoria)

Ryle, Gilbert. "Plato" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 6. ed. Paul Edwards. (New York: Macmillan Publishing), 1967. (logos)

Saunders, Trevor J. "Plato's Later Political Thought" in The Cambridge Companion to Plato. ed. Richard Kraut. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1992. (aretê)

Schrag, Calvin O. "Praxis" in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert Audi. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1995, 1999. (praxis)

Snell, Bruno. The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature. trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer. (New York: Dover Publications), 1948, 1953, 1982. (aretê)

Stokes, Michael C. "Heraclitus of Ephesus" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3. ed. Paul Edwards. (New York: Macmillan Publishing), 1967. (logos)

Vlastos, Gregory. Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 1991. (aretê)

Williams, Bernard. The Sense of the Past. ed. Myles Burnyeat. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 2006. (aretê)

Greek Words 3

Back to Index

Logos (λόγος) – word, speech, discourse, account, statement, reason, proportion, argument

G. B. Kerferd’s entry in the Encyclopedia reads: “The Greek noun logos, derived from the root found in the verb lego, ‘I say,’ in the classical period covered a wide range of meanings expressed by quite different words in most modern languages. Thus word, speech, argument, explanation, doctrine, esteem, numerical computation, measure, proportion, plea, principle, and reason (whether human or divine)—all represent standard meanings of the one Greek word. Earlier attempts to trace a logical progression of meanings of the history of the word are now generally acknowledged to lack any secure foundation, and even to try to trace out the history of a single ‘logos doctrine’ [a logos logos?—MK] in Greek philosophy is to run the risk of searching for a simple pattern when the truth was much more complex.”

Of Heraclitus, Kerferd says he “combined at least three ideas which we tend to separate: our human thought about the universe, the rational structure of the universe itself, and the source of that rational structure. Heraclitus’ logos as source of rationality in the universe was an immanent principle, and while it was itself a sort of intelligence, it does not seem to have been regarded as either conscious or intelligent, in the sense of itself indulging in the activity of thinking. A further step was taken by Anaxagoras through his doctrine of a principle of intelligence in the universe that was not mixed with all other things and so was not completely immanent, but he called this principle ‘nous’ and not ‘logos.’”

Continuing that thought with Plato and Aristotle, Kerferd says, “The Platonic universe was itself organized on rational principles, but this organization was produced by an entity called Nous and not Logos, and Aristotle also used the term ‘nous’ in connection with his own doctrine of the unmoved mover, an entity to which he did not hesitate to assign the activity of thinking.” He also says, “The Sophists used the term ‘logos’ both for arguments and for what arguments were about, so that ‘right reason’ (orthos logos) tended to be used both of a correct argument or theory and of the rational structure or principle which the argument or theory was about, but it was used of particular cases rather than of any universal single principle.” (Encyclopedia, vol. 5, 83)

In the Encyclopedia’s entry on Heraclitus, Michael C. Stokes says, “Heraclitus abandoned genetic explanations of the world, believing it uncreated. In his view, all events take place according to a ‘Logos,’ a term he left undefined. Since the Logos can be heard, it must be expressible in words…. Logos is both discourse and contents, both the truth about things and the principle on which they function. … The Greek word logos can mean ‘proportion,’ and for Heraclitus one change takes place in the same proportion as the reverse change. The English word that best covers Heraclitus’ philosophical uses of ‘Logos’ is ‘formula.’” (Encyclopedia, vol. 3, 477)

Gilbert Ryle includes a section in his entry on Plato on the use of logos in Plato’s Theaetetus: “True belief plus a ‘logos.’ When the discussion at last reverts to the original question What is knowledge? it is quickly shown that knowledge is not to be equated, as Theaetetus had suggested, with correct opinion. The jurors may be persuaded of truths about an event that they have not witnessed. The eyewitness knows what happened, but they do not know it, but only believe correctly that what he reports to them did happen. So knowing is not the same as correctly believing. It is now [Theaetetus, 201c-d—MK] suggested that knowledge must be not just true belief, but true belief plus something else, namely, a logos.” (Encyclopedia, vol. 6, 328)

In his translation of the Theaetetus, John McDowell, says in a note on this section: “At 201c9, and throughout this part of the dialogue, ‘account’ represents the Greek noun logos. The English word adequately fits either or both of the notions which figure in the passages echoed by the new definition…. There are two points not captured by this translation which are relevant to the interpretation of this part of the dialogue: (a) One of the senses of the cognate verb legein is ‘enumerate’. This is particularly important at 206e-208b. (b) The most common sense of the cognate verb is ‘say’: in its associated sense, the noun applies to the form of words which one utters when one says something. I have, however, avoided the translation ‘statement’, partly because it would obscure the echoes of earlier passages mentioned above, and partly because it would imply the ascription to Plato of a clarity about what it is to say something which, in this part of the dialogue, he seems to be working towards rather than already to possess.” (McDowell, Theaetetus, 230-231) I would also note that this section of the Theaetetus is often referred to as that which gave us the basic understanding of knowledge as “justified true belief.”

Hans-Georg Gadamer says, “To be sure, logos does not mean ‘word,’ but ‘discourse,’ ‘language,’ ‘account;’ ultimately, it is everything that is articulated in discourse, thought, and reason. Thus the definition of man that has come down to us through the centuries is that of the animal rationale, the creature that has reason, confirming at every stage the latest pride in reason. But logos is not ‘reason’ but ‘discourse’—precisely words that one person says to another. It is not an accumulation of words like the classified fragments that form the dictionary or so-called Wörterbuch (literally, ‘book of words’). Rather, the logos consists of words already disposed toward unity of a sense, the sense of discourse. We call that the unity of the sentence.” (Gadamer, Praise of Theory, 4)

Allan Bloom, in a footnote to his first translation of logos to “argument,” says: “The Greek word is logos which most simply means ‘speech’ and is derived from the verb ‘to speak.’ It can also mean story, discourse, argument, and reason; it is speech and what speech implies—human reason as expressed in speech.” (Bloom, Republic of Plato, 443-444n.25)

John Herman Randall, Jr. says in relation to Aristotle, “to understand the world of Greece means for Aristotle an understanding of language, of discourse, of logos, as the instrument of thinking and knowing. We think, we know, we understand, in terms of language, by describing things in words, by making statements about things, by reasoning from one fact to another, by employing discourse. ‘Discourse’ and ‘reason’ are one and the same thing—in Greek they are designated by one and the same word, logos.” (Randall, Aristotle, 6)

In his glossary to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, George A. Kennedy translates it as: “word, sentence, rational argument, speech, tale, esteem, etc.” (Kennedy, On Rhetoric, 317)

In the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Roger Crisp says in its entry: “term with the following main philosophical senses. (1) Rule, principle, law. E.g., in Stoicism the logos is the divine order and in Neoplatonism the intelligible regulating forces displayed in the sensible world. The term came thus to refer, in Christianity, to the Word of God, to the instantiation of his agency in creation, and, in the New Testament, to the person of Christ. (2) Proposition, account, explanation, thesis, argument. E.g., Aristotle presents a logos from first principles. (3) Reason, reasoning, the rational faculty, abstract theory (as opposed to experience), discursive reasoning (as opposed to intuition). E.g., Plato’s Republic uses the term to refer to the intellectual part of the soul. (4) Measure, relation, proportion, ratio. E.g., Aristotle speaks of the logoi of the musical scales. (5) Value, worth. E.g., Heraclitus speaks of the man whose logos is greater than that of others.” (Cambridge Dictionary, 518)

Likewise, Nicholas Dent, in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “A Greek word, of great breadth of meaning, primarily signifying in the context of philosophical discussion the rational, intelligible principle, structure, or order which pervades something, or the source of that order, or giving an account of that order. The cognate verb legein means ‘say’, ‘tell’, ‘count’. Hence the ‘word’ which was ‘in the beginning’ as recounted at the start of St John’s Gospel is also logos. The root occurs in many English compounds such as biology, epistemology, and so on. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, makes use of a distinction between the part of the soul which originates a logos (our reason) and the part which obeys or is guided by a logos (Oxford Companion, 511-512)

Richard McKeon includes the Greek to guide the Latin equivalence: “RATIO, reason, nature, relation, principle, ground, argument, definition, criterion, (λόγος). Sometimes used as indentical with intellectus [“intellect, understanding, meaning, conception, idea” (463)—MK], then divided into speculative and practical reason; sometimes taken for the action of the understanding, most of all for the discursive act of understanding.” (McKeon, Selections, 488)

Mythos (μύθος) – speech, story, tale, legend, myth

S. G. Pembroke, in his article on myth, gives us a good orientation to mythos: “In the earliest Greek literature, it means no more than speech or utterance, and is already contrasted with action in much the same way that logos (which came to replace it in this sense) was in the time of Thucydides placed in opposition to fact, the pair standing respectively for theory and practice.”

He continues: “In the specific sense of speech, mythos was gradually ousted by the new term. Herodotus’ predecessor Hecataeus of Miletus began his work by contrasting the version of things he was to set out (the verbal form mytheitai is used) with the accounts (logoi) given by other Greeks, the distinction lying not in the greater degree of rationality of the latter but rather (as he explicitly tells us) in that his own version is what he believes to be the truth, whereas other accounts are many and ridiculous. In Pindar, on the other hand, mythoi are associated with falsehood and contrasted with the true logos, and although some skill is required for their elaboration, he is explicit that this can deceive and may even be a force for wrongdoing. Herodotus alternates between representing his work as a single discourse (logos) and as one sub-divided into a plurality of separate logoi, yet he rejects as mythos the traditional picture of the River Ocean encircling the world and the story of the Egyptians attempting to submit Heracles to a human sacrifice. In the former case he adds that this picture is beyond the bounds of proper inquiry, but ‘story’ in the sense suggested earlier is probably a close equivalent. Ironically, this anticipates the famous claim made by Thucydides for the superiority of his own account of the Greek past over earlier versions in both verse and prose, and for the permanent value of his description of the Peloponnesian War: the prevalent traditions used by the writers of prose could not be subjected to rigorous criticism but had in the process of time ‘won out’ towards ‘the mythical’, and he was aware that the absence of this element of story-telling (to mythodes) might appear unattractive to the less assiduous of his own readers. With Plato, the polarity between mythos and logos is virtually complete: the stories we tell children are false in the sense that they are not literally accurate (the adjective pseudes does not distinguish fiction from lying, as Augustine was able to do in contrasting ficta with mendacia), yet they contain an element of truth—a formulation which points to the need for stories to be interpreted but gives no indication as to how this should be set about.” (The Legacy of Greece, 301-302)

(I should note that with Plato, Pembroke was alluding to “gennaion pseudes,” the phrase commonly translated as “noble lie,” in The Republic, 414b-415c. Allan Bloom and Paul Shorey both follow this tradition, but F. M. Cornford and Desmond Lee both dissent. Cornford, in his The Republic of Plato, translates it as “bold flight of invention” and says of it, “This phrase is commonly rendered by ‘noble lie,’ a self-contradictory expression no more applicable to Plato’s harmless allegory than to a New Testament parable of the Pilgrim’s Progress, and liable to suggest that he would countenance the lies, for the most part ignoble, now called propaganda.” (Cornford, Republic of Plato, 106n.1) The reproach is directed in the main towards R. G. H. Crossman’s Plato Today, a book written in the 1930s which sighted Plato as a totalitarian and was followed in the forties by Karl Popper’s much more powerful The Open Society and Its Enemies. Cornford’s fellow Cambridge man, Lee, came out with his Penguin translation in the fifties and said a bit more strongly: “Plato has been criticized for his Foundation Myth as if it were a calculated lie. That is partly because the phrase here translated ‘magnificent myth’ … has been conventionally mistranslated ‘noble lie’; and this has been used to support the charge that Plato countenances manipulation by propaganda.” (Lee, The Republic, 177))

