Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Learning emotional skills requires practice

At the beginning of Chapter 4, Aristotle raises an objection: if we develop our skills by practicing rightly, then aren't we already good at it? Aren't we already doing it right? For instance, if I train my skills to take things in moderation by actually taking things in moderation, then aren't I already doing it right in the first place?

Similarly, isn't this true for any other craft? If I speak according to the proper rules of grammar or play the piano according to the proper rules of music, don't I have the skill to speak with grammatical correctness, and don't I have the skill to play the piano correctly?

In response, Aristotle says that these other crafts are different from the skills that help us live successfully. The reason, he says, is this: the products that come about by these crafts are worthy in and of themselves. In order to "speak well" or "play well", I only need to produce the right thing. It doesn't matter how I do those things. The end result is all that matters. If the end result is right, then I did it right.

The skills that help us live successfully are not like this. Even if the end result is the 'right thing to do', that doesn't mean that I have done them skillfully. Why?

According to Aristotle, you must satisfy certain conditions when you do the right thing if your action is to be done skillfully:

(1) First of all, you need to have the knowledge that "this is how you do it correctly".

(2) Second, you must choose to do it.

(3) Third, your activity must proceed from a "firm and unchangeable character". That is, you must have a solid habit for doing that sort of thing. It can't just be that you choose to do the right thing this one time. You need to have done it so many times that you have developed a serious habit of doing that sort of thing. And then, your habit is so deeply instilled, as it were, that it is of a "firm and unchangeable character".

Without all three of these conditions, thinks Aristotle, doing the right thing doesn't count as skillful activity. Only when you meet all three conditions is your activity skillful.

The crucial bit is (3). That's the one that can only be developed through time and training. Without training, you can't develop a firm habit, and without a firm habit, you aren't acting skillfully.

For this reason, Aristotle claims that you become skillful by practicing the activity. Doing just things is what makes you just, for by doing just things over and over, you develop the habit that makes your activities just. Before you have that habit, you just happen to do the right thing out of chance, or even under instruction as part of a practice routine. But you don't have the habit yet, so you are not just. You only become just once you've practiced enough to develop the habit of being just.

(Of course, it is very difficult to see why the crafts wouldn't be like this too. It seems to me that all this stuff would apply just as well to say, sculpting, or building, or fixing cars, or whatever.)

No comments: