Dec 8, 2012

What IS the Problem of Akrasia?

A little less than a month back, I delivered a talk, Aristotle, Anger, and Akrasia, down at Felician College -- discussing some material, and outlining certain issues, appearing in a book I'm currently writing, reconstructing Aristotle's theory of anger across the corpus of his texts.  I'd intended my next entry in this blog to use that as a starting point, continuing my on-again-off-again series on philosophical and theological treatments of anger (the last two, on Plato, are here and here).  Recently, a student from the University of Edinburgh -- who watched the video of the talk -- wrote me:
I came across your online lecture, which was very helpful, offering a very in depth description of the problem but you did not seem to offer a judgement on the problem itself.  Would you say that Aristotle effectively overcomes the problem of Akrasia?
So, that offers an excellent occasion for engaging in a bit of a digression in this post -- what precisely is the "problem of akrasia"?  -- that's what has to be asked, examined, and answered, before we can say whether Aristotle does or doesn't effectively formulate it, mainly in Nicomachean Ethics book 7, let alone overcome it.


The Terms of the Problem

There's really several distinct though intersecting ambiguities involved in the phrase, "the problem of akrasia" -- a first clarification that ought to be noted.  Unfortunately, all too often we  -- even those of us who are studying philosophy -- allow ourselves to be seduced by the language we employ, a point made famous by Ludwig Wittgenstein, but actually made much more quietly, matter-of-factedly, and usefully by thinkers like Aristotle, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas, among many others

Let's start with akrasia itself -- a Greek term which somewhat resists translation, not because it would be strictly speaking untranslatable, nor even because it even assembles around itself such a rich web of  connotations that would render any English substitute anemic.  Akrasia, lexically, comes from the privative or negational prefix -a, coupled with kratia, (self-)"mastery,"  so the most literal translation would be "lack of self-mastery," precisely why the rather circumlocutory "lack of self-control" is probably the best translation currently available.  There's problems -- of different sorts -- with some of the other common renderings, like "incontinence" (connotations of a need for adult diapers), or "weakness of will" (you won't actually find a notion of "will" as such in much ancient philosophy).

Finding the right word or set of words does not solve the problem or resolve the ambiguity, however, because one needs to decide precisely what the English term will signify -- and that ends up being dependent either on some general experience we want to make sense of, or some concept already constellated within the matrix of a moral philosophy.  I recently attended a talk led by a scholar working roughly on the always shifting borderlands between Cognitive Science and Analytic Philosophy of Action, in which "akratic" was used as the descriptor for a person who was, not because of a state of character but some organic malfunction, able to know what they ought to do, but always ended up doing something other than that -- something quite a bit different from any meanings ascribed to akrasia by Aristotle scholars, and those working away at the matter within their wake.

Lets look briefly at two off those ilk for just a moment:  David Wiggens, and Richard Houlton, both of whom complaisantly employ the language of "weakness of will".  Here's the first lines of Houtlon's excellent article, "Intention and Weakness of Will:
There is something curious about the philosophical literature on weakness of will. It is not about what one might expect. Even David Wiggins, in a discussion that has much in common with that to be given here, starts out by claiming:

Almost anyone not under the influence of theory will say that, when a person is weak-willed, he intentionally chooses that which he knows or believes to be the worse course of action when he could choose the better course.

I do not agree that this is the untutored view. Whenever I have asked nonphilosophers what they take weakness of will to consist in, they have made no mention of judgments about the better or worse course of action. Rather, they have said things like this: weak-willed people are irresolute; they do not persist in their intentions; they are too easily deflected from the path that they have chosen. 
It's true that here, an appeal is being made to ordinary experience or plain persons -- which some might object to, arguing that the plain person of today or of of the late 20th century is far too different from those of ancient Athens (or Rhodes, or Alexandria, or Rome or  . . . .) for any investigation starting from such grounds to assist us in understanding Aristotle's notion of akrasia.  I don't buy that myself, but the reasons for that belong to another conversation for another time.  Notice though, the real point -- there's no agreement among those who specialize in thinking about the phenomenon of akrasia about precisely what akrasia is or consists in.  One could adduce many more examples, but there's another point of ambiguity that calls out to be addressed.

