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C3. Actions as Causes

Actions that are successful by performance do not exhaust all actions. This is nicely shown by the phenomenon of trying, for if an action is successful once we start with it, it seems to be nonsense to say that we try such an action. Those actions we can try to do no-nonsensically must be of a different kind. Of course, there is no special “trying capacity” such that trying would be an exercise of this specific capacity. When we try something, we exercise the very same capacities we exercise in successful cases. Thus, the difference between merely trying and having success cannot lie in the exercise of our capacities alone – we have to search for it “outside” in the surroundings of the agent,for, I will claim, we can only then no-nonsensically try to F if “F” is an action-description that does more than simply name the agent's capacities that are to be exercised, and this bit more is to prescribe a certain change that has to be brought about in the world.

My applying my pushing ability with respect to my car will, hopefully, bring about my car moving from its previous place A to some other place B. I am, obviously, not only applying my pushing ability, but also pushing the car from A to B. Whether my pushing the car to B will be successful or not is not determined by the fact of the actualising of my pushing ability alone – in addition, the car has to arrive at B. Therefore, pushing the car from A to B is not a praxis, it is poiesis (NE VI, 1140a 1-6). The paradigm case of a poiesis might be, say, a potter's producing new pottery or an architect's building a new house. A poiesis aims at producing something in addition to the action itself. The product of the pushing is not a new three-dimensional thing like pottery or a new house, which would belong to the ontological category of substance. The product in question is “only” something new in the category of place. Other actions may bring about new qualities, quantities or relations. Nevertheless, any such action qualifies as a poiesis.

We have, thus, to distinguish three elements on the side of the agent: the decision, praxis and poiesis. On the side of the material being manipulated, the patient, we can add the experience of a change (the kinesis) or in verbal expressions: the prattein and poiein of the agent (doing and making) and the pathein of the patient. The intellectual virtue responsible for a good poiesis is no longer phronesis, but technê, the knowledge of a certain craft or art. The technê for healing is the art of medicine and the technê for building a house is what architects have to learn (NE VI, 1140a 6-23).

In some cases, these different parts of an action might be distributed to different persons. For example, a farmer may deliberate with his wife about what to do with their cow. Finally, the farmer might decide that the cow has to be milked. However, he does not himself perform this action, but delegates the performance to his assistant, his farm-hand. The farm-hand in turn will milk the cow and, thus, bring about a change in quantity of the milk in the cow's udder. In this action, three human beings and an animal are involved: The farmer and his wife are the planners with the farmer being the decider, the farm-hand is the performer and, last but not least, the cow is the patient. A similar example is the case of building a house in modern times as well as in ancient Greece: The architektos deliberates and decides, the slaves move the stones and the stones and the rest of the building material is, collectively, the patient that is transformed into a house.[1]

However, all four roles can also coincide in one person. Aristotle's stock example for this case is the medical practioner who cures himself (Phys. II 1, 192b 23-27).[2] Practioners and patients are not normally numerically identical, but, of course, if Hippokrates has a flu, he can cure himself. In this case, Hippokrates plays both the role of the practioner (who is planner, decider and performer) and the role of the patient to be healed (who is also the patient in my technical use of this term). Quite similar is the case of walking, which has caused much trouble for modern commentators.[3] When I decide to walk from Gloggnitz to Kirchberg, I decide to exercise my walking ability combined with the intention to aim at reaching Kirchberg. Of course, this case differs from the case where I was pushing my car. Now, one might say I am pushing myself. Subject and object of the action, agent and patient are one and the same person. On the one hand I have myself as the agent, on the other hand myself as the patient. Also in this case, I do not move myself as itself, as Aristotle would put it, but myself as something different. I am the mover or the agent in this case insofar as I exercise my walking ability. Nevertheless, we have to distinguish between this ability, the ability to fill a certain amount of space and to be located at different places. The latter is what grounds my being the patient of this action. Hence, we receive the result that such an ordinary thing like walking makes us somewhat schizophrenic: Insofar as I have the ability to walk I move myself insofar as I have the ability to be located at different places. While I share the ability to walk with several higher animals only, the ability to be located at different places is a property of most extended bodies.[4]

  • [1] Cf. Makin 2000, 154 for another example: „A crippled doctor, who retained that [medical] understanding, who could not administer treatments herself, but who could guide others, would retain her medical skills, because such a doctor would be a source of health in her patient.“
  • [2] Cf. section 2.1.4
  • [3] Cf. Ackrill 1965; Pickering 1977
  • [4] For such distinctions within the same individual cf. Phys. VIII 4, 254b 28-33
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