Tyler Huismann (University of Oklahoma): Aristotle on how efficient causation works

When Aristotle explains efficient causation, he frequently does so using examples having to do with the activity of experts. Time after time, he speaks of builders building, doctors healing, and sculptors sculpting. They are central examples of efficient causes and cases that can be relied on when considering more intricate causal questions. So if we are to understand efficient causation within Aristotle’s natural philosophy, we ought to have a good grasp of these examples. And it might appear that we do have such a grasp because of the widespread agreement regarding the mechanics of these cases: the art or skill characteristic of experts is what initiates a change that results in the product associated with experts; or simply, the arts these experts possess make expert products. The art therefore efficiently causes such products. There are precisifications, of course. Some say that the art is the first in a chain of efficient causes, or that it is one of multiple efficient causes of expert products, or that it is the “true” or “fundamental” efficient cause of such products. But the general point remains. The arts that experts possess are, by and large, taken to be efficient causes.

The aim of this paper is to reorient our understanding of efficient causation, on the basis of these examples. I will argue that, despite the consensus, there is a puzzle in Aristotle’s texts as to what efficiently causes expert products (§1). The best way out of the puzzle is to read Aristotle as holding that arts are unable to cause efficiently (§§2-3). My argument is primarily based on a passage from De generatione et corruptione (GC) 2.9. The text is well-trodden, but there is a subtlety to the form of the argument therein that has not yet been identified. I will show that this aspect of the argument is crucial, for the argument’s form yields a pivotal insight into efficient causes: for Aristotle, efficient causes are temporally contrastive, in a sense to be defined below. I then explain a tendency that Aristotle has for characterizing arts in such a way as to suggest that they are efficient causes (§4). He often claims that arts are makers, and it is for this reason that arts are presumed to be efficiently causal. But as he himself notes, there is  an ambiguity in ‘maker.’ I rely on this ambiguity in arguing that one  sense of this expression captures the relation of efficient causality, another captures the relation of formal causality. And so, when Aristotle maintains that the art of house-building made the house, this is true without the art of house-building being an efficient cause of the house, for the art of house-building is a formal cause of the house. The result is a coherent framework that takes seriously the logic of efficient causation as outlined in GC.


This lecture was given on Fri, 2 July 2021, 14:40 (UK time) as part of the workshop Change and Changemakers in Ancient Philosophy. The workshop is a collaborative initiative of the Change and Changemakers Network (Siegen) together with the Mereology of Potentiality Project (Oxford).