Charlotte Witt: On Aristotelian powers

Thanks Charlotte!

CW:  My view on Aristotelian powers is that they cannot be given a dispositional analysis.  (Other Aristotle scholars think of powers as dispositions so this is at one level a debate about interpretation.)  To say that x has the power to phi does not mean simply that x is disposed to phi under certain conditions.  However, one of the factors in my rejection of the dispositional interpretation of Aristotelian powers is the role of teleology in his understanding of powers.  Potentiality/Powers are teleologically directed towards their activity for Aristotle, and it is this directedness that is lost in a dispositional analysis.  I have a hunch that Aristotelian teleology is not something that contemporary power theorists would find very attractive, but I would be interested in knowing whether I’m right about that.

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12 Responses to Charlotte Witt: On Aristotelian powers

  1. rgroff2013 says:

    Hi Charlotte! Thanks so much. I have three questions. (Though don’t feel obliged to reply.)

    First, can you say more about what those who conceptualize powers that way mean by a “dispositional analysis.” [I should note that when I use the term “dispositional,” I generally don’t mean anything technical by it (unless otherwise specified); I generally am using it just to mean “pertains to doing.”]

    I think I agree with you, though maybe for different reasons. The definition of a power that you reject has never made sense to me. Same with the idea that a power is a stimulus-response sequence (if it’s even a different idea). Both seem like a weird version of a conditional analysis, one in which some or all of the terms (phi, stimulus, response) is or are already powers. It just seems ill-conceived, all the way down.

    Second, can you say more about the “directedness”? Exactly what is it? Stephen (Mumford) and Rani Lill Anjum talk that way, and depending upon exactly what you are meaning by it I think others might too.

    Finally, were does the idea of activity fit in, in your conception of what a power is?

    • Charlotte Witt says:

      A glass has a disposition to shatter when dropped. A disposition is a possible property of an object, and often given a counterfactual analysis (many problems here of course). So I am using disposition to mean this peculiar kind of property of objects. My claim is that an Aristotelian power is not simply a possible property of an object which might be exercised in appropriate circumstances. Because Aristotle thinks that powers are teleologically directed towards activity. On “directedness”. Well, one place to start on A’s teleology is the biology where he argues for the role of final causes in biological processes. I think that final causes are both goals and goods; there is a normative component to A’s teleology which I actually think is philosophically defensible but it is the aspect of his teleology that I think is least attractive to contemporary philosophers who think about teleology. I also think that Aristotle’s teleology is not merely a central aspect of his philosophy of biology (to use a contemporary label) but it is woven into his metaphysics as well. I think the whole argument of Met. Book Theta for the priority of actuality, or being x actually, is central to Aristotle’s metaphysics. So, I have written about Aristotle’s teleological metaphysics.

  2. Olav Eikeland says:

    As a co-reader of Aristotle, I can relate to Charlotte WItt’s comment. Still, I need to test out both my own views and those of others in order to get a hold of the the discussion. In order to do this, I’m posting another shot quote from my book “The Ways of Aristotle” (EIkeland, 2008:215). The following is one of my summaries of Aristotle on relevant subjects. Hopefully, they make sense to some of you (although I have to emphasize that my reading of Aristotle is social science oriented (politics, ethics), not towards the natural sciences (although everyting is connected, of course).
    But here we go:

    “Both every thing and every practice have both a starting point as an enfolded potentiality (dúnamis) of a certain and specific kind, and an end (télos) as an unfolded and perfected activity (enérgeia) of the same kind. In general, the télos is activity. Every activity repeated many times, through habituation (ethismós) or through conscious practice (áskêsis, meletê), produces an embodied habitus (héxis) with a certain form (eidos) that can be grasped reflectively with and through the mind (cf. Chapter 6.1.1). Also, to every habitus belongs a specific proper activity and work (enérgeia), which the gradually growing and maturing habitus is increasingly inclined and able to perform as its specific and proper télos determining and engendering the habitus from its enfolded starting point as potential. A virtuous habitus is engendered through performing its proper work, and doing it well.

