Aristotle and Pleasure

By Kyle Holmes,2014-08-11 08:27
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Aristotle and Pleasure ...

    Aristotle and Pleasure

    Bentham and Mill do not notice the difficulty of the concept „pleasure‟. They are often said to have gone wrong through committing the naturalistic fallacy; but this charge does not impress me, because I do not find accounts of it coherent. But the other point about

    pleasure seems to me a fatal objection from the outset. The ancients found this concept pretty baffling. It reduced Aristotle to sheer babble about „the bloom on the cheek of youth‟ because, for good reasons, he wanted to make it out both identical with and

    different from the pleasurable activity. Generations of modern philosophers found this concept quite unperplexing, and it reappeared in the literature as a problematic one only a year or two ago when Ryle wrote about it. The reason is simple: since Locke, pleasure was taken to be some sort of internal impression. But it was superficial, if that was the right account of it, to make it the point of actions. One might adapt something Wittgenstein said about „meaning‟ and say “Pleasure cannot be an internal impression, 1 for no internal impression could have the consequences of pleasure.”

     In this brief but insightful analysis of the history of philosophical conceptions of pleasure, Anscombe states that Aristotle‟s difficulty in treating the ethical role of pleasure

    is his well-reasoned attempt to make pleasure, “both identical with and different from the pleasurable activity.” Moreover, Aristotle‟s difficulty is our difficulty, in that we have yet to develop a satisfactory philosophical account of pleasure, a central component in

    2any theory of ethics. Review of the philosophical literature surrounding Aristotle‟s

    treatment of pleasure verifies that the relation of pleasure and pleasurable activity is taken to be the main sticking point in his account. How are we to understand the relation between his definition of pleasure in Book VII as unimpeded activity (1153a15), and his claim in Book X that, “pleasure is what completes the activity”(1174b24)? Are these two

    different, inconsistent views? Or are these books different ways of presenting the same account of pleasure? Even Aristotle himself seems unsure: “the former [pleasures] are close together with them [activities] and are so indistinguishable that there is room for dispute whether activity isn‟t the same thing as pleasure. It certainly does not seem likely

    that pleasure is thinking, or perceiving (for that is a strange idea); but because of their not being separated they appear to some people to be the same thing.”(1175b32-5).

     1 Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958), „Modern Moral Philosophy‟, in Ethics, Religion and Politics (Oxford: Basil

     Blackwell), 27. 2 If Anscombe is right, and utilitarianism is based on an erroneous understanding of pleasure, this would severely undermine utilitarianism as a theory of ethics. In a later section, I will examine Kant‟s understanding of pleasure, focusing on Anscombe‟s suggestion that within Kantian ethics, as the product of

    a modern moral philosopher, pleasure is „some sort of internal impression.‟


    3on One aim of this paper, then, will be to try to elucidate a reading of Aristotlepleasure that allows for the compatibility of the claims that pleasure is identical to the activity and that pleasure is something additional to the activity. However, the main focus of this paper will be to set up Aristotle as an interesting contrast to what Anscombe understands as a mistake we have inherited from the moderns: a view of pleasure as an internal impression. The modern conception of pleasure is not one unified account, but can range from a „thin‟ conception of pleasure as something like a subject “feel”, to more ethically „thick‟ understandings of pleasure that link the experience of pleasure as

    externally individuated mental states to human nature or the subject‟s character. I do not

    have the room nor the ability to provide a typology of these modern understandings of pleasure here, but these modern understandings of pleasure (which in many ways still shape contemporary intuitions) share a commitment to three features of pleasure: 1. First-person authority in the realm of pleasure reigns complete. My pleasure may be

    based on a false belief, but I cannot be wrong about whether or not I am feeling pleasure.

2. The experience of pleasure is to be explained in terms of a stimulus-response model.

    Different objects produce different stimuli which will cause a certain response, pleasure; if the stimuli caused by a particular object are the same as the stimuli produced by a different object (e.g. in dreams or „virtual reality‟ machines), there is no difference in the experience of pleasure by the subject. Commitment to this feature can lead one to claim (although it need not): 2a. Insofar as pleasure picks out a certain kind of response which may be produced by different objects or sources of stimuli, there are no qualitative differences in the experience of pleasure; all that matters is the quantity of pleasure produced and the reliability with which certain objects succeed in producing it.

