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Chapter 13 - The fall and rise of Aristotelian ethics in Anglo-American moral philosophy

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2013

Jon Miller
Affiliation:
Queen's University, Ontario
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Summary

Introduction

In A Hundred Years of Philosophy, John Passmore remarks that “it is a salutary reflection that had I written this book in 1800 I should probably have dismissed Berkeley and Hume in a few lines, in order to concentrate my attention on Dugald Stewart – and that in 1850 the centre of my interest would have shifted to Sir William Hamilton” (Passmore (1957), 7–8). It is likewise salutary to reflect that had this text been prepared a hundred years ago, its editor would have seen no need for a chapter on emerging trends in Anglo-American philosophers’ reception of Aristotelian ethics. Aristotle's prestige and influence had sunk so low that any prediction of a significant recovery within that editor's lifetime would have been dismissed as wishful thinking.

Even fifty years later, after the 1958 publication of Elizabeth Anscombe's “Modern Moral Philosophy,” no one could have predicted that within a few decades, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (henceforth N.E.) would once again be viewed as an important resource for contemporary normative theory, applied ethics, or meta-ethics. Had our imaginary editor reviewed the comments of leading figures in Anglo-American ethics in the first half of the twentieth century, he or she would have concluded that any future interest in Aristotle's ethics would be strictly antiquarian. G. E. Moore led the assault in 1903, criticizing Aristotle's analysis of the virtues as resting upon a “gross absurdity” (Moore [1903] 1993). H. A. Prichard lamented the “deep sense of dissatisfaction produced by a close reading of Aristotle's ethics,” its author having failed to realize that “virtue is no basis for morality” (Prichard (1912), 33). Dewey complained that Aristotle confused acquired and native dispositions, leading “worldlywise Aristotles of today” to suppose that contemporary social institutions were “so grounded in immutable nature that effort to change them is foolish,” and elsewhere described Aristotle's ethics as “remote and empty” (Dewey ([1922] 1983), 78; Dewey ([1929] 1988), 225). R. B. Perry described Aristotelian essentialism as “a bottomless pit of nonsense,” and dismissed Aristotle's definition of happiness as “ambiguous redundancy” (Perry ([1929] 1954), 45, 75). W. D. Ross used more circumspect language in arguing for “reconsideration” (meaning “rejection”) both of Aristotle's account of deliberate action and of the philosophical adequacy of his analysis of good (Ross (1939), 205, 253).

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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