Causation in Plato and Aristotle

Dissertation, Princeton University (1997)

Sean Kelsey
University of Notre Dame
It is a commonplace that the Greek word $\alpha\iota\sp{\!\!\!{\sp{\sp,}}\prime}\!\tau\iota o\nu,$ traditionally translated "cause," is far broader than its English equivalent. When philosophers today talk about causes, they are interested in what makes things happen or brings things about; by contrast, the Greek notion of an $a\iota\tau\iota o\nu$ will embrace anything that contributes to our understanding of a thing. Still, some $\alpha\iota\sp{\!\!\!{\sp{\sp,}}\prime}\!\tau\iota\alpha$ are causes, and in this dissertation I take up the question of what Plato and Aristotle thought it was to be the cause of something. ;I begin with Aristotle's concept of an efficient $\alpha\iota\sp{\!\!\!{\sp{\sp,}}\prime}\tau\iota o\nu.\ {\rm A}\iota\sp{\!\!\!{\sp{\sp,}}\prime}\!\tau\iota o\nu$ originally meant "responsible," and in the first chapter I argue that to be a per se efficient $\alpha\iota\sp{\!\!\!{\sp{\sp,}}\prime}\!\tau\iota o\nu$ is to bring something about in such a way as to be "responsible" for it. This, in turn, amounts to having one's causal activity directed towards the coming about of that very effect. Thus an efficient $\alpha\iota\sp{\!\!\!{\sp{\sp,}}\prime}\!\tau\iota o\nu$ does not just happen to bring about the particular effects it does; it is its essential task or nature to bring those effects about. ;In the second chapter I turn to Plato; the discussion is centered on the discussion of $\alpha\iota\sp{\!\!\!{\sp{\sp,}}\prime}\!\tau\iota\alpha$ in the Phaedo . I argue first that Plato is here interested specifically in causation, and then that the basic notion of cause he is working with anticipates Aristotle's notion of an efficient $\alpha\iota\sp{\!\!\!{\sp{\sp,}}\prime}\!\tau\iota o\nu.$ Thus there emerges a core Platonic-Aristotelian conception of causation, according to which causes are directed towards the coming about of their characteristic effects. ;Still, not everything that happens is produced by a cause directed towards its happening. Thus in the last chapter I take up the causes of these other things, gathered under the rubric of "accidental happenings." The discussion is again restricted to Aristotle: I argue first that such things have only accidental causes, and then that, nevertheless, nothing happens except by way of causes directed towards the happening of something. Thus the core Platonic-Aristotelian notion of cause discussed earlier affords them the materials for a theory of causation capable of encompassing the causes of everything that happens
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