3. Pleasure is fully present in the moment The whole truth as to whether I am

    experiencing pleasure is present at the time of the event.

    These three characteristics of pleasure may come with some qualifications (e.g. the conception of first-person authority and pleasure as a kind of impression may allow more latitude for error) in modern philosophic accounts of pleasure, but when push comes to shove, these features are taken to be basic to pleasure and something any account of pleasure should be built around.

     3 I hope to make this way of reading of Aristotle more plausible, even desirable because of its explanatory power, as this paper progresses.


     One motivation for this modern philosophical theorization of pleasure is to locate pleasure within a deterministic physical world by imitating the structure of naturalist scientific explanations; by assimilating pleasure to the model of stimulus-response, this account of pleasure as an internal impression is an explanation of actions one can give without needing to have a strong teleological/normative framework about how things are

    4. By contrast, Aristotle‟s purpose of giving a scientific explanation that supposed to go

    pertains to the natural form as such posits an ideal we can understand and use within ethical theory that is prior to explanation of what particular persons are aiming at. Certainly, Aristotle takes pleasure to be intimately related to the particulars of a person‟s

    psyche: pleasure shapes or molds the person‟s soul, while also making manifest the quality or arrangement of that soul. However, the tasks the Aristotelian and modern theoretical explanations are directed towards are different; while Aristotle does not aim to provide a radically disjunctive analysis of pleasure it is important to Aristotle that the

    deficient forms of pleasure we see are trying to be more perfect or true pleasures

    Aristotle‟s account of pleasure is grounded in a natural teleology for human beings, that invokes the particularities of the agent‟s character only when the pleasure is question is in some way deficient. Aristotle‟s conception of pleasure rejects all three features of the modern philosophical account of pleasure, necessitating a completely different account of the nature of the subject, world, and relationship between these in the experience of pleasure; this is what is most promising, and most challenging for us in Aristotle‟s work

    5on pleasure.

     Three claims of Aristotle‟s are central to his account of pleasure: 1) pleasure is or

    6happens in addition to activity, and is not a process; 2) the goodness or worthlessness of

    pleasure is dependent upon the value of the activity to which the pleasure belongs

     4 If this is the virtue of the modern scientific account of pleasure, Anscombe‟s somewhat affected

    bafflement in the previous quote is meant to draw attention to the fact that this aim is insufficiently realized in the modern view of pleasure. Anscombe wants to bring attention to the fact that seeing pleasure as an internal impression cannot explain the phenomena we find associated with pleasure, e.g. there is no account of the absorption of pleasure, why the taking of pleasure in different pursuits is so difficult to change, how someone can be lead to do the wrong thing because of pleasure, etc. 5 I want to make clear at this point that I do not mean to endorse Aristotle‟s account with no restrictions or qualms. Rather, this paper is an attempt to develop as fully as possible Aristotle‟s view of pleasure to

    determine if and where there is a clear jumping off point that salvages the best of Aristotle‟s insights into pleasure. My worry is that much of what is appealing in Aristotle‟s account may not be separable from certain other commitments we find less attractive, e.g. an unacceptably strong teleology. 6 I will treat the ambiguous relation of pleasure to activity in the next section of this paper.


    (1175b24-29); and 3) the pleasures that appear so to the good man are really pleasant, and the things that seems pleasant to the bad man should not be counted as pleasant at all (except, for him) (1176a17-24). The first claim rests on a metaphysical distinction; pleasure depends upon activity, not process. This claim is essential for forging a link between pleasure and the ultimate good if pleasure is a process, it cannot be a feature of

    the complete, flourishing life, because a process always points beyond itself and therefore is indicative of lack. Tying pleasure to activity is important for Aristotle because this

    7. The second claim allows pleasure to play an indispensable role in learning to be good

    involves making a distinction in the ethical value of activities. Aristotle is arguing that there is an ethical difference both within an activity certain performances of an activity

    better fulfill the structure of that activity and between different activities we can

    recognize various activities as different in type and evaluate activities as better or worse fulfillments of natural potentialities of humanity. This means that there is a rational

    8structure to each activity that is independent of the agent‟s aims, a form by which we

    recognize the activity for what it is, and that within each activity there is an end intrinsic to it whereby we can measure not only the activity‟s ethical value as compared to other

    9types of activities, but also how well the activity is being realized in this instance of it.

