Translated with introduction and notes by A.E. Taylor

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The Origin of Knowledge and Wisdom

(980a 21) All mankind have an instinctive desire of knowledge. 21.  This is illustrated by our enjoyment of our sense-perceptions. Even apart from their utility they are enjoyed for their own sake, and above all the others the perceptions of the eye. For we prize sight, speaking roughly, above everything else, not merely as a guide to action, but even when we are not contemplating any action. The reason of this is that of all the senses sight gives us most information and reveals many specific qualities.29 Now, all animals, when they come into the world, are provided by nature with sensation, but in some of them memory does not result from their sensations, while in others (980b 21). it does. Hence the latter are both more intelligent and more able to learn than those which are incapable of memory.30 Creatures like the bee, and any other similar species which there may be, which cannot hear sounds, are intelligent without the power to learn; those which, in addition to memory, possess this sense learn.

Now, all the animals live by the guidance of their presentations31 and memories, but only partake to a trifling degree of experience, but the human species lives also by the guidance of rules of art and reflective inferences. In man memory gives rise to experience, since repeated memories of the same thing acquire the character of (981 a) a single experience. [Experience, in fact, seems to be very similar to science and art.] And science and art in man are a product of experience. For "experience has created art," as Polus correctly remarks, "but inexperience chance."32 Art comes into being when many observations of experience give rise to a single universal conviction about a class of similar cases. Thus to be convinced that such and such a treatment was good for Callias when suffering from such and such an ailment, and again for Socrates, and similarly in each of many individual cases, is a result of experience, but the conviction that it was found beneficial to all persons of a specific constitution, whom we have placed together as a definite class, when suffering from a specific ailment-- e.g., sufferers from catarrh, or bile, or fever--is an affair of art. Now, for purposes of practice experience is recognized to be not inferior to art; indeed, we observe that persons of experience are actually more successful than those who possess theory without experience. The reason of this is that experience is acquaintance with individual facts; but art with general rules, and all action and production is concerned with the individual. Thus the physician does not cure man, except in an accidental sense, but Callias or Socrates or some other individual person of whom it is an accident to be a man. Hence, if one possesses the theory without the experience, and is acquainted with the universal concept, but not with the individual fact contained under it, he will often go wrong in his treatment; for what has to be treated is the individual.

In spite of this, however, we ascribe knowledge and understanding to art rather than to experience, and regard artists as wiser than persons of mere experience, thus implying that wisdom is rather to be ascribed to men in all cases in proportion to their knowledge. This is because the former class know the reason33 for the thing; the latter not. Persons of mere experience know the that, but not the why; the others recognize the why and the reason. Hence, too, in every department master workmen are held in higher esteem and thought to know more and to be (981 b) wiser than manual workers, because they know the reasons for what is done,34 while manual workers, it is held, are like some inanimate things which produce a result (e. g., fire burns), but produce it without any knowledge of it. Thus we estimate superiority in wisdom not by skill in practice, but by the possession of theory and the comprehension of reasons. In general, too, it is an indication of wisdom to be able to teach others, and on this ground, also, we regard art as more truly knowledge than experience; the artist can teach, the man of mere experience cannot. Again, we hold that none of our sense-perceptions is wisdom, though it is they which give us the most assured knowledge of individual facts. Still, they do not tell us the reason why about anything; e.g., they do not tell us why fire is hot, but merely the fact that it is hot. Hence it was natural that in the earliest times the inventor of any art which goes beyond the common sense-perceptions of mankind should be universally admired, not merely for any utility to be found in his inventions, but for the wisdom by which he was distinguished from other men. But when a variety of arts had been invented, some of them being concerned with the necessities and others with the social refinements of life, the inventors of the latter were naturally always considered wiser than those of the former because their knowledge was not directed to immediate utility. Hence when everything of these kinds had been already provided, those sciences were discovered which deal neither with the necessities nor with the enjoyments of life, and this took place earliest in regions where men had leisure. This is why the mathematical arts35 were first put together in Egypt, for in that country the priestly caste were indulged with leisure.36 (The difference between art and science and the other kindred concepts has been explained in our course on Ethics;37 the purpose of the present observations is simply to show that it is universally agreed that the object of what is called wisdom is first causes and principles.) So, as we have already said, the possessor of experience is recognized as wiser than the possessor of any form of sense-perception, the artist as wiser than the mere possessor of experience, the master craftsman than the manual (982 a) worker, the speculative sciences than the productive. Thus it is manifest that wisdom is a form of science which is concerned with some kind of causes and principles.

Taylor's Notes

(Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes)


[29]. διαφοράς; lit., "specific differences" of the various kinds of things.

[30]. i. e., primary memory, retentiveness; not recall. Cf. De Memoria, 451a 15: "Memory is retentiveness of a presentation as an image of a presented object."

[31]. φαντασίαις

[32]. Reference is to Plato, Gorgias 448c, where Polus says: "Experience makes our life to advance by art; want of experience, by haphazard."

[33]. or cause (αἰτία).

[34]. The remainder of the sentence, which is not commented upon by Alexander, and interrupts the logical sequence, is not improbably a gloss.

[35]. The word "arts" (τέχναι) is here used, as Bonitz notes, like the Latin ars, to embrace both science and art in the narrower sense.

[36]. Contrast the more historical remark of Herodotus, that Egyptian geometry arose from the necessity of resurveying the land after the periodical inundations of the Nile (Hdt. II., 109); and on the nature of this geometry, see Cantor, Geschichte der Mathematik, I., 42-73 Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 17-20.

[37]. Ethica Nicomachea, VI., 1139b 15-1141b 23. The sentence is probably a gloss, as Christ holds.

Created for Peithô's Web from Aristotle on his predecessors; being the first book of his Metaphysics; tr. from the text edition of W. Christ, with introd. and notes by A. E. Taylor. Chicago, Open Court, 1907.Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Greek unicode text entered with Peithô's Younicoder.
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