[This is an undergraduate paper from 1991. --mh]

Aristotle and Incontinence

by Michael Huemer

I have three projects in this paper: to explain and criticize Aristotle's solution to the problem of akrasia, to explain and criticize Jonathan Lear's interpretation (ironically, the interpretation of Aristotle needs some interpretation of its own), and to say what I think is the truth about incontinence. Particularly with that last aim included, this should be a sufficiently great task.

Incontinence (which I take for the same as weakness of will) is the character defect of acting against one's own judgement, or failing to act in accord with it. The philosophical problem of weakness of the will occurs because philosophers find it difficult to see how incontinence is possible and want some kind of explanation of it.

1  Aristotle on incontinence

Aristotle deals with incontinence in book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics. I will be concerned chiefly with chapter 3 because it has the most bearing on the problem of akrasia proper.

1.1  Aristotle's general philosophical approach

We know what Aristotle's general philosophical approach is. He believes that philosophy begins in puzzlement and aims at resolving intellectual difficulties which have occured (Metaphysics I.2, 982b12-22). Therefore, his approach in a philosophical treatise is to begin with a statement of the difficulties encountered in a subject and then go on to resolve them. Unlike most philosophers, he always tries to give solutions that leave common sense and the opinions of the wise as undisturbed as possible. In chapter 1, he makes it clear that this is also what he is doing in NE VII:

We must, as in all other cases, set the phenomena before us and, after first discussing the difficulties, go on to prove, if possible, the truth of all the reputable opinions ... or, failing this, of the greater number and the most authoritative ... (1145b1-5)

1.2  The difficulties

Accordingly, Aristotle first proceeds in chapter 2 to set forth the difficulties about incontinence. The one that concerns me here is the first one he cites: "Now we may ask (1) how a man who judges rightly can behave incontinently." He states the different opinions about the matter: 1) Socrates held that there could be no such thing as incontinence because, he thought, knowledge could not be mastered by anything else; 2) on the other hand, our common observations seem to show cases of incontinence; and 3) some people say that in cases of incontinence it is only opinion and not knowledge that is overrun and dragged about.

1.3  Aristotle's solution

In chapter 3, Aristotle aims at resolving the conflict among these different views. He dispenses with the third view by saying that it explains nothing since a person's mere opinion may be just as strong as another's knowledge (1146b24-30), which argument I am inclined to accept. Aristotle then wants to reconcile the first and second views above by showing that incontinence can occur without knowledge being dragged about.

First, he gives the suggestion that an incontinent man has ethical knowledge but is not exercising it (1146b33-4). But we still want to know, "Why is he not exercising it?" So Aristotle tells us that the man either fails to know or does not exercise his knowledge of the particular premise of the practical syllogism (1146b35-1147a8). For example, he may know that dry food is good for every man and that he is a man, but not that this food is dry, or he may not exercise his knowledge that this food is dry. Now, if he just does not know the facts about the particular situation, this is understandable; but if he knows, then we still want to ask, "Why does he not exercise his knowledge?" It is at this point that Aristotle compares the incontinent man to people asleep, mad, or drunk (1147a17-18). There is a sense in which you could point to a sleeping mathematician and say truly, "He knows calculus" -- but of course, he cannot in his present condition solve any calculus problems. The same would be true of someone drunk. So in a sense the incontinent knows what to do, but he is unable to exercise that knowledge, as one asleep, mad, or drunk cannot exercise his knowledge, due to his having been taken over by passion: "for outbursts of anger and sexual appetites and some other such passions, it is evident, actually alter our bodily condition, and in some men even produce fits of madness" (1147a14-17). So at the conclusion of the discussion, Aristotle says

Now, the last premiss [i.e., the minor, particular premiss] both being an opinion about a perceptible object, and being what determines our actions, this a man either has not when he is in the state of passion, or has it in the sense in which having knowledge did not mean knowing but only talking, as a drunken man may mutter the verses of Empedocles. (1147b9-13)

This either-or he presents is not supposed to be two different cases but two different ways of describing the case. Aristotle now takes himself to have accomplished his aim, for he can now say that in a sense Socrates was right, while also the common observation of incontinence was not mistaken:

And because the last term is not universal nor equally an object of scientific knowledge with the universal term, the position that Socrates sought to establish actually seems to result; for it is not in the presence of what is thought to be knowledge proper that the affection of incontinence arises (nor is it this that is 'dragged about' as a result of the state of passion), but in that of perceptual knowledge.