    Ultimately, we can only know a potential, its kind, through its activity as the activity gradually reveals the true nature of the potential (EN1168a10, cf. 1115b21-23). When a virtuous habitus has achieved its end and ultimate form and has become a fully “in-formed” entelékheia, it does not change any more when activated. It has become a virtuous and perfected activity at rest (cf. Chapter 5.1.1). Héxis and enérgeia are practically and reciprocally defined through referring back to each other (cf. Chapter 5.1.1). In addition, everything is most correctly spoken of, viewed from its end according to Aristole, i.e. what some activity is inherently supposed to achieve is implied in its meaning and provides meaning to the activity. And every extant thing exists for the sake of its proper work, task, or function (érgon). Every dúnamis – at its different levels – and héxis, has a proper enérgeia as its télos.”

  3. rgroff2013 says:

    This is interesting Olav. Thanks so much. I guess one question is exactly what a “perfected activity at rest” is, and how to weight the rest part versus the activity part, ultimately. Or something like that. I will be curious to hear what Charlotte and others will say.

  4. Robert Couch says:

    Olav, your book looks very interesting. Do you, by chance, know Talbot Brewer’s work? In the book The Retrieval of Ethics he makes several arguments that sound similar to your interpretation of Aristotle. (See here for a nice and brief summary/review of the book by Tom Angier.)

    I’d be very curious to hear anyone’s thoughts on Brewer’s book and/or arguments. I esp. like how his Aristotelian critique (he also reads Aristotle against the grain in important ways, though I can’t recall offhand his more controversial interpretations) of standard propositional accounts of desire and the relationship between reasons and action. In a word, he argues for a more dialectical and less dualistic conception of the relationship between reason and action (Angier’s review gives a much better summary).

    I hope to find time in the next few weeks to look more closely at your book, Olav — esp. b/c my interest are also more in the ethical and political implications of Aristotle’s thought.

    • Olav Eikeland says:

      Ruth: I have a chapter in the book “5.1.1 Poíêsis makes things; praxis makes perfect” where I discuss “activity of rest” (enérgeia akinêsías / enérgeia en êremía). The concept is quite central to the understanding of both practical and theoretical philosophy in Aristotle, including, of course, his famous βίος θεωρητικός. Don’t have much time right now, and can’t quote my whole book, but I’ll get back to it.

      Robert: Sorry I haven’t read Brewer’s book, but I will now. Thanks for looking into my book. I am curious about any comments, of course.

  5. rgroff2013 says:

    Great. I’m curious to hear what Charlotte & other more official Aristotelians (more official than I am, I mean) will think about this! I’ve liked all the excerpts you’ve posted.

  6. umerfshaikh says:

    Some off the cuff thoughts:

    It does seem like a lot rides on what is meant by dispositional analysis. Is the view incompatible with the thought that Aristotle’s powers are a subclass of what we think of as dispositions—those dispositions, perhaps, that are directed toward their ends (and maybe some other stuff)? I don’t think so, but I may misunderstand Charlotte. Such an identification doesn’t seem to me to obviously suggest that powers are more fundamental than dispositions in the wider sense, or vice versa, for Aristotle, which is one reason why maybe it’s still not the beginning of the way to an analysis.

    One other note about the ‘some other stuff’ bit. I think, maybe incorrectly, that by powers Charlotte means what Aristotle calls ‘dunameis kata kinesin’ (roughly, capacities related to change) in Metaphysics Book 9. Since those are capacities to change or be changed, it seems like powers will inherit some of the properties of change, which Aristotle thinks of somewhat differently than we do. Changes are continuous processes directed toward an end (telos), and not merely the exchange of different properties. So the account of powers, whether or not it proceeds in terms of dispositions or conditionals, should somehow explain why the change produced is continuous.

