Ph.D. Final Public Oral Examination

Tue, Aug 24, 2021, 2:30 pm
Via Zoom


This dissertation investigates the accounts of wisdom (sophia) developed by Plato and
Aristotle in the Republic, Nicomachean Ethics, and Metaphysics. In endorsing particular
conceptions of wisdom, Plato and Aristotle were engaging in a long-standing dispute, spanning
the archaic and classical periods, over the title. ‘Sophia’ conferred significant power and
prestige, so there were real stakes in the outcome of the contest. Wisdom also does significant
explanatory work in their ethics, politics, and epistemology: it is the highest virtue of the rational
soul and is required for the best human life and a flourishing political community. Despite
wisdom’s importance, there has not been much systematic treatment of it for either philosopher.

Plato and Aristotle are standardly thought to agree that wisdom is the ability to
understand certain abstract, metaphysically basic entities: Plato thinks wisdom is knowledge of
the Forms and Aristotle thinks wisdom is understanding about divine beings. The central aim of
this dissertation is to show that they in fact endorse diametrically opposed conceptions of
wisdom. According to Plato, wisdom makes use of and requires knowledge of Forms, but its
purpose is to make good judgments about the perceptible realm. Aristotle, by contrast, explicitly
denies that wisdom is aimed at action; wisdom proper deals with the abstract, fundamental
metaphysical truths of reality.

This dissertation contains four chapters. Chapter 1 argues that wisdom is not identical to
knowledge of the Forms. Chapter 2 defends the following definition: wisdom is the ability to
make good judgments, referencing the Forms as a standard, about the city or soul as a whole.
Chapter 3 shows that in the NE, Aristotle offers a rigorous, though compressed, argument for his
conception of wisdom as epistēmē and nous of the most honorable things. The argument relies on
a commitment to a hierarchy of intellectual states and the identification of sophia as the state which ranks highest.

Chapter 4 turns to the Metaphysics, where Aristotle appears to present two
competing characterizations of wisdom. I argue that these conceptions describe a single,
unified state, and that this is the very state Aristotle identifies as wisdom in the NE.