Jane Ellen Harrison, in her very controversial book, Themis (which is Greek for “institution” or “law”) offers a key description: “A mythos to the Greek was primarily just a thing spoken, uttered by the mouth. Its antithesis or rather correlative is the thing done, enacted, the ergon or work. … From sounds made by the mouth, to words spoken and thence to talk or story told the transition is easy. Always there is the same antithesis of speech an action which are but two different ways of expression emotion, two forms of reaction; the mythos, the tale told, the action recounted, is contrasted with the action actually done. It is from this antithesis that the sense of unreality, nonexistence gradually arises.” (Harrison, Themis, 328)

Allan Bloom, in a footnote to his first translation of mythos to “tales,” says: “The Greek word is mythos; first meaning no more than ‘a speech’ (as in Homer), it comes to mean ‘a story,’ very often one connected with religious traditions. The poets are the makers of the mythoi; the meaning and reliability of mythoi is an important question in Plato.” (Bloom, Republic of Plato, 442n.17)

Hans-Georg Gadamer, in a vaulted discussion of different ancient senses of “the word,” counterposes to “the word of the question,” roughly the dialectical sense, “the other word, the old rival of the Greek religious and philosophical tradition, the poetic word of poetry and legend. Of course ‘legend’ is used in a fairly emphatic sense here, and means more than just the mythical form of information usually called ‘legend’ (Sage) in the epic memory of humankind. ‘Legend’ here designates in its entirety the word’s special claim to autonomy, not to be saying something that would then need to be confirmed or certified, but rather something that is certain precisely in its being said. That is the age-old meaning of mythos, a word that for the most part gets used somewhat inaccurately. Mythos is that which displays its authentic power of truth only by being said repeatedly, and not by being rigorously questioned on the strength of a certainty situated outside the tradition of the legend. Thus a poem is legend, in the sense that the word no longer refers to anything outside…. Rather, everything gets gathered into what is said, as it were. Now, this kind of legend is the word at its most authentic—it is word to such an extent that it becomes impossible to separate its significance from its sound. Hence the ideal of poetic legend is fulfilled in its untranslatability.” (Gadamer, Praise of Theory, 13)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Greek Words 2

Back to Index

Theoria (θεωρία) – witnessing, contemplation, theory (theoros—onlooker, spectator)

In Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer gives us a good guide to theoria: “…watching something is a genuine mode of participating. Here we can recall the concept of sacral communion that lies behind the original Greek concept of theoria. Theoros means someone who takes part in a delegation to a festival. Such a person has no other distinction or function than to be there. Thus the theoros is a spectator in the proper sense of the word, since he participates in the solemn act through his presence at it and thus sacred law accords him a distinction: for example, inviolability.

“In the same way, Greek metaphysics still conceives the essence of theoria and of nous as being purely present to what is truly real, and for us too the ability to act theoretically is defined by the fact that in attending to something one is able to forget one’s own purposes. But theoria is not to be conceived primarily as subjective conduct, as a self-determination of the subject, but in terms of what it is contemplating. Theoria is a true participation, not something active but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees.” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 124-125)

In a later essay, he says of theoria: “The word means observing (the constellations, for example), being an onlooker (at a play, for instance), or a delegate participating in a festival. It does not mean a mere ‘seeing’ that establishes what is present or stores up information. Contemplatio does not dwell on a particular entity, but in a region. Theoria is not so much the individual momentary act as a way of comporting oneself, a position and condition. It is ‘being present’ in the lovely double sense that means that the person is not only present but completely present. Participants in a ritual or ceremony are present in this way when they are engrossed in their participation as such, and this always includes their participating equally with others or possible others. Thus theory is not in the first instance a behavior whereby we control an object or put it at our disposal by explaining it. It has to do with a good of another kind.” (Gadamer, Praise of Theory, 31-32)

Gadamer says this about the relationship between theoria and praxis in Aristotle: “The priority of theoria is based on the ontological superiority of its objects, namely, beings that always are. In contrast, the world of praxis belongs to that reality or being that can be one way but also be another. Consequently, knowledge of what is to be done in practice must be placed second to theoria. Even so, both dispositions of knowing and reason are something supreme. Practical reasonableness, phronesis, as well as theoretical reasonableness are ‘best-nesses’ (aretai). That which is highest in the human being—which Aristotle likes to call ‘nous’ or the divine—is actualized in both of them.” (Gadamer, The Idea of the Good, 174-175)

Werner Jaeger speaks to a transformation in the notion of theoria when he says in a chapter of exposition on Plato’s Laws: “Plato thinks his state is so different from everything else, so unique, that he wonders about its relation to the rest of the world. ….spiritually too it must be shut off from all chance influences which might interrupt the influence of its perfect laws. No citizen may travel abroad except heralds, ambassadors, and ‘theoroi’: by which Plato does not mean the city’s representatives at festivals (the usual sense of the word), but men with the spirit of scientific research who will go abroad to theorein, to ‘contemplate’ the civilization and alws of other men and study conditions abroad at their leisure.” (Jaeger, Paideia, vol. 3, 258-259)

