Pleasure is a mysterious thing. It tends to accompany the experiences we consider most worthwhile. Most of us make a lot of decisions, large and small, on the basis of our desire for it. If asked what it actually is, however, hardly anyone could give an answer that would not immediately crumble under the slightest scrutiny. Most people, I take it, think that pleasure is a particular feeling. This idea seems to me to be clearly and egregiously false. There is no feeling one necessarily experiences when one takes pleasure in solving a math problem that one also necessarily experiences when one takes pleasure in swimming in a mountain lake.
Contemporary philosophers rarely worry about what pleasure is. I can’t say why this is the case, but I will emphatically say that I believe the topic is as deserving as any of serious inquiry. Things were very different in antiquity. Both Plato and Aristotle theorized extensively about pleasure in most of their major ethical writings. They considered questions about the nature and value of pleasure to be absolutely central to the project of ethical inquiry.
This dissertation is about Aristotle’s theory of pleasure, which I believe may very well be basically the correct theory. Aristotle rejects the ubiquitous notion that pleasure is a feeling, and so, despite its being over 2300 years old, his theory may seem quite radical to modern readers. While I do spend some time in this dissertation trying to show that Aristotle’s theory is both relevant and defensible, my central aim is not to do so, but rather is to clarify what the theory, as articulated in its final form in Nicomachean Ethics X.1-5, actually amounts to.
My strategy is first to develop an interpretation of Aristotle’s account of what pleasure itself is, and then, on the basis of this interpretation, to develop corollary interpretations of other parts of his theory of pleasure. By proceeding in this way, I aim to arrive at a coherent overall interpretation that makes manifest the connections and dependencies between the theory’s parts.
In Chapter One, I present my interpretation of Aristotle’s account of what pleasure is. I argue that he thinks that pleasure is a certain aspect of perfect activity of awareness, namely, its very perfection. In Chapter Two, I show how the interpretation presented in Chapter One can make sense of a number of texts that have often been taken to imply that Aristotle thought that pleasure was a full-fledged activity rather than an aspect of activity. In Chapter Three, I discuss Aristotle’s famous claim that pleasures differ in kind in virtue of differences in kind among the activities they arise in connection with. I argue for a way of understanding this claim based on the interpretation of his account of pleasure that I give in Chapter One. I also argue that Aristotle recognizes a sense in which pleasures differing in kind can be compared in degree of pleasantness. I claim that, for Aristotle, degree of pleasantness consists in degree of perfection.