Aristotle's Theory of Motion Explained

Topics: Aristotle, Substance theory, Potentiality and actuality Pages: 11 (4289 words) Published: September 25, 2013
“The solution of the difficulty is plain: motion is in the movable. It is the fulfilment of this potentiality by the action of that which has the power of causing motion; and the actuality of that which has the power of causing motion is not other than the actuality of the movable; for it must be the fulfilment of both. A thing is capable of causing motion because it can do this, it is a mover because it actually does it. But it is on the movable that it is capable of acting. Hence there is a single actuality of both alike, just as one to two and two to one are the same interval, and the steep ascent and the steep descent are one – for these are one and the same, although their definitions are not one. So it is with the mover and the moved.” Aristotle Physics 3.3, 202a13-21

The seven words that bring in this passage are typically Aristotelian. They declare that all is about to become clear, whilst introducing a chapter that could hardly be more opaque. But to understand Aristotle’s concept of agency, the ability to cause motion, it is essential to grasp this passage which purports to make plain the idea of motion. This essay will focus on unpacking the passage in two sections. The first will work towards explaining his initial definition of motion, pausing where necessary to explain background concepts, which I will indent to indicate that they merely supplement the examination of motion and are not part of the definition itself. The second will then look closely at the idea that the passage in question centres on, “that there is a single actuality of both [the mover and the movable] alike”. What this means linguistically will be clear by section two, but what it entails ontologically will be seen to be contested. I will examine three competing interpretations of this idea, from Waterlow, Marmodoro, and Coope, and conclude that future readers of Aristotle’s Physics should side with the final reading. Section I

1.1 Kinesis
The word we translate as motion is kinesis. From Aristotle’s examples in Physics 3.1 (201a16-17), we can deduce that what he had in mind when he used the term was causal change. Whilst instances like learning and doctoring are clear, the cases of ripening and aging are not immediately obvious causal changes, so we will briefly consider Aristotle’s concepts of substance and nature to see how they could be examples of causality. These two concepts will also help our understanding further down the line. A substance, as defined most basically in Categories 5, is a distinct being such as “the individual man or the individual horse” (2a15). A substance is identified by two characteristics. Firstly, it is singular; it cannot be a class of subjects or a way to group them, in the sense that ‘man’ is said-of the individual man. Secondly, it is independent; it must be something that can exist separately from a substance, in the sense that ‘knowledge’ is in the soul, or ‘white’ is in the body, and cannot exist except in the soul or body (1a26-28). Nature is defined in Physics 2.1 as a principle of motion that exists within a substance. It is the “innate impulse to change” (192b18) which acts as the cause of change in oneself in the same way as, say, a builder acts as the cause of change in a house. A house does not have any desire to be a house, whereas something that exists by nature strives towards a certain goal. For Aristotle, nature maps the normative model of change that the world provides (Lear, 1988, p.26). For example, a tree should drop its leaves in autumn when it no longer needs them. Whereas the external interference of a strong wind in summer, causing a tree to lose its leaves, is not a change directed by the nature of the tree. It is in this way, then, that aging and ripening are causal changes; they are caused by the nature of the individual human or piece of fruit, the substance. 1.2 Motion

Aristotle’s definition of motion rests on an important distinction he draws in Physics 1.7...

Bibliography: 1 (Aristotle), Aristotle Complete Works: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1984; two volumes (Cited in text with name of Aristotelian text and Bekker number)
2 Coope, U., 2007, Aristotle on Action, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 81.1
3 Gill, M. L., 1980, Aristotle 's Theory of Causal Action in "Physics" III 3, Phronesis, Vol. 25, No. 2
4 Hussey, E., 1983, Aristotle: Physics Books III and IV, Oxford University Press
5 Lear, J., 1988, Nature, from Lear, Jonathan, Aristotle: the desire to understand pp.15-54, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
6 Marmodoro, A, 2007, The Union of Cause and Effect in Aristotle: Physics 3.3, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 32
7 Smith, B., 2012, Aristotle, Online Resource:
8 Waterlow, S., 1982, Nature, Change, and Agency in Aristotle’s Physics, Clarendon Press, Oxford
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