Hannah Arendt says in her controversial The Human Condition: “Theoria, or ‘contemplation,’ is the word given to the experience of the eternal, as distinguished from all other attitudes, which at most may pertain to immortality. It may be that the philosophers’ discovery of the eternal was helped by their very justified doubt of the chances of the polis for immortality or even permanence, and it may be that the shock of this discovery was so overwhelming that they could not but look down upon all striving for immortality as vanity and vainglory, certainly placing themselves thereby into open opposition to the ancient city-states and the religion which inspired it.” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 20-21)

Of Aristotle’s use of theoria, Pierre Hadot says, “…for Aristotle philosophy consists in a ‘theoretical’ way of life. We must not, however, confuse the term ‘theoretical’ with ‘theoretic.’” (Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 80) Hadot’s translator, Michael Chase, clarifies the Greek relation: “The distinction here is between the French words théorique [“theoretic”—MK] (which means ‘speculative; having no relation to reality or practice’ and derives from the Greek theorikos) and théorétique [“theoretical”—MK] (which means ‘relative to pure knowledge or speculation’ and derives from the Greek theoretikos).” (293n.13)

Hadot continues: “‘Theoretic’ is a word of Greek origin but does not appear in Aristotle. In a nonphilosophical context, it meant ‘referring to processions.’ In modern parlance, ‘the theoretic’ is opposed to ‘the practical’ the way the abstract and speculative is opposed to the concrete. From this perspective, then, we may oppose a purely theoretic philosophical discourse to a practical, lived philosophical life. Aristotle himself, however, uses only the word ‘theoretical’ [theoretikos], and he uses it to designate, on the one hand, the mode of knowledge whose goal is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and not some goal outside itself; and on the other, the way of life which consists in devoting one’s life to this mode of knowledge. … From this perspective, ‘theoretical’ philosophy is at the same time ethics. … It means wanting knowledge for its own sake, without pursuing any other particular, egoistic interest which would be alien to knowledge. This is an ethics of disinterestedness and of objectivity.” (80-81)

John Herman Randall, Jr. adds in this connection at the outset of his Aristotle, “The ‘theoretical life’ is not for him the life of quiet ‘contemplation,’ serene and unemotional, but the life of nous, of theoria, of intelligence, burning, immoderate, without bounds or limits.” (Randall, Aristotle, 1) I should note here that the Greek theoria was translated by the Romans into Latin as contemplatio, and that accordingly, Hadot and Randall (more explicitly) are buffeting overly Thomistic understandings of Aristotle (and our Greek, as opposed to Latinate, heritage). (I should also note that despite Gadamer’s fondness for Latinate derivations of theoria, he generally avoids the pitfalls that go with it—on the other hand, see below on praxis.)

In George A. Kennedy’s translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, his glossary includes: “Theoros, pl. theoroi (m.): a spectator; one who listens to a speech but is not asked to take a specific action, as in the case of epideictic.” (Kennedy, On Rhetoric, 302)

In his entry on Carneades (a “leader of the Academic Skeptics,” c. 213-c. 128 B.C.E.), Philip P. Hallie writes of the epistemology of the time, “All philosophers of this era held that knowledge came by way of phantasia (representations [often, ‘imagination,’ sometimes ‘impressions’—MK]), not by way of pure, intuitive theoria (knowledge of intelligible forms). The Stoics, in particular, believed that the mind in certain cases receives sense representations that irresistibly make the mind assent to them (phantasia kataleptike). Such true representations are the foundations upon which the Stoics built their whole dogmatic epistemology and metaphysics.” (Encyclopedia, vol. 2, 33)

The weight of Thomistic tradition tells us to translate theoria as (from Richard McKeon’s glossary): “CONTEMPLATIO, contemplation, taken either strictly for the act of the intellect meditating divine things, and thus contemplation is the act of the wise man, or in another way commonly for every act by which any one sequestered from exterior affairs considers God…. By contemplation one considers God as he is in himself, by speculation as he is imaged in created things as in a mirror (speculation from speculum [Latin for “mirror”—MK]).” (McKeon, Selections, 439)

Praxis (πράξησ) – doing, acting, action, practice

Richard T. De George’s short entry in the Oxford Companion: “The Greek word for ‘action’. It enters the philosophical literature as a quasi-technical term with Aristotle (meaning ‘doing’ rather than ‘making [something]’), is developed by some of the Left Hegelians, and is now primarily associated with Marx and Marxism.” (Oxford Companion, 713)

Calvin O. Schrag’s longer entry in the Cambridge Dictionary begins: “(from Greek prasso, ‘doing’, ‘acting’), in Aristotle, the sphere of thought and action that comprises the ethical and political life of man, contrasted with the theoretical designs of logic and epistemology (theoria). It was thus that ‘praxis’ acquired its general definition of ‘practice’ through a contrastive comparison with ‘theory’.” (Cambridge Dictionary, 731)

Hans-Georg Gadamer says, “Aristotle developed practical philosophy, which includes politics, in express opposition to the ideal of theory and theoretical philosophy. In doing so he raised human practice into an independent domain of knowledge. ‘Praxis’ signifies all things practical, including all human behavior and all the ways people organize themselves in this world, not least of which is politics and, within that, legislation.” (Gadamer, Praise of Theory, 56)