What this is saying is that Socrates was right that scientific knowledge, knowledge of universals -- which is 'knowledge proper' -- cannot be dragged about or overcome by passions. But on the other hand, incontinence is still possible because perceptual knowledge (i.e. knowledge of particulars) is obscured and dragged about by passions. Thus, Socrates' opinion is reconciled with the common observations.

1.4  Problems for Aristotle

I must say that I find Aristotle's account unsatisfactory. My main objection to it can be made using principles that Aristotle himself puts forward in NE III.1. There, Aristotle says that "those things ... are thought involuntary, which take place under compulsion or owing to ignorance" (1109b35-1110a1; emphasis mine).

He clarifies this latter condition:

[I]t is not mistaken purpose that causes involuntary action (it leads rather to wickedness), nor ignorance of the universal (for that men are blamed), but ignorance of particulars, i.e. of the circumstances of the action and the objects with which it is concerned. For it is on these that both pity and pardon depend, since the person who is ignorant of any of these acts involuntarily. (1110b31-1111a2)

Now, given Aristotle's explanation of incontinence as stemming from lack of knowledge of particulars due to being taken over by passions, doesn't this make incontinent acts involuntary? If a man should do something in his sleep, or while drunk or mad, I suppose that it would not be voluntary. And then, in accordance with another principle stated by Aristotle, namely, that involuntary actions are pardoned, they could not be blamed (1109b30-32). But in NE VII he says that incontinence is blameworthy (1145b9-10). He can't have it both ways.

One might reply that Aristotle allowed that in a sense the incontinent man had knowledge. But I don't think that that sense is enough to make his actions voluntary -- again, the 'knowledge' of the sleeping, drunk, or mad men does not make their actions voluntary.

More plausibly, one might reply that we hold the incontinent man responsible because he is responsible for getting into his present condition. If a man runs over a pedestrian while driving under the influence of alcohol, although he did not run over the poor fellow voluntarily, yet the driver voluntarily became drunk and drove while in that condition, which he knew was dangerous -- and that is why we will blame him. Likewise, it might be said, while the incontinent man does not perform his incontinent actions voluntarily, yet we blame him for getting himself into the condition of being an incontinent person. Aristotle does have the view that one acquires character traits by performing certan kinds of actions and thereby one is responsible for one's character. Thus, the incontinent man, we might say, has made himself incontinent.

But this will not do at all. We can only hold the drunken driver responsible for his involuntary running over of the pedestrian if we can find that his becoming drunk was voluntary. If THAT was not voluntary either, then he is off the hook. So with the incontinent man: we can only hold him responsible for an incontinent action if his becoming incontinent was itself voluntary. Now, on the Aristotelian view, he has made himself incontinent by performing incontinent acts. But if all incontinent actions are involuntary, then he will not be responsible for being incontinent either, and he is off the hook.

What is missing in the Aristotelian account is an account of voluntary incontinence, i.e., blameworthy incontinence (or rather, an account of incontinence that makes it voluntary), and since that phenomenon is the source of the philosophical problem, I think Aristotle simply does not help us.

2  Lear on incontinence

2.1  Incontinence and incontinence

In chapter 5.4, Lear defines incontinence as

a situation in which (a) an agent performs an action intentionally, (b) the agent believes that an alternative action is open to him, and (c) the agent judges that all things considered it would be better to do the alternative action rather than the one he performs. (p. 176)

The way this is different from Aristotle's incontinence is that here it is specifically stated that the agent judges, e.g., this particular action to be wrong, all things considered, and performs same; whereas regular incontinence is just performing an action which is of a class which one considers wrong. For instance, an incontinent man might think, "I ought not to eat this peice of cheesecake," while eating said cheesecake. An incontinent man, on the other hand, might think, "I ought not to eat food with lots of carbohydrates" (or whatever it is that cheesecake contains), while eating a peice of cheesecake. Incontinence is a more specific concept than incontinence, since it includes judgement of the particular act and intentionalness, in addition to what incontinence connotes. Incontinence thus cannot be explained by the account I attributed to Aristotle, because by definition the incontinent man has already drawn the particular practical conclusion and is in need of no more perceptual evidence. Also, given the specification that the action is intentional, there can be no question of being taken over and acting involuntarily.

