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C. Planners, Deciders, Performers.

Aristotelian Reflections on the Ontology of Agents and Actions

C1. Agents, Actions and Aristotle

Aristotle did not write a book about action theory, nor on the ontology of agents. Though, of course, he touches on actions in many of his works: in his works on ethics, in his work On the soul, in the biological part of his work where he discusses the movements of animals and also in the Physics where he is concerned with change in general. However, opinion is divided how these somewhat scattered remarks are to be evaluated. Some, like John Ackrill,[1] think that Aristotle tampered with his remarks on action and that his account is seriously inconsistent. Others, like David Charles, think there is such a thing as a consistent theory of action in Aristotle, and indeed Charles wrote a voluminous book to reconstruct this theory.[2]

In what follows, I, too, want to combine several of Aristotle's scattered remarks on action to yield a coherent picture. I do not necessarily want to attribute the very picture to Aristotle himself, but I consider this picture to be Aristotelian in two ways. Firstly, it was inspired by Aristotle's work. Secondly, it is intended to represent a theory that is consistent with the remarks on agents and actions in Aristotle's extant works.

C2. Actions Successful by Performance

Where does an action come from? What is its origin, its archê, as Aristotle would call it, its originating principle? Aristotle is quite explicit on this point: An action's archê is the decision (prohairesis) to perform this action.[3] I will say more about decisions in due course. First, I want to ask: Which are the actions I can decide on? I want to argue that these actions are not all those I can perform. I may wish to:

- think about philosophical problems

- study philosophy

- aim at a degree in philosophy

- get a degree in philosophy

- become a professor of philosophy

- become the leading intellectual figure of the 21st century.

Maybe I will be successful and all my six wishes will be fulfilled. Then we could, retrospectively, confirm that back then (i.e. now) I was, indeed, able to perform all these six things. Thus, I may start today to become the leading intellectual figure of the 21st century, but is this something I can decide on? No, I cannot. To assume such an ability would be sheer nonsense. Whether someone becomes the leading intellectual figure of any century is no matter of decision, nor can I decide to get a degree in philosophy or to become a professor, but I can decide to think about philosophical problems, I can decide to study philosophy and I can also decide to aim at a degree in philosophy, but whether I will get a degree and whether I will become a professor of philosophy or not does not depend on my decisions alone, but also on many other factors.

Is there a common description of those actions which only depend on my decisions to perform them? Yes, there is. These actions consist in the exercise of one of the agent's capacities and they do not require any other criterion over and above that capacity's exercise to be sucessful (Met. VIII 8, 1050a 34b 2). We can, thus, picture an agent as an agglomeration of his capacities and the agent can decide which of these capacities he wants to exercise. Now, having the capacity and exercising it guarantees the success of the action in all those cases where the success just consists in the exercise of the capacity. In these cases Aristotle's “perfect-test” indicates that the telos of the action, the action's goal, has been reached: If I exercise the capacity to F, then – ipso facto – I have exercised the capacity to F.[4]

Aristotle uses the perfect-test to draw his distinction between movements and changes on the one hand and activities which are neither movements nor changes on the other hand: his famous distinction between kinesis and energeia. For a change or movement (kinesis) like walking from Gloggnitz to Kirchberg, it is not true that the action's goal (= being in Kirchberg) is fulfilled while the action is performed. Quite the other way round: When the goal has been reached, the action is over. With an activity (energeia) the perfect test yields the opposite result: The goal of an energeia (like being in Kirchberg or seeing Wittgenstein's house) is fulfilled if and only so long as the action goes on and the goal that is analytically connected with the exercise of a capacity is just the exercise of that capacity.[5]

Aristotle knows an intellectual virtue for choosing the right action – the phronesis, which might be translated as “practical wisdom” (NE VI, 1140a 24b 11). It is the duty of the phronesis to decide which praxis the agent should perform and a praxis is just an action of the previously described kind: An action whose success is guaranteed by our decision to perform it, given that we have the appropriate capacity.

  • [1] Ackrill 1978
  • [2] Charles 1984
  • [3] Cf. NE VI 2, 1139a 31-33; Met. V 1, 1013a21; Jedan 2000, 129-131
  • [4] Cf. Met. IX 6, 1048b 23-35 and section 3.3 above; cf. also Jansen 1997 and 1999
  • [5] This gives us also a clue for a definition of omission. Given the set of the agent's capacities, we may say that if an agent omits to F, then (1) he does not F, but (2) has the capacity to F. For, presumably, we do not want to say that an agent omits actions he is not capable of
 
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