With my limited understanding, moving from the Greek to the Latin with Richard McKeon’s help presents a difficulty. On the one hand, we have the Latin word “PRAXIS,” which stands for, oddly, “praxis, actions or operations considered in their bearing on good or evil, practical activities.” (McKeon, Selections, 483) On the other hand, we also have “ACTIO, action, properly the actuality of a power, as being is the actuality of a substance or essence. Contrasted therefore to passion.” (425) (Note: the Greek dynamis can be translated as either “power” or “potential.”) On yet another hand, we have “FACERE, to do, action,” which we should compare to “FACTIO, making; usually contrasted with action (or in particular that action which is called intelligence [which in Greek, is phronesis]….” McKeon includes an interesting quotation from Aquinas (from his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics): “For although we can use the name making, which in greek is praxis, concerning natural things, as when we say that heat and an actual thing makes such an actual being, still we use it more properly concerning those things which are made by the understanding, in which the understanding of the agent has dominion over what it makes so that it can make it thus or otherwise, which does not happen in natural things….” (454)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Greek Words 1

Back to Index

Aretê (ἀρετή) – virtue, excellence, success

Alexander Nehamas offers a succinct account bridging into his suggestion of “success”: “It is of course a commonplace that “virtue” is not an accurate translation of the Greek term. “Virtue” is simply too narrow a concept, while the more recent “excellence” is, I believe, too weak, colorless, and vague. Aretê applies to many more human qualities than “virtue”; it can also refer perfectly well to features of nonhuman and even inanimate beings.

“In regard to human beings, we would do well to construe aretê as “success” or as the quality or qualities that account for it. If nothing else, such an interpretation would explain why the Greeks were so concerned whether aretê can or cannot be taught and would show that their debates are immediately relevant to our situation today.

“But since aretê applies to inanimate objects as well as to human beings, it is better to try to understand the term in a more general manner. We could do no better, I suggest, than to think of it as that quality or set of qualities that makes something an outstanding member of the group to which it belongs. Aretê is the feature that accounts for something’s being justifiably notable. Both suggestions, which come to the same thing, involve three elements: the inner structure and quality of things, their reputation, and the audience that is to appreciate them. And this is as it should be. From the earliest times, the idea of aretê was intrinsically social, sometimes equivalent to fame (κλέος [klêos—MK]).” (Nehamas, The Art of Living, 77-78)

Werner Jaeger’s first chapter in his three volume spinning of Greek culture out of the idea of paideia (education) is entitled, “Nobility and Aretê.” In regards to the intrinsically social element Nehamas pointed at, Jaeger suggests that watching the term aretê evolve in ancient Greece can give us an idea of how intellectual culture evolved and the colors and inflections in it. “There is no complete equivalent for the word aretê in modern English: its oldest meaning is a combination of proud and courtly morality with warlike valour. But the idea of aretê is the quintessence of early Greek aristocratic education.” (Jaeger, Paideia, vol. 1, 5)

The idea is that aretê began as a concept that only the nobility, the warrior class, used, partly no doubt to the fact that they were the only ones with the time to develop such usages and they were the only ones who really mattered (from their noble view). “…ordinary men have no aretê; and whenever slavery lays hold of the son of a noble race, Zeus takes away half of his aretê—he is no longer the same man as he was. Aretê is the real attribute of the nobleman. The Greeks always believed that surpassing strength and prowess were the natural basis of leadership: it was impossible to dissociate leadership and aretê. The root of the word is the same as that of ἄριστοϛ [aristis—MK], the word which shows superlative ability and superiority; and ἄριστοϛ was constantly used in the plural to denote the nobility.” (ibid.)

But aretê is on the move. While “only now and then, in later books, does Homer use aretê for moral and spiritual qualities,” Jaeger says that “it is clear that the new meaning given to the word by everyday speech was then forcing its way into the language of poetry.” (6) With the demise of the Mycenaean empire and the rise of Greek city-states, the spread of small, polis democracies, the ordinary man became a citizen with uses of his own for words like aretê. “…[A]retê as warlike prowess could not satisfy the poets of a new age: their new ideal of human perfection was that character which united nobility of action with nobility of mind.” (8) “The class limitations of the old ideals were removed when they were sublimated and universalized by philosophy: while their permanent truth and their indestructible ideality were confirmed and strengthened by that process.” (11)

Pierre Hadot adds in this fashion: “The flourishing of democratic life demanded that its citizens, especially those who wanted to achieve positions of power, have a perfect mastery of language. Up until this point, young people had been trained for the acquisition of excellence (aretê) by means of sunousia, or nonspecialized contact with the adult world. The Sophists, by constrast, invented education in an artificial environment—a system that was to remain one of the characteristics of our civilization. … Thus, aretê (excellence), conceived as competence intended to enable young people to play a role in the city, could now be the object of an apprenticeship, so long as the student had the right natural aptitudes and practiced hard enough.” (Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 13-14)

W. K. C. Guthrie says this of the Sophists: “…one of the most hotly debated questions of the day, which because it was taken up by Socrates continued to be discussed by Plato and even Aristotle, sprang directly from the Sophists’ appearance in the new role of paid educators. They claimed to teach aretê, but was this something that could be instilled by teaching? Aretê when used without qualification denoted those qualities of human excellence which made a man a natural leader in his community, and hitherto it had been believed to depend on certain natural or even divine gifts which were the mark of good birth and breeding. They were definitely a matter of phusis [nature—MK], cultivated, as a boy grew up, by the experience of living with and following the example of his father and elder relations. Thus they were handed on naturally and scarcely consciously, a prerogative of the class that was born to rule, and the thought that they could implanted by an outsider, offering schematic instruction in return for payment, was anathema to fathers of the old school. Hence the urgency to a young man like Meno—high-born and wealthy yet a pupil and admirer of Gorgias—of the question which he springs on Socrates at the beginning of the dialogue that bears his name: ‘Can you tell me, Socrates, whether aretê can be taught? Or is it a matter of practice, or natural aptitude, or what?’ [Meno, 70a—MK]” (Guthrie, The Sophists, 25)

