BMCR 2005.12.10

L’Action efficace. Études sur la philosophie de l’action d’Aristote

, L'action efficace : études sur la philosophie de l'action d'Aristote. Aristote, traductions et études. Louvain-La-Neuve: Peeters, 2004. 249 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9042914319. €40.00.

This volume contains a collection of essays on Aristotle’s philosophy of action. The essays — originally written in Italian and here translated into French — were composed mainly over the last fifteen years and published in a number of venues, including some quite out of the way. So it is good to have these essays by a leading Aristotle scholar conveniently brought together. The essays have a tight thematic unity; indeed, they are aptly presented as if they were chapters of a book. Each essay is narrowly focused and engages in a substantial way with the most relevant contemporary literature. Very much before the author’s mind in virtually every essay is David Charles’ important study Aristotle’s Philosophy of Action (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984). Although Natali insists that his primary goal is “historical clarification,” he is certainly of a mind to show that Aristotle is able to make an important contribution to contemporary discussions of human action.

The principal themes woven through these essays are as follows. First, Natali is concerned to explicate the method Aristotle employed in the scientific understanding of human action ( praxis). Second, he examines the “ontology of action” and the differences between actions and movements, on the one hand, and actions and divine activity ( energeia), on the other. (He is here especially concerned with the temporal dimension of action and the relation between actions and their goals or aims.) Two other questions are treated extensively: the nature of a good or successful action ( eupraxia) and the vexed question of the autonomy of human actions, that is, the question of whether or not human actions are free.

On the first theme, Natali contrasts Aristotle’s approach to understanding human action with the contemporary approach through semantic analysis of verbs of action. Aristotle proceeds by the use of intrinsically complex paradigmatic examples of human action. He follows his own strictures in Metaphysics and Posterior Analytics about how we arrive at “one universal” on the basis of many sense-perceptions and thoughts. Because human action has a complex structure, the understanding of it is not appropriately sought in the simple or minimal case, such as raising one’s hand. Rather, it is best viewed in an involved case, such as defending one’s city in battle. The simple or small example does not exhibit all the elements of the human, whereas the large example does. The latter serves a paradigmatic function, distinct, one supposes, from analogies like the state and the soul in Plato’s Republic. The large example makes the intelligible structure of the action more evident. At the same time, it makes it more difficult to distinguish actions from mere movements at the simpler level.

Aristotle is no more in doubt that actions are distinct from movements than he is that necessary and universal truths are distinct from contingent truths and that the former is the province of knowledge and the latter the province of belief. By contrast, contemporary philosophers of action and scholars of Aristotle are sometimes as dubious about both distinctions as Aristotle is confident. Aristotle is evidently not troubled at all by the borderline or fictional counterexamples which seek — reasonably enough — to sharpen the distinction between action and movement. The existence of a puzzling case at the margins does not invalidate the unmistakable centrality of action in human affairs. One supposes — though Natali does not stress this point — that Aristotle’s use of paradigms in this regard is supported by his robust epistemological realism. What is evident to normal human beings is not primarily the correct use of the word ” praxis“, but rather the distinction between their own participation in actions over against the movements that are external to their own awareness of agency.

In the matter of right action, the behavior of the phronimos, or the wise man, serves as the appropriate paradigm. He is the “bridge” between the universal truths about human action and the particular cases to which these truths are to be applied in practice. Chapter 10 of the book is an especially useful and magisterial study of the rich variety of contemporary interpretations and criticisms of Aristotle’s account of phronsis. Again, there is an important epistemological dimension to Natali’s defense of the Aristotelian account against its critics. Aristotle’s confidence that phronsis is a type of true judgment ( hupolpsis) generically united with scientific knowledge, craft ( techn), theoretical wisdom ( sophia), and true belief leads him to eschew a conception of morality in terms of absolute rules or laws. All of the “absoluteness” comes in the theoretical grasp of the necessary truths about action and its properties. Because it is possible for someone to be able to judge truly about what is the right thing to do in this circumstance — not just what “works” — it is right to accede to the authority of such persons. From Aristotle’s perspective, if we reject the authoritative nature of phronsis, we also reject the intelligibility of right action. What the right thing to do is can only be determined retrospectively, if at all.