    If I remember correctly, Mary Louise Gill suggests that changes are continuous because (Aristotle says) they happen while the agent and patient of change are in contact, and that contact is in constant through continuous time. This sounds like a reasonable claim about Aristotle’s thought process to me, but prompts at least the question of why the working of the power must be contemporaneous with the effect as Aristotle claims, instead of the power being triggered and the process continuing past the trigger. Anyway, perhaps this is another place where Aristotelian powers and dispositions come apart, driven apart by Aristotle’s views on change in general; I wonder if the latter have further implications for the differences between powers and dispositions.

    On directedness:

    Here’s an attempt at some different options for understanding directedness.

    I’m inclined to think about directedness by looking to Aristotle’s biological work: there he connects final causes to hypothetical necessity. In order for this present result to have come about, some process must be so; in order for this present product to exist as it does, some part of it must be so. These are teleological explanations for the character of the process or part, where the effect is the final cause of the process. The processes in turn are directed toward their final causes, as opposed to other incidental effects they may have.

    In Metaphysics 9 we are told that powers are defined in terms of their ends, another way in which ends are prior. (BTW, in discussing the priority of powers’ actualities here Aristotle appears to refer back to directedness of the biological cases.) I like Olav’s image of the power as the enfolded form that then directs the unfolding activity, which has the same form but in a different way. In my uninformed way I like to think of computer programs here. It seems plausible to think that the content, individuation conditions, and existence conditions for programs are determined in part by the effects that they produce. Whether the replacement of a word is a slight change or the program’s destruction depends crucially on what that word’s function was, and how the whole program’s product changes with the replacement. Two programs of the very same two strings of glyphs or whatever (two disks with all the same intrinsic properties) may be the same or different depending on the procedures used to ‘unfold’ them. Similarly, the power is an encoding that directs the unfolding process, but what is encoded is what to produce and how to produce it. So the identity of the power is grounded in what the power is to do or make, and the latter explains the means by which the results is to be brought about and, in an indirect way, the knock-on effects of the process.

    Others see in those passages on biology that teleological explanations are used when the existence of the product in the past, or the past existence of that type of product, explains the process. So the animal organism develops so because the organism will be so and so when grown up, will have a particular form when grown up; the animal will be so and so when grown up because his then-grown up father (just the father for Aristotle!) passed down his own form to his offspring. Or maybe the explanation needs to take for granted the whole past existence of the species. If this is the right way of understanding biological teleology, I am not sure how to carry this over to the directedness of processes in general—what has this sort of etiological teleological explanation to do with the directedness of fire’s power to heat?—or rather, what that directedness in general should consist in.

    Another thought is that biological final causes are good, unlike mere concomitant effects. Then, still assuming biological teleology and the sense in which powers in general are directed toward their ends to be at least similar, powers are directed toward their good effects. If this is the right interpretation then I share Charlotte’s hunch that contemporary metaphysicians would likely be wary of understanding powers so. Of course I don’t know that I’ve captured what Charlotte meant by directedness, and unfortunately I don’t know how Mumford and Anjum use the word either.

    Whew! I seem to have gotten a little carried away. Hopefully that’s helpful, or at least interesting, and not too much to read.


  7. rgroff2013 says:

    Thanks so much, Umer! Hopefully Charlotte and others will weigh in. Welcome! You should post a word or two abt your dissertation under the “Tell us about yourself” category!

  8. Charlotte Witt says:

    These are very interesting remarks on directedness in Aristotle. Here are a few off the cuff responses. First off, I think you are right that the normative dimension of Aristotle’s teleology (goals are goods) makes it unpalatable to some contemporary philosophical ears. (not mine) I think the functional interpretation of directedness does not work precisely because computer programs generate outputs but they do so in a way that is devoid of directedness. And I also think the etiological teleological explanation gives a causal explanation of the presence of function which is really an alternative to Aristotle rather than a way of interpreting his teleology. My 2 cents.

    • umerfshaikh says:

      Thanks for the response! I’ll have to give some more thought to how likely it is that powers are directed in this normative way, towards good goals—I guess, in this respect at least, my ears are contemporary.

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