Bernard Williams says this of the context with which aretê came out of: “…a picture of a certain kind of social morality, which does offer some impersonal criteria of who is to be admired and respected, but finds them particularly in certain kinds of competitive success and inherited position—an aristocratic or feudal morality. It was from the context of such a social morality that the fifth and fourth centuries inherited the concept of aretê, ‘personal excellence’ (the standard translation of this term as ‘virtue’ is only sometimes appropriate, and can be drastically misleading). This term carried with it certain associations which Plato, and probably Socrates, made strong efforts to detach from it: in particular, the notion of being well thought of and spoken of, cutting a good figure. Here a vital term is kalos, ‘fine’, ‘noble’, ‘splendid’, a word more strongly aesthetic than agathos, ‘good’, and an important term of commendation, but bearing with it implications of how one is regarded; as its opposite, aischros, ‘base’ or ‘shameful’, carries implications of being despised or shunned.” (Williams, The Sense of the Past, 37-38)

Bruno Snell says, “The words for virtue and good, aretê and agathos, are at first by no means clearly distinguished from the area of profit. In the early period they are not as palpably moral in content as might be supposed…. When Homer says that a man is good, agathos, he does not mean thereby that he is morally unobjectionable, much less good-hearted, but rather that he is useful, proficient, and capable of vigorous action. We also speak of a good warrior or a good instrument. Similarly aretê, virtue, does not denote a moral property but nobility, achievement, success and reputation. And yet these words have an unmistakable tendency toward the moral because, unlike ‘happiness’ or ‘profit’, they designate qualities for which a man may win the respect of his whole community. Aretê is ‘ability’ and ‘achievement’, characteristics which are expected of a ‘good’, an ‘able’ man, an aner agathos [“good man” —MK]. From Homer to Plato and beyond these words spell out the worth of a man and his work. Any change in their meaning, therefore, would indicate a reassessment of values.” (Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, 158-159)

In a similar fashion, E. R. Dodds sets the Protagorean and Socratic view of human nature against each other, saying: “Both use the traditional utilitarian language: ‘good’ means ‘good for the individual,’ and is not distinguished from the ‘profitable’ or the ‘useful.’ And both have the traditional intellectualist approach: they agree, against the common opinion of their time, that if a man really knew what was good for him he would act on his knowledge. Each, however, qualifies his intellectualism with a different sort of reservation. For Protagoras, aretê can be taught, but not by an intellectual discipline: one ‘picks it up,’ as a child picks up his native language [Protagoras, 327e—MK]; it is transmitted not by formal teaching, but by what the anthropologists call ‘social control.’ For Socrates, on the other hand, aretê is or should be episteme, a branch of scientific knowledge…. For to Socrates aretê was something which proceeded from within outward; it was not a set of behaviour-patterns to be acquired through habituation, but a consistent attitude of mind springing from a steady insight into the nature and meaning of human life. In its self-consistency it resembled a science; but I think we should be wrong to interpret the insight as purely logical—it involved the whole man.” (Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, 184)

G. B. Kerferd says this in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for “Aretê/Agathon/Kakon”: “Aretê, traditionally translated as “virtue,” is a key word in Greek ethical thought. Its central meaning was excellence of any kind, but from the beginning it was also associated with the idea of fulfillment of function: excellence, whether in animate or inanimate objects, consists in the fullest performance of the object’s function or its power to achieve the fullest performance. From the time of the Homeric poems onward, aretê, with its associated adjective agathos (“good”) and various synonyms, was the strongest word of commendation that could be used. The negative of agathos was kakos, and the neuter forms, agathon and kakon, mean what is good and what is bad. Differences between Greeks about agathon and kakon did not normally concern the meaning of the words, but only the question of what actions and what sort of behavior were manifestations of aretê and hence what kind of behavior was entitled to be described by the adjectives agathos and kakos.” (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 1, 147-148)

I. G. Kidd’s entry on Socrates says: “The Sophists were itinerant professors teaching for a fee the skill (sophia [usually translated “wisdom”—MK]) of aretê (excellence, in the sense of how to make the best of yourself and get on). Socrates was the Athenian Sophist inasmuch as his life was dedicated to the same new intellectual inquiry into education—the science of effecting aretê.” (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol.7, 481)

Trevor J. Saunders says in relation to Plato’s political thought: “Now the Greek word usually translated ‘virtue’ is in fact better rendered by ‘excellence’ – excellence for something. The kind of excellence that interests Plato is human excellence, that set of qualities thanks to which we are excellently equipped to perform human functions excellently, and so achieve human eudaimonia, ‘happiness,’ ‘success,’ ‘fulfillment.’” (The Cambridge Companion to Plato, 464)

Allan Bloom, in a footnote to his first translation of aretê to “virtue,” says, “it is the translation used by Cicero and all other thinkers in the tradition of moral and political thought. It means, broadly stated, ‘the specific excellence of a thing.’ ‘What is virtue?’ is the typical Socratic question, and no answer can be given to it in the Platonic context unless all the subtle and various uses of the word itself be followed throughout the work. Contemporary usage has narrowed the sense of the word, but we still can grasp its broader meaning. If we fail to recognize that our understanding of virtue is different from the classical view, we cannot become aware of the very great change in moral understanding that has occurred. The moral sense of virtue can only be developed in relation to its larger sense, and, thus, it is no accident that Socrates’ first use of the word is in relation to horses [335b—MK].” (Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato, 444)

Gregory Vlastos, in the last chapter of his magisterial book on Socrates, turns to virtue and happiness and finally to the translation of those Greek terms, saying of aretê—that most important of Socratic terms—“The key terms in the title pose problems of translation. On ‘virtue’ for aretê I need not linger at all, for whatever may be the general usage of this word, Socrates’ own use of it to designate precisely what we understand by moral virtue must have been apparent throughout this book.” While on the one hand, this might seem disappointing for the amateur auditor reading this, and even disingenuous on his part, particularly for leaving explication of aretê to the end of his book, I might defend Vlastos by saying that for understanding generally and translation specifically, what any individual term means is built by the pattern of usage surrounding it. In other words, the course of his book is the argument for translating aretê as “virtue” (though Vlastos does, notice, limit himself to Socrates’—now understood as innovative—use of aretê).