     7 Both Plato and Aristotle would agree that pleasure works to sustain interest in the pleasurable process/activity. But for Plato, this makes pleasure a kind of impediment to virtue, for the goal of the person focused on obtaining pleasure is to sustain the process, keeping the agent from looking outwards towards the good (which is structurally separate from the process) that gives this process its meaning. While Aristotle would agree that pleasure should not be the object which the person is pursuing in acting, pleasure in activity serves to deepen the activity in all sorts of ways, and this is why finding good actions pleasant, or perhaps more importantly, finding bad actions unpleasant, can be a valuable tool in shaping a person towards the good. Plato shares with Aristotle a commitment to the claim that pleasure is a valuable indicator in picking out and shaping us towards the best human life, but the presence of pleasure in the best human life for Plato is a sign of our flawed, changing nature, whereas for Aristotle, because pleasure can be tied to resting in an activity, the best human pleasure is a pleasure shared with the divine, the pleasure of contemplation. 8 The rational structure of each activity is independent of the agent‟s subjective understanding of what she is aiming at in the doing of the activity, but of course, bears importantly on the agent‟s natural goal or telos. 9 We can see how the ontological/ethical distinction is manifested along two axes of activity. The first, vertical distinction is manifested in Aristotle‟s interest in evaluating certain activities as more fully

    realizing human nature (For example, the activity of contemplation is a better and more perfect activity than the activity of virtue/political concerns, which is a better and more perfect activity than the activities of eating and fucking. While each of these activities is a worth-while actualization of human nature, the more free from constraint and compulsion, the more self-realizing the activity, and hence, the better the activity). And the second, horizontal distinction within an activity is shown through Aristotle‟s

    specification of what makes the activity of perception more perfect the best sense-objects being perceived

    by a subject in the best condition for perceiving (1174b23-4). However, I would want to add that a third condition is necessary for more perfect actualization of an activity, and this is fortunate external conditions.


    And finally, the third claim looks to be the result of conjoining the first two claims, since the third claim argues that there is a distinction in the ontological character of pleasure which follows upon the difference in ethical character between activities and within performances or realizations of an activity. Because the value of the pleasure is dependent upon the value of the activity in question (claim 2), and because activity can be more or less fully realized in particular events and the presence of pleasure depends upon the presence of activity (claim 1), the “realness” or ontological status of pleasure varies depending upon the bringing off of the activity (where perfect activity implies perfect pleasure). The quality or realization of the pleasure cannot be a subjective experience completely dependent upon the particularities of the agent, regardless of the quality and realization of the activity. So when a corrupt person takes pleasure in a bad action, or perhaps is going about a worthwhile activity, but is doing so in a corrupt way (e.g. the gourmand who wishes for the crane‟s neck), he is misunderstanding the structure

    of the activity that gives this pursuit its value and its pleasure. Therefore, it is right to say that this kind of action/deformed activity is only pleasant to a corrupted person like him,

    and that there is no pleasure here, there presumably not being much to choose between these two for Aristotle.

     One contemporary philosopher who would disagree, if not with this description of Aristotle‟s theory of pleasure, at least with the third claim being a worthwhile and

    intimately-related result of the other claims central to Aristotle‟s position, is David

    10. He writes, “All Bostock. He argues that this thought claim 3 is “best ignored”

    pleasures are pleasures to someone, and the best reason for dropping the qualification „to so-and-so‟ is when what we are speaking of is a pleasure to the vast majority of people. But presumably the good men do not form the vast majority.”(AE, 148). Now, this

    counter-argument to the value and necessity of claim 3 within Aristotle‟s theory of

    We can see the beginning of Aristotle‟s acknowledgement of this condition when he gives the example of the flute-lover who is distracted from the activity of discussion by flute-playing, but Aquinas first makes the necessity of favorable external conditions for pleasure clear. (However, Aristotle‟s insistence on the need for the goods of external fortune within the activity of eudaimonia is one notable example of Aristotle recognizing this condition as necessary.) I believe Aristotle does not explicitly theorize the need for fortunate external conditions in his account of pleasure because he is interested in stressing the activeness of activity the way perfection of an activity can be within an agent‟s control and an actualization of self-

    determination. But this emphasis on control, or freedom from external conditions, is one aspect of Aristotle‟s account that I think can and should be minimized. 10 Bostock, David. Aristotle’s Ethics. OUP, Oxford: 2000. p.148. Hereafter abbreviated as AE.


