Beyond the Ignorance vs. Desire Debate: Aristotle's Novel Account of AkrasiaKathleen Harbin, Kathleen Harbin
Monsoon Ashoka Philosophy Festival
Aristotle’s account of akrasia is notoriously difficult to interpret and has been the subject of an extraordinary volume of secondary literature, focused mostly on the question of whether Aristotle argues for a Socratic account, which holds that akrasia is the result of ignorance about which course of action is best, or instead a Platonic or commonsense account, which holds that akrasia results from a conflict between desire for the pleasant and knowledge of what is best. This is the wrong focus. Aristotle is much more interested in the question of which aspect of the practical reasoning process breaks down in the akratic person than he is in the question of whether the akratic is ignorant.
I show that Aristotle less interested in the question of whether the akratic knows that she is opting to do what is wrong than we often assume. Aristotle holds that akrasia involves a failure of the agent’s practical cognition. The akratic knows that her present circumstances enable her to realize multiple principles for action that she wants to fulfill, and she knows that one of these principles, rather than another, should guide her action. Because the akratic’s capacity for appreciating which principle to realize is not fully developed, however, her appetitive desires are capable of distorting her grasp of the course of action that is recommended by her knowledge of the circumstances. Akrasia is thus a kind of cognitive failure, and at the same time a kind of desire conflict.
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