Nevertheless, he does continue: “Any lingering doubt on this point in my readers’ mind may be resolved by referring them to the fact that whenever he brings the general concept under scrutiny – as when he debates the teachability of aretê in the Protagoras and the Meno – he assumes without argument that its sole constituents or “parts” ([mόria?—MK], [meri?—MK]) are five qualities which are, incontestably, the Greek terms of moral commendation par excellence: andreia (‘manliness,’ ‘courage’), sophrosyne (‘temperance,’ ‘moderation’), dikaiosyne (‘justice,’ ‘righteousness’), hosiotes (‘piety,’ ‘holiness’), sophia (‘wisdom’). (Gregory Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 200)

And finally, Richard McKeon lists a Latin term for neither “excellence” nor “success,” but one for: “VIRTUS, power, virtue, a perfection or strength for performing something rightly; it has been called the disposition of the perfect to the best, in that it is a disposition enabling a potentiality to elicit an actual good. Virtue is also taken as power, thus contrasted to essence; this is the use that appears in the adverb virtually. In its ethical sense, virtue was held to be a prerequisite to intellectual as well as moral perfection....” (McKeon, Selections, 506)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Dworkin and Rawls on Liberalism

This is a paper I wrote in 2003 for a political philosophy class, presumably for the final (though it's quite possible I dropped the class before the end, as I had a history of doing for philosophy classes). I pretty much concur with every point made in it. It's a fairly simple exposition of how we need to rethink the liberal/conservative distinction in real politics in our political philosophies. It is also pretty clear that I had already read Rorty's "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy" and this functions as little more than an added footnote to his argument there, roughly that public politics need to be thin because substantive conceptions of the good have led to bloodshed. This is what Rorty means by a public/private distinction--a public discourse is based on the overlapping consensus of substantive conceptions, which in a modern democracy with freedom of religion and thought, must be centered around private rights to substantive conceptions of the good (meaning, a right to whatever conception that doesn't overlap, nor infringes or attacks the overlap). The Enlightenment "liberal contradiction" is one we've worked out: sure, public discourse is normative, but of the peculiar kind in which much of your normative life and choices are left out of the affairs of politics and government. It is a normative choice to create the public/private distinction, a normative choice basically synonymous with "democracy."

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


In his paper “Liberalism,” Ronald Dworkin attempts to reconstruct the contemporary, public distinction between liberalism and conservatism. In this way he hopes to wipe away the old way of understanding this distinction, based on a misleading contrast between liberal desire for equality and conservative desire for liberty. In doing so, he hopes to show that out of the new contrast he proposes, based on different views towards conceptions of the good, we can construct typical liberal and conservative political positions. Dworkin also shows that the liberal position is independent, that it isn’t simply in the middle between radicals and conservatives. Dworkin, however, misses a crucial step in his definition of liberalism by supposing that it hangs free of normative conditions. If we work through what the attack on liberalism would be from a conservative standpoint, we will find John Rawls waiting for us on the other end with a clarification of what the contrast between liberals and conservatives should be: on whether we have a robust enough sense of equality.

Dworkin opens his piece by arguing that liberalism and conservatism cannot be understood by a contrast between equality and liberty. He draws the typical conception by saying that liberals and conservatives both value equality and liberty, just to different degrees. The liberal will tend to value equality over liberty and the conservative liberty over equality. Dworkin says that this theory leaves room “for the radical who cares even more for equality and less for liberty than the liberal, and therefore stands even further away from the extreme conservative.”[fn.1] This makes the liberal position appear to be in the mushy middle, a wishy-washy, “untenable compromise between two more forthright positions.”[fn.2]

Dworkin counters the contrast between equality and liberty in two ways. First, he argues that, at best, the contrast between the liberal love of equality and conservative love of liberty can help us understand economic issues. On disputes about the allocation of economic resources, liberals tend to favor some form of government redistribution for reasons of equality and conservatives tend to favor the government staying out of the economy all together. But on social issues, such as pornography and censorship, liberals would appear to be on the side of liberty, desiring to stringently uphold freedom of expression, whereas conservatives are more willing to take away these liberties.

Dworkin’s second, and more forceful, argument is that “we do not have a concept of liberty that is quantifiable in the way that demonstration would require.” But demonstration is exactly what is needed. It needs to be demonstrated that “if two political decisions each invades the liberty of a citizen, we can sensibly say that one decision takes more liberty away from him than the other.”[fn.3] More importantly, if we are to contrast the liberal and conservative positions by this distinction, we need to be able to show that conservatives desire liberty more than liberals. It seems, though, that all we can say is that we desire different liberties to different degrees.

Dworkin does away with the equality half of the equality/liberty contrast in much the same way: it is tailored for economic issues. However, Dworkin constructs his new contrast under the rubric of equality by saying that the liberal and conservative each have a different understanding of what equality requires. The fundamental principle of equality that Dworkin believes liberals and conservatives disagree on is how the government should “treat all those in its charge as equals, that is, as entitled to its equal concern and respect.”[fn.4] Dworkin says that the liberal “supposes that government must be neutral on what might be called the question of the good life”[fn.5] and the conservative “supposes that government cannot be neutral on that question, because it cannot treat its citizens as equal human beings without a theory of what human beings ought to be.”[fn.6] The liberal treats “equality” as “neutrality,” while the conservative treats “equality” as “treatment in accordance with a substantive view of how human beings should be because the government cannot help but to have such a substantive view.” It becomes apparent at this point how the liberal position takes on a life of its own. For if we take a radical position, like a Marxist, we can see how the Marxist has, and desires to force upon others, a substantive view of how human beings should be, just as the conservative does.