    11 . Nowhere in his philosophy does Aristotle seem pleasure is quite un-Aristotelian

    particularly worried about the masses being the touchstone for what is really of value, and presumably the same would hold true in the realm of pleasure. However, Bostock may still be right to balk at this third claim. If we take the third claim to justify the assertion that in bad actions, the bad person is missing what is of value in the activity and therefore there is no pleasure here, we lose a straightforward explanation of what the bad person is up to and why. Why would a person eat an entire box of chocolates, indulge in a extramarital affair, cruelly spread gossip concerning a fellow employee, pour one too many drinks, etc. if there is truly no pleasure to be had here? Aristotle seems to need

    12distinct accounts, then, of how real and apparent pleasures motivate action. This

    distinction between real and apparent pleasure is not something that the modern conception of pleasure addresses, nor, does it seem, is there room for such a distinction within the modern account. To see pleasure as an internal impression is to assert that pleasure is ontologically independent from anything worldly, including the activity in which the pleasure is taken. This allows for a more straightforward explanation of good and bad pleasure, for this picture allows that we can take pleasure in any sort of thing whatsoever, insofar as no „thing‟ is necessary to the experience of pleasure beyond the

    13production of the pleasure-response. A central concern, then, for this paper will be to

    examine Aristotle‟s reasons for yoking together the ethical and ontological status of

     11 It is important to clarify why what Bostock seems to be asserting does not fit happily into the Aristotelian framework. The problem is not simply Bostock‟s insistence that in every case of ascribing pleasure, we

    can add that this is a pleasure to/for some particular person. There is no reason to think that Aristotle should or needs to deny that pleasure only occurs to/for a particular individual; every instantiation of pleasure requires an agent who is the subject of that pleasure. Rather, what is problematic about Bostock‟s argument is that he takes every instantiation of pleasure to be equally exemplary of pleasure; there is a flattening or democratization of each experience of pleasure as fully revelatory of how we should understand pleasure. This is seen in his claim that we are most justified in talking about something as pleasure full-stop when it is a pleasure to the majority of people. But I want to suggest that Aristotle thinks that pleasure is best exemplified in the pleasures of the good person. Aristotle believes that these pleasures should be privileged in forming our account of pleasure, and this means not every experience of pleasure should count equally in our understanding of pleasure. 12 Two accounts are necessary if we assume that pleasure follows an explanatory schema similar to perception. Because Aristotle is a realist about perception, it is not a question of something particular to the agent that explains why she sees the present object truly. Particularities of the agent enter only when we aim to explain misperception. 13 One cost of this simplicity is that it becomes difficult to explain why we blame a person not only for doing bad things, but assign additional blame if the person takes pleasure in the doing of the bad things.


    pleasures, as this means seeing bad pleasures as in some sense less real: Does this conjunction enervate action explanation in the realm of bad actions?

     Finally, I do not think it is coincidental that Bostock thinks claim 3 is something Aristotle should have stopped himself from making. I understand Bostock‟s strong

    distaste for this thought that pleasure can be separate from the individual‟s

    understanding of what is pleasant to be symptomatic of a misreading of Aristotle, and

    reflects larger assumptions of Bostock‟s about pleasure that are mistaken. For Bostock

    reaches the surprising conclusion that, “for Aristotle, pleasure is only to be found in the activities of perceiving and thinking,” or in other words, the “fundamental thought here is

    14. I believe this reading of Aristotle identifies that pleasure takes place in the mind”

    15pleasure with the necessary conditions for pleasure, and that Bostock is pushed in this direction because he assumes first person authority in the realm of pleasure, given that the locus of enjoying is the mind - an intuition shaped by modern science and philosophy. By contrast, what is crucial for Aristotle is that pleasure is not something arising simply from the agent‟s mental states or events, but rather, involves a robust relationship of

    agent and world. While I do not think he is justified in the conclusions he draws, Bostock‟s claim that pleasure (as thoughts and perceptions) is mental and his rejection of claim 3 poses a problem that needs to be addressed: If we need pleasure to be in some sense within the agent in order to explain the end of various bad actions, how is this compatible with the claim that pleasure is not an internal impression? I will address this worry in the final section.


     In order to understand Aristotle‟s account of pleasure, it is necessary to grapple with what Aristotle means by activity (energeia). A term that Aristotle appears to have

    coined, much of Aristotle‟s account of pleasure in the Nicomachean Ethics is taken up

     14 Bostock, David. “Pleasure and Activity in Aristotle‟s Ethics.” Phronesis 33.3 (1988): 251-272. p. 272,

     271. Hereafter abbreviated as PA. 15 Pleasure, in Bostock‟s reading of Aristotle, is synonymous with pleasurable activities, which he identifies as the activities of thinking and perceiving. Bostock argues that Aristotle conflates the perfectly good distinction, first clearly articulated by Owens, between enjoying and the thing enjoyed (EA, 163). I agree with Bostock that Aristotle brings pleasurable activity and the pleasurable object together (this is closely related to Anscombe‟s claim that Aristotle sees pleasure as both identical to and additional to activity), but

    I take this to be a necessary and productive feature of Aristotle‟s account.


    16), and arguing that pleasure is associated with in contrasting activity and process (kinēsis

    activity. For now, activity can be understood as the actualization of essential potentialities, that is, potentialities that through actualization are expressive of human

     17nature and therefore are understood to have a place in human affairs. Futhermore,

    activity is an end-in-itself, which means that the point of engaging in activity is found within the engagement itself. Finally, activity is complete in form at any moment. I will elaborate and refine these characterizations in this section, but first, it‟s important to see how activity is contrasted to process.

     Examples of processes that Aristotle gives include walking, building, growing, eating and other curative processes of the body. The form of the process is determined by “the where from/where to” that determines the form as process and as separate from

    other processes. A process is specified by reference to its termini, and this movement,

    18from the ad quo to the ad quem requires some length of time, relates to its goal in such a

    way that the doing of the process is separate from the ad quem because the process terminates once this telos is reached, is incomplete at any moment before reaching this terminal state, and divisible into parts. So, for example, in the case of building, the where from/where to that individuates this process is this lot and these supplies and resources from which I want to build this token house (the finished product or stopping point at which I am aiming at), and the process of building this house is divisible into different parts, such as laying the foundation, erecting load-bearing walls, installing the electrical wiring, putting in the windows, etc. Each of these temporal parts are incomplete, “and distinct in form both from the whole and from each other”(1174a23),

    whereas the complete movement/process the completion of the task at hand is only to

     16 Kinēsis can also be translated as „movement‟ or „change‟, and in this paper, I will use „process‟ and „movement‟ interchangeably, and specify just what sets apart the change involved in kinēsis from the kind

    of change involved in energeia. A related term is „genesis, which Broadie translates as „coming to be‟. 17 This way of characterizing activity was suggested to me by Candace Vogler, and is largely based upon Aquinas‟ reading of Aristotle. This is not a sufficient definition of activity, since some kinēseis are expressive of human nature, e.g. growth of a child into an adult, nor is it necessary, since not all activities are peculiar to humans, e.g. living, perceiving, or thinking. However, because this is an inquiry into pleasure as an ethical concern, I see no problem with focusing on the relation between activities and human nature so long as the final, more detailed understanding of activity is not limited to the human realm. Finally, this definition does not assume that all human activities are actualizations of basic human potentialities; at this point, I want possible expressions of human nature (possible activities) to be wide-open, ranging from tennis-playing and glass-blowing to murdering and enslaving. I will say more about the limits on possible activities as this paper progresses. 18 A process is individuated not only by its spatial location, but by its temporal location as well.