2.2  Lear's interpretation of Aristotle

Lear gives what is to me a strange reading of Aristotle. As I said, by my interpretation, Aristotle has nothing to say about incontinence. But on Lear's interpretation, Aristotle does give an account of incontinence. Lear's Aristotle says that the incontinent man fails to know what he thinks he knows - in fact, fails to believe what he thinks he believes: "Incontinence represents a failure of self-consciousness" (p. 185). "The incontinent ... will be brought face to face with his ignorance when he is put in a situation in which he must act on his purported beliefs" (p. 184; emphasis mine).

First of all, how is this possible? Lear gives an example to illustrate: A student of geometry might try to find out if he really knew the Pythagorean theorem. If he was able to demonstrate the theorem and derive consequences from it, this would tend to show that he really did know what he was talking about when he said that a2 + b2 = c2. But if he tried to do this and couldn't, then he might conclude that he really didn't understand the theorem as he had thought he did. According to Lear, students who are first learning a subject will often think they know something which they don't; they may sincerely make various assertions without really being able to appreciate the full meaning of those assertions. In that sense, they don't really have the beliefs they think they have.

How does this explain incontinence? I believe the situation is supposed to be that the incontinent man thinks he holds various ethical principles, but he doesn't fully appreciate their meaning. In consequence of his not really holding those principles, he acts against them.

2.3  Criticism of Lear

First of all, I find it difficult to justify Lear's account qua exegesis of Aristotle. The whole thing seems to come from one small remark of Aristotle's, the part emphasized below:

For even men under the influence of these passions utter scientific proofs and verses of Empedocles, and those who have just begun to learn can string together words, but do not yet know; for it has to become part of themselves, and that takes time ... (1147a19-24; emphasis Lear's)

What Lear draws out of this seems quite a stretch. I think Aristotle's point was just that the fact that people under the influence of passion are able to speak and express certain beliefs does not mean that they know what they are doing. He cites the examples of madmen and drunkards to show that people can say things and have no idea what they are saying. The example of students who "string together words" but do not yet know their meaning was just another example of not knowing what one was saying. I think it is going too far to attribute to Aristotle a conception of failure of self-consciousness, two thousand years before the development of the theory of the unconscious. We are able to understand what Lear is talking about when he says "An incontinent is a stranger to himself" and so on because of modern psychology, but if Aristotle were transported through time to read this section from Lear, I seriously doubt that he would understand it at all. Moreover, Aristotle clearly locates the incontinent's trouble in his failure to appreciate the minor premise of the practical syllogism, whereas Lear locates the problem in his failure to fully understand his purported ethical principles.

Furthermore, even if this account were Aristotle's, I do not see how it would address the philosophical problem. We wanted to understand a kind of incontinence that was essentially culpable and voluntary. Now, it may be true that incontinent acts come about through some kind of failure of self-consciousness. But if that failure is itself a case of incontinence (through deliberate repression, for example), then Lear's explanation is circular; whereas if it is not, then how can we blame the poor fellow?

3  Me on incontinence

I think that the very presuppositions on which the problem about weakness of the will is founded make it impossible to answer. The problem is supposed to be to give an explanation of something called akrasia, where akrasia is defined to be at least a kind of action which is contrary to reason and culpable. The very notion of explaining that kind of thing is incoherent. For suppose what we want is an explanation in terms of reasons -- i.e., what was the agent's reason for being weak-willed. If we were to give that kind of explanation, then the philosopher would automatically disqualify it on the grounds that if the reasons given were sufficient - or even thought sufficient - to justify what the agent did, then it was not a case of akrasia; while if the reasons given are insufficient, then we have not explained it.

But suppose what we want is a causal explanation. Then, again, any answer given will be automatically disqualified. If we give a set of sufficient causes, then the philosopher will declare that the agent did not have free will since his actions were determined -- in which case he is not culpable. But if we give causes which are not sufficient, then we have not explained why the thing happened.

One is tempted to say that the weak-willed person is simply overcome by his desires, and that is why he does as he does - but then one remembers that it is up to him whether he will be overcome or not (else he would not be blameable), and the problem resurfaces as that of explaining why he was overcome when it was in his power not to be. And so things will go with any explanation that can be given.

In short, therefore, Aristotle and Lear failed to account for akrasia because what philosophers are asking for with respect to this issue is something which is impossible by definition.