Traits of Mind

by Peter Saint-Andre


Following up on my recent post about Plato's Laches and Aristotle's Ethics, I've continued to ponder the need they identified to provide an account for how you live. Although I'm still researching the relevant texts, it appears that Aristotle at least identified such a need in all five of the traits of mind that he discusses: craft, understanding, insight, wisdom, and sagacity (see my Aristotelian glossary for more about these terms). Here is a sketch of my findings so far.

Let's start with craft or technē (Aristotle's examples include shipbuilding, medicine, and music). Such crafts are passed down from generation to generation through teaching, emulation, and a community of practice; they have their lore, their shop talk, their handbooks, their theories; and if you ask a skilled practitioner why they do things a certain way, in all likelihood they will be able to provide an account of their methods and intentions.

As to understanding or epistēmē (sometimes translated as "science" but that's too narrow), almost by definition it is the ability to reliably explain why things are the way they are, which necessarily includes providing an account for their properties and causes.

Insight or nous might seem like a more intuitive process, wherein you simply "see" that two or more entities are so similar that they deserve to be grouped together under the same kind. Yet here too it's reasonable to provide an account for the induction you've made, as for instance biologists do in their classification schemes when they specify that certain differences are quantitative rather than qualitative.

Because wisdom or phronēsis is the process of thoughtful deliberation that leads to conscious choices and commitments, it too seems to presume that you can account for why you decided as you did.

Finally, sagacity or sophia is, according to Aristotle, a combination of understanding and insight, so it simply inherits the qualities of its underlying components.

Thus these traits of mind help to establish a lifelong practice of accounting for your conclusions, commitments, and actions - and, ultimately, for the way you live your life.

However, unlike Nikias in Plato's Laches, we don't have Socrates to goad us into living an examined life and to prevent us from engaging in rationalization, wishful thinking, and just-so stories. More on that next time.

(Cross-posted at


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