Friday, May 6, 2016

Aristotle on Nature and Artifacts

I want to explore for a bit the strange relationship between artifacts, particularly works of art, and natural objects in Aristotle.  The text I will be working with is Physics Book 2 Chapter 1, in the Reeve translation.  Natural things are distinguished from artifacts in that only the former have their principle of change and stability within themselves.  An artifact, of which he lists beds, cloaks and houses, “have no innate impulse of change.”  However, it turns out that such things are coincidentally something else, for example stone, and to that extent they do have such an impulse.  A doctor only causes himself to be healthy coincidentally since the subject of a craft like medicine is changed only by outside forces.  So even if the principle of change happens to be from within, as in the case of the self-curing doctor, it is not “in their own right.”  This implies interestingly that artifacts cannot have a nature and are not  “substances” in Aristotle’s peculiar meaning of that term.  A nature “is invariably in a subject” and that cannot happen to an artifact.  Aristotle rejects the idea that the nature of a bed is the wood since, even though rotting wood could become a tree the, result would not be a bed.  Antiphon believed that the craft of making wood into a bed is a mere coincident of the wood, and in a way Aristotle agrees with him.  But the problem with this is not in the account of the wood so much as in the materialism which Antiphon assumes:  that things just are their material substances.  A large part of Aristotle’s project, by contrast to earlier materialist philosophers, is to project something about craft back to nature, observing that the form of a natural substance is even more important than the material.  But doesn’t this dissolving of the boundaries between the conventional and the natural via bringing form to be essential to nature also lead to dissolving of the boundary in the other direction, i.e. in bringing the artifact closer to nature?  One way we speak of nature is as “the primary matter that is a subject for each thing that has within itself a principle of motion and change” and yet there is another way in which we speak of nature, i.e. in terms of the shape or form.  It seems sometimes that Aristotle emphasizes form as shape over form as something defined by a real definition, or treats both views of form equally, but note that he says that when something is only potentially flesh it is not yet flesh and only gets this “form by way of the account by which we define flesh.”  So the account given by the accurate definition has primacy over the form.  And that is why “form is the nature more than matter is.”  He tries to keep the natural and the artefactual separated, saying “just as we speak of craftsmanship in what is in accordance with craft and is crafted, so also we speak of nature in what is in accordance with nature and is natural.”  Can’t there however be something natural about craftsmanship? 
Back to Antiphon, he observes that some would say that “the nature of the bed is not the shape but the wood” because the sprouting would be a plant not a bed.  Yet he had only a few paragraphs earlier implied that the bed has no nature:  so how can he now speak about the nature of the bed, unless he thinks that Antiphon, unlike him, thinks the bed has a nature.  He thinks that Antiphon’s argument shows that the shape is also the nature since a man comes from a man. 
Then we get the odd sentence that “nature, as applied to coming to be, is really a road towards nature;  it is not like medical treatment, which is a road not towards medical science, but towards health” since medical treatment proceeds from medical science not towards it, while nature as coming to be is a matter of growing towards something, which he seems to think shows that the shape is the nature.  The shape in this case stands not only for the formal cause but also for the final cause:  even before he introduces the four causes (later in Physics) he is introducing this idea in these preliminary comments on nature.  What we are left with however is the idea that in the case of an art or craft the science comes first, it generating, in the case of medicine, the treatment, the goal of which is health in the subject.  The relationship of artifact to maker is peculiar in this way:  it is as though the combination of the creator and the artifact is a kind of natural unit:  it would be the self-moving unit similar to a human being or a plant. 

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