The second major theme of the book is the ontology of action, that is, the distinction between action, movement, production, and activity. Natali shows that Aristotle treats “making or doing” ( poiein) as a general genus, whose species are (a) producing something; (b) producing or realizing a state of some entity already produced; (c) acting in a way that is subject to normative evaluation. In three compact and elegant chapters, Natali begins by arguing that (a) has the same ontological structure as a physical movement, whereas (b) can sometimes reduce to (a) and sometimes to (c). He aims to show that (c) contains (a) as its matter or material components. So, the description of an action as a physical movement is not mistaken, just as the description of the animal in corporeal terms is not mistaken. But these descriptions are not just incomplete; they are subordinate to and dependent on formal analysis. In the case of a human action, the end or goal of the action is an essential element of its definition.

The claim that the end of the action is an essential part of its nature faces the problem of how to characterize an unsuccessful action, that is, one that does not achieve its end or aim. The problem is especially acute insofar as we seek to make normative judgments about actions. The view that good intentions are sufficient justification is clearly different from the view that an action must be judged in its completeness, that is, as to whether it achieves its end. These views, though, are not necessarily in conflict, for the first is the basis for a judgment about the agent, whereas the second is the basis for a judgment about the action, independent of the agent. In his defense of Aristotle’s position, Natali does not directly address the different sorts of normative evaluations possible for agents and actions. But I suppose that he would want to insist that the evaluation of actions can accommodate the genuinely accidental failure of achievement. When, though, the failure becomes habitual, the practical judgment of the agent comes under justifiable scrutiny.

The distinction between human action and movement enables us to make the distinction between action and activity. It allows us to attribute activity to the Prime Unmoved Mover without attributing movement to it. Human activity, by contrast, like human action, has physical movements as material parts. Natali wants to deny, though, that human activity is to divine activity as the imperfect to the perfect, or, in other words, that divine activity is the paradigm to which human activity is related in focal reference. This seems to work better for activities that explicitly require bodily movements than it does for the activity of thought, which, for Aristotle, is unmixed with the corporeal and which is without a bodily organ. The fact that we are only able to think intermittently precisely because we do have a body does not, it seems to me, provide sufficient grounds for treating divine and human activity as species within a genus, so to speak.

One of the most difficult problems in Aristotle’s theory of human action is his account of voluntary action and the distinction between the voluntary actions of animals and children, on the one hand, and the rational voluntary actions of adult humans, on the other. Natali devotes two essays to the problem. His first eminently reasonable contention is that the understanding of Aristotle’s account of rational voluntary action must be pursued within the framework of his fourfold schema of causal analysis. More contentious is his application of this framework to the question of whether or not human action is free.

In defense of the claim that for Aristotle adult human action is free, Natali argues that for Aristotle (1) every causal chain is finite, (2) efficient causality is not reducible to formal and material causality, and (3) a first efficient cause in a causal chain has to be understood along with its correlative end and vice versa. So, there must be a first efficient cause of an action. That cause must be identified as that which produced the correlative end. If, say, the end of the action of going for a walk is exercise, then the (first) efficient cause of the action will be that which includes within its description that end as aim. This would be, for Aristotle, the choice of walking, which includes in its description the thought that the walking is the preferred means of achieving the end. So, insofar as determinism holds that the cause of walking is not the man himself but something outside of him, determinism is wrong. This is so even if the choice of walking is owing to causes outside of the man. For such causes, as (2) maintains, cannot be efficient causes. The only way that a first cause of walking as a means of exercise could be established as being outside of him is if A’s walking were a means that B employed in achieving B’s end. But in that case, the action would not be voluntary, that is, it would have been done by force of some sort, for example, mind control or threats.

What this line of reasoning does establish, I think, is that rational voluntary actions are by definition free. It does not establish that human action is rational and voluntary, as Aristotle understands these terms. For the only sort of additional evidence on behalf of the Aristotelian claim that seems relevant here is one’s own awareness of the end in sight when deliberating over an action. If I walk in order to exercise, then must not the deliberative desire to achieve that end be the first cause? Such evidence, though, seems to count only against the strict determinist, not against the compatibilist who is perfectly prepared to acknowledge that the desire to walk is a necessary condition for walking. To turn the desire into the cause would require making it sufficient as well as necessary. How is that to be done? It is circular to argue that (1) – (3) above establish the point, since these would only have force if an action were agreed to be irreducible to a physical movement or movements. If agreeing to this is just agreeing that action is free, then there is nothing to argue about. But if one can agree to the irreducibility of action to physical movement without agreeing that it is free, as many would want to do, how do (1) – (3) prove anything?

These challenging and illuminating essays should be of interest to specialists and non-specialists alike. They are exemplary in their clarity and conciseness and in their display of the author’s deep understanding of the principles of Aristotle’s philosophy. They also show a gratifying familiarity with the relevant scholarship produced on both sides of the Atlantic.