Though Dworkin constructs his contrast under the rubric of equality, liberty seems to appear in the contrast. By formulating the contrast as he does, it would be fair to say that the liberal wants to allow the individual the liberty to choose whatever view of the good life she desires, whereas the conservative does not. The conservative wishes to limit the individual to a number of choices that fall under their substantive view. This seems consistent with our brief reflection on the liberal’s and conservative’s difference over the issue of pornography. The liberal wishes to allow people the ability to choose a life of porno, while the conservative wishes to excise that alternative from the list of options. The problem with Dworkin’s line is that it does not address at all whether the liberal does presuppose a conception of the good life as the conservative charges him with doing. It seems to me that the liberal does, but this charge isn’t as dire as the conservative makes it.

To sharpen my point, I would take the debate between defenders of religion who claim that schools are not remaining neutral towards religion. Defenders argue that public schools are under the guidance of what can effectively be called a religion, “secular humanism.” If religion is roughly a system of belief that instills in its practitioners a set list of desires and values, then secular humanism would seem to qualify. It attempts to instill the values of an American secular democracy. It places primary emphasis on a person’s ability to interpret and guide his or her own moral actions. Defenders of religion argue that they do not think people have an ability to interpret or guide his or own moral actions, that we need some other guide such as God, Jesus, the Buddha, or Vishnu. The secular humanist replies that a person can choose to follow God or Vishnu if they want, but the schools cannot become involved in this decision because of the Jeffersonian compromise, the separation between church and state. But this reasoning is circular. It begs the question against the defender of religion by pointing to a value of secular humanism to argue that secular humanism remains neutral to religion.

In most cases, the secular humanist takes the guise of a liberal and the defender of religion a conservative and it seems fairly apparent that the secular humanist would fall quite nicely under the boundaries of Dworkin’s definition of liberalism. I would argue that Dworkin’s lightly sketched liberal would succumb to such an argument about circular reasoning unless her position is clarified in some fashion. The difficulty with this wholly reasonable and logical line of argument is that the religious defender/conservative poses it as an argument about metaphysics. The religious defender, because he interprets his view of reality as the right view, the view that understands reality correctly, interprets the secular humanist as holding an analogous view: that secular humanism is the right and correct view. But the secular humanist/liberal, properly constituted, holds no such view. The secular humanist bases her argument not on metaphysics, in the attempt to understand reality correctly, but on politics, the attempt to reach a manageable consensus. This line of argument isn’t based on any sort of metaphysical premises; it is based on the overlapping consensus of a diverse people with varying conceptions of the good. Being secular is the only way liberal philosophers can imagine people engaging in any meaningful public manner and it isn’t at all clear that conservatives (under Dworkin’s definition) have a better alternative.

It should be obvious that I am attempting to borrow some moves from John Rawls. Rawls suggests “justice as fairness is a political conception of justice: that is, it is designed for the special case of the basic structure of society and is not intended as a comprehensive moral doctrine.”[fn.7] Rawls says that conceptions of the good (equivalent to Dworkin’s “question of the good life”) are “normally set within, and interpreted by, certain comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrines in the light of which the various ends and aims are ordered and understood.”[fn.8] The basic structure of society is explicitly not set within one of these comprehensive doctrines. People are expected to have a conception of the good, possibly set in a comprehensive doctrine, but in a well-ordered society of free and equal persons, people have the freedom to choose what their conception of the good is. There is only one caveat: the conception of the good must be permissible.[fn.9] This is simply to say that it must be compatible with justice as fairness, which is Rawls’ primary concern.

The caveat at the end is the bit that we should pay attention to: Rawls is proposing a normative set of values, a thin set of primary social goods that seem to be the only way to reach a fair system of social cooperation. The conception of justice that Rawls proposes falls under Dworkin’s definition of liberalism, but makes explicit that it does need some normative workings, though these workings are political. As Rawls says, “The hope is that this conception with its account of primary goods can win support of an overlapping consensus.”[fn.9] These normative workings would seem to be the same broad-scale fundamental liberties that Dworkin saw liberals and conservatives agreeing on. The reason for this is that both liberals and conservatives find themselves in a democracy and it would seem that the only way to keep it running is with these liberties. If we rework Dworkin’s contrast now, we can see that the difference is between liberals who think we have worked out all the normative sense of equality (or justice as Rawls might call it) we need (in our conception of the government remaining neutral to questions of the good life), thin as it may be, and conservatives (and radicals) who think that our normative sense of justice needs to be made fuller and more robust, more restrictive as to what kinds of conceptions of the good are permissible.

Hopefully by way of Rawls, it has been shown why Dworkin’s thinly sketched liberal might need augmentation. Certainly when we take our liberties for granted, simply assume that they are agreed upon, which is a political act, we will come up with Dworkin’s contrast. But if we think of a radical interlocutor (not in the sense of a Marxist) who does not agree with some of the assumptions that we deem basic to uphold a democracy, then some of the troubles with saying that “the government should remain neutral towards questions of the good life” arise, particularly when the example of public government sponsored education is taken up.


[1] Ronald Dworkin, “Liberalism,” in Liberalism and Its Critics. ed. Michael J. Sandel (New York: New York University Press, 1984), p. 60

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid., p. 61

[4] ibid., p. 62

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] John Rawls, Justice as Fairness, ed. Erin Kelly, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 19

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., 61

[10] ibid.