Just what is a "problem"?  It's one of those terms we bandy about all too easily in philosophy, assuming that we all mean the same thing, that we're all reading from the same page, when we say or hear it.  Is that really the case though?  Read through Aristotle's minor work sometime, entitled the Problemata, and you'll encounter, in each book -- at least the topics are arranged by some order into books -- chains of questions, musings, speculations.  You get the sense that for Aristotle, a "problem" is merely a starting point.  The sort of inquiry carried out, e.g. in book 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics is really more of a methodos, to use his own terminology.

A Plethora of Possible "Problems"

So, there's a number of different ways to understand just what a "problem" is in philosophy.  I'll do another bit on this later on, so I'll just mention, rather than go into detail about this distinction -- made by Gabriel Marcel, the great French Christian existentialist (though he preferred the moniker "Socratic"), in a piece presented early on in his career, "The Position of the Ontological Mystery" (found in Being and Having)  -- there's a vital difference between a problem and a mystery:
A problem is something which I meet, which I find complete before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to an reduce.  But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity.  A genuine problem is subject to an appropriate technique by the exercise of which it is defined: whereas a mystery, by definition, transcends every conceivable technique.
One ought not assume -- particularly if Aristotelian moral theory is understood less as a philosophical system, let alone a set of connected arguments and propositions, and more (as Aristotle scholars tend to do) as an almost-living body of writings progressively inculcating one into a more and more adequately philosophical, a developmental moral, view of and attitude towards phenomena -- that akrasia is merely a "problem," along Marcellian lines.  If the great ancient scholar, Miles Burnyeat, is correct in asserting that "the seeds of akrasia are going to be with us as we enter Aristotle's lecture room," akrasia becomes something more like a Marcellian mystery than problem.

But, let's say that akrasia -- "lack of self-control," "weakness of will," whatever you'd like to call it -- is indeed a philosophical problem in some sense.  Forget Marcel and his concerns for a moment.  What would the "problem of akrasia" be? What would the "problem of akrasia in Aristotle" be?  Several ideas come to mind right out of the gates.

In posing this problem, one might well be asking something like the classic question raised in Platonic dialogues:  Why do people do the wrong thing?  Do they realize or understand that it is wrong?  The "Socratic" -- and really, by extension, Platonic -- understanding of akrasia inevitably frames the issue in terms of moral knowledge. . .  or its lack, its deficit, its privation.  People do what is wrong because to them it seems right, under this view, and so there really ends up being no problem of akrasia as such -- the issue just displaced:  why don't they know any better?  Why do they think wrong is right?  Why does their practical reasoning proceed from false premises.

If we shift entirely over to the other side, and set before ourselves the fact that not only there are people who admit that they know the good, the right, what ought to be and be done, but choose otherwise -- Saint Paul himself furnishing an example in his own words " I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do" -- but examine our own experience, most of us can uncover some instances of moral failure, where we know that we ought to do something, but find ourselves not doing it, or know we ought not do something, but find ourselves doing it.  The question -- or problem -- is then, not simply how did this happen in this particular case, but how does this occur more generally? What occurs when akrasia takes place?

We can go in three other directions, more explicitly connected with Aristotle's own texts on the matter.  First off, we can try to reconstruct what Aristotle's own position on akrasia is -- the problem in that case is essentially one of well-informed interpretation, or hermeneutics:  what is Aristotle actually saying, thinking, considering, about akrasia.   That gets somewhat complicated by two different factors.

The first is that in the main locus where Aristotle focuses on the matter, he starts out dialectically, i.e. he sets out a lot of other views on the matter, in order ultimately to sift them and determine what is plausible, even solidly true, in their perspectives on the matter.  Although I'm not the sort of Aristotle scholar who is willing to write off everything in such passages as merely "dialectical," which some take to mean not endorsed at all by the Philosopher, I do proceed with particular circumspection towards the Nicomachean Ethics book 7 discussions -- for the second reason, actually, which is that Aristotle does also tell us a good bit, but never gives us some definitive word, about akrasia in a number of other passages touching on the matter in the Nicomachean Ethics, the Eudemian Ethics, the De Anima, and the Problemata, among other texts.

So, there is a first "problem":  What is Aristotle's position on akrasia? A second "problem" arises from the Aristotelian texts after that one:  Did Aristotle actually get matters right?  And one can approach this in two different ways, depending on whether one works at Aristotle from the insider, so to speak, or comes at him from the outside instead.  His discussions about akrasia have proven troublesome, even a bone of contention, for Aristotle scholars, since at least under certain reconstructions, they seem so much at odds with the rest of his work -- again, a view I don't myself accept, but which I'll eschew any full defense of here -- in particular his seeming surrender to a semi-Socratic view that casts akrasia as some sort of failure of knowledge, rather than a genuine moral failure.  If one has some other, perhaps richer, more robust, more systematic notion of akrasia in mind, than Aristotle's might seem weak or inconsistent by comparison, and then the question one asks is how such a smart guy could have failed so signally to make sense out of this important moral phenomenon.

A third problem -- one foreign to Aristotle's texts, but which I think Aristotle the thinker would not only have sensed but embraced -- is this:  If Aristotle has a consistent understanding of akrasia, one we can successfully reconstruct, should we take that reconstruction to be the definitive position on weakness of will, temptation, doing what one knows to be wrong, etc.?  Or should we instead regard Aristotelian akrasia as one important shape or configuration among others which the weak, divided, unstable, inconstant will can assume?  After all, there is progress in moral theory -- Aristotle himself would be the first to admit (and to eagerly incorporate!) this.

Yet another "problem" often arises in discussions about akrasia or other related moral failures -- a problem not connected in any necessary way with Aristotle's own texts or position:  If there is something like akrasia, is the akratic person responsible for their own actions and choices?  Are they responsible for being in an akratic condition?  Are they wholly absolved of responsibility, or is their responsibility in some way diminished or mitigated?  Obviously, how one even frames such a set of questions will depend on a number of assumptions being made, though perhaps not explicitly articulated.  This issue did in fact come up during my own talk -- one of the professors in attendance wanted to claim that since by Aristotle's lights, akrasia involved some failure to use the knowledge one possessed (perhaps not entirely possessed, though), and since there could be some reason for the lack or failure of full, effective knowledge, Aristotle was wrong to hold people responsible for akratic actions -- setting out a counterposition neither Aristotle nor I hold.

Miles Burnyeat's "On Learning to Be Good"

There are a number of excellent articles and book chapters available, penned by much better Aristotle scholars than myself, each of them grappling with the question of akrasia in Aristotle -- and there's no complete consensus among them.  One might take this to mean that they're really dealing with a pseudo-problem -- if there was a real issue, they'd have gotten to the bottom of it by now, right?  Or such controversy might counsel hesitation in endorsing any one of them.  I'll nevertheless -- that's one of the perks of writing for one's own blog, after all! -- single out one piece which in my estimation best -- and most faithfully -- situates, even interprets, Aristotle's views on the matter.  It's not actually among the articles explicitly focused on akrasia -- Burnyeat comes straight out in admitting:
I am not going to attempt anything like a full treatment of Aristotle's account of akrasia. . . .my hope is that the temporal perspective I shall sketch out will remove one major source. . . of the dissatisfaction which is often, and understandably, felt with Aristotle's account of the phenomenon.
This "temporal view" construes Aristotle's project as one engaging the student of ethics in a course of personal, concrete, reflective moral development.  I'll just cite a few highlights of Burnyeat's essay here, with minimal commentary, starting with the condition and problematic from which we begin. There is no tabula rasa for Aristotelian moral theory
In both cases, the good man and the akratic, we shall be concerned with the primitive materials from which character and mature morality must grow.  A wide range of desires and feelings are shaping patterns motivation and response in a person long before he comes to a reasoned outlook on his life as a whole, and certainly before he integrates this reflective consciousness with his actual behavior.
Burnyeat regards akrasia -- and self-control (enkratia), as well as moral goodness -- as involving a dimension of moral knowledge, but his interpretation does not view such knowledge as something once-and-for-all given.  There is a tendency not only among interpreters of Aristotle, but also those interested in the relationship between knowledge and action more generally, to treat knowledge in a rather heavy-handed, mechanistically conceived manner.  Either one has knowledge, they say, or one simply doesn't.  Either one reasons correctly -- premises assuredly true, processes of inference operating without glitch, the right conclusions arrived at -- or one just doesn't.  In real life, and particularly in the dimension of action, emotion and desire, intention, and moral values -- the sphere many of Aristotle's works painstakingly though only partly analyses -- matters are from from such over-simplistic representations.