    be found in the whole stretch of time that is necessary for the process to reach its end. We can see that the end or goal is separate from the doing of the process, because the

    19. goal can come about extrinsically or even accidentally

     By contrast, Aristotle understands the goal or end of activity to be attained within each moment of the doing of the activity, which means that the form of activity is complete at any instant. Nothing more need be added to any instant of doing an activity to make this a complete realization of this activity, whereas more needs to be added to a part or instant of a process, e.g. building, namely the other parts or moments of the process, in order for the process to be complete. This necessitates that there is no intrinsic stopping point to activity, nor is there a minimum amount of time required for us to recognize this as an activity of a particular sort. Because activities are ends-in-themselves, and because each moment fully realizes the end of the activity, the activity is fully present in every moment of its doing.

     However, Aristotle seems to use „complete‟ (teleion) in a second sense (which

    can be translated as „perfect‟) when he moves into a discussion of how pleasure

    completes activity (starting at line 1174b15 in X.4). The shift in sense is noticeable because Aristotle has just argued that the form of activity is complete, whereas he now starts to make distinctions within the activity of seeing, listing conditions which make this activity more complete/perfect:

    For all the kinds of sensory activity give rise to pleasure, and so too do thought and reflection; but the most complete is the most pleasant, and most complete is that whose subject is in good condition, in relation to the most worth while of the objects in the domain of the sense; and pleasure is what completes the activity. (1174b21-24)

    Aristotle is asserting that complete/perfect activity is necessarily pleasant by making distinctions within actualizations of the activity of perception; completeness is a matter of degrees. However, seeing, as activity, just is complete: “the activity of seeing seems to be complete over any given span of time”(1174a14). It seems like Aristotle should have room for activity that is not pleasant, so perhaps complete in the first sense (complete in form) is merely a necessary condition for complete in the second sense

     19 While it is a little strange to think of a building being completed accidentally, it is easy to imagine a doctor who, in trying to bring a patient back to a state of health, manages to do this, not through skill but through fortunate contingency. Clearly, the doctor does not keep on trying to cure the patient of her disease through skill if health has already been reached through more accidental means.


    20. Then again, we have good reason to believe that Aristotle thinks of (perfect/pleasant)

    the activities he lists in Metaphysics Θ.6 as pleasant for humans seeing, understanding,

    thinking, living, and flourishing (being eudaimon). So perhaps while there are better and worse instantiations of activities that are therefore more or less pleasant, activity, as actualization of the natural capacities of humans, is always pleasurable because


     On either of these views, though, the distinction in form between activity and process suggests that processes, as incomplete in form at any moment, are not the sort of thing that can be completed/perfected by pleasure. However, Aristotle‟s theorizing of pleasure would be of little interest if he cannot account for the bodily pleasures of eating, drinking, and fucking commonly accepted as the main exemplars of pleasure and seen

    by Aristotle‟s contemporaries to be processes of restoration (moving from lack to

    fullness). Three commitments of Aristotle generate an inconsistent triad: a) pleasure is or happens in addition to activity

    b) eating, drinking, fucking are pleasurable

    c) eating, drinking, fucking are processes

    The problem only increases in magnitude once the centrality of processes as a source of pleasure in Aristotle‟s philosophy becomes clear; Aristotle clearly thinks that watching a

    tragedy, building, and the doing of virtuous deeds (e.g. the just distribution of goods in a community) are pleasurable, but all of these pleasures are processes insofar as they are structured in reference to an end not fully realized in any moment of the doing and therefore require some duration in time. So Aristotle must have room for processes to be pleasant, but the question is how to accomplish this feat?

     Let us focus on the bodily pleasures first, because these are in many ways the most complicated. Unfortunately, Aristotle has very little to say about how these doings, which he views as processes because restorative, can be pleasurable. There are only two direct treatments of how the restoration of one‟s natural disposition is pleasant:

     20 This way of understanding the relation of pleasure and activity would support the view that pleasure is additional to activity, since the same person can perform the same activity at different times and one performance be pleasurable, the other not. 21 This view represents the claim that pleasure is activity. For this view, while pleasure is increased by the removal of impediments/fuller realization of the activity, if there is activity, there is at least some pleasure.


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