Saturday, 26 September 2009

Feser’s Unabsurdity Principle

“If that claim [about the nature of final causation] sounds obvious and trivial, then terrific: You’re starting to understand Aristotle and Aquinas, because it’s supposed to be obvious and trivial.” [1]

Or: If the concept of final causation does not strike you as absurd, then you have probably understood it.

[1] Edward Feser, “Teleology Revisted”, Edward Feser (weblog), 24th September 2009; original emphasis.


xlbrl said...

Hayek, more or less--
The repercussