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Is Aristotle's Account of Incontinence Inconsistent?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Terrance McConnell*
University of Minnesota


Included among the many topics on which Aristotle writes in the Nicomacheon Ethics is an account of incontinence or akrasia. Many controversies have arisen among interpreters of Aristotle on this issue, and a few of these disputes will be discussed in this paper. In the first part of this paper I shall indicate the usual way of reading Aristotle's account of incontinence, which I shall call the natural interpretation. In the second section I shall raise some apparent difficulties with the natural interpretation by pointing out three passages in the Nicomacheon Ethics which seem to be inconsistent with it. Finally, in the concluding three sections of this paper I shall argue that the three passages allegedly inconsistent with the natural interpretation can be shown to be consistent with the general line of argument that the natural interpretation takes Aristotle to be following. In showing how these passages can be reconciled with the usual way of reading Aristotle's account of akrasia, a much clearer and more complete picture of what his view is emerges. In addition, this reading makes Aristotle's account of incontinence more philosophically acceptable - though it is not without its problems - than it is normally supposed to be.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1975

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* In writing this paper I have benefited greatly from discussions with and the critical comments of Professors Norman O. Dahl and Vicki L. Harper. I should particularly note that in setting out the problem (sections I and II) that I discuss here I closely follow Professor Dahl's account in his unpublished paper “Aristotle on Practical Reason and Weakness of the Will.”

1. All references to the Nichomachean Ethics are to the W.D. Ross translation.

2. Santas, Gerasimos in his paper “Aristotle on Practical Inference, the Explanation of Action, and Akrasia,Phronesis, Vol. 14 (1969), pp. 162189CrossRefGoogle Scholar, views this case in this way, as does Professor Dahl in his paper.

3. Santas, p. 182.

4. There is also a passage in De Anima (434a 12-14) which can be construed in the same way that I have suggested that passage (C) be construed. This passage, however, is somewhat obscure and the interpretation of it is quite controversial.

5. Santas, in the paper referred to above, and Kenny, Anthony in his paper “The Practical Syllogism and Incontinence,Phronesis, Vol. 11 (1966), pp. 163184CrossRefGoogle Scholar, both attempt to deal with some of these puzzles and closely related matters. Though I do not critically discuss their accounts in my paper, except for a small part of Santas's paper, I am not entirely convinced that either of their accounts can adequately handle all of the apparently inconsistent passages. Of course, the reader must decide this for himself.

6. It seems to me that one must take this passage to refer to all incontinent men. The reason for this is that the paragraph in which it occurs is intended to set off the incontinent man - not just some incontinent men - from the vicious one.

7. I do not give any arguments for construing incontinence as a disposition. I should point out, though, that others have also taken it as a disposition. Walsh, James J. in Chapter IV, particularly p. 95, of Aristotle's Conception of Moral Weakness (Columbia University Press, 1963)Google Scholar, also construes incontinence as a disposition, though as far as I can tell he does not give an argument for this interpretation either. In opposition to this general view, Davidson, Donald in his “How is Weakness of the Will Possible?”, Moral Concepts (Oxford University Press, 1970), ed. Feinberg, Joel pp. 9697Google Scholar, claims that for Aristotle weakness of the will cannot be a character trait.

8. Santas, pp. 184–185.

9. Santas, p. 185. This assumes that the conclusion of one's deliberation is a resolution rather than an action.

10. This objection was pointed out to me by Norman Dahl. The response that I make to it was suggested to me by Vicki Harper.