Burnyeat notes quite correctly that akrasia can have several distinct sources -- which can, of course, work together.  If this is true -- and careful reading of Aristotle's discussions of akrasia outside of the confines of book 7 bears this out  -- then there is no one single "problem of akrasia" in Aristotle, not at least in the sense where solving the problem means identifying the one sole general cause and mechanism.  We have to take into consideration the bodily appetites and the passions of the soul as one set of sources for akrasia.  But, in addition to these, we have to take into account what Burnyeat calls, qualifiedly, "unreasoned responses".
To say that these responses are unreasoned is to make a remark about their source.  The contrast is with desires. . .  which derive from a reflective scheme of values organized under the heading of the good. But where desires and feelings are concerned, the nature of the response and its source are connected.  It is not that evaluative responses have  no thought component (no intentionality): on the contrary, something is desired as noble or just, something inspires shame because it is thought of as disgraceful.  The responses are grounded in an evaluation of their object, parallel to the way appetite is oriented to a conception of its object as something pleasant;  in this sense both have their reasons.
What does this have to do with akrasia, though, one might ask -- and the answer relocates akrasia precisely where it ought to be understood from Aristotle's book 7 treatment, as a stage or set of stages in moral development of the human person.
The point is that such reasons need not invariably or immediately give way or lose efficacy to contrary consideration.  There are, as it were, pockets of thought in us which remain relatively unaffected by our overall view of things.  This is a phenomenon which the century of psychoanalysis is well placed to understand, but the Greek philosophers already saw that it must be central to any plausible account of akrasia.  It is that insight which backs their interweaving of the topics of akrasia and moral development.
One of the most sophisticated portrayals of akrasia Aristotle provides in book 7 frames the failure of choice and action in terms of a competition between two practical syllogisms -- essentially, two different pieces of moral reasoning being carried out within the person who is wavering, and who then chooses the wrong course of action.  Burnyeat brilliantly identifies a pseudo-problem involved in this, or rather in many readings of Aristotle on this:

I think many readers feel that Aristotle's discussion of akrasia leaves unexplained the point most in need to explanation.  What they want to know is why the better syllogism is overcome.  Not finding an answer, they look for one in what Aristotle says in 7.3 about the akratic's knowledge and the way this is not used, not had, or dragged about. And then they are dissatisfied because no adequate answer is to be had in the discussion of that issue, for the good reason, I think, that none is intended.

Burnyeat then identifies another connected question:
What determines whether it is appetite or reason that is victorious?

I submit that the question is misguided, at least so far as it looks for an answer in the immediate circumstances of the conflated decision.  If there is an answer, it is to be found in the man's earlier history. We must account for his present conflict in terms of stages in the development of his character which he has not completely left behind.  For on Aristotle's picture of moral development. . .  an important fact about the better syllogism is that it represents a later and less established stage of development.
There's quite a bit more to Burnyeat's excellent, and short piece, but I'll leave off here, for the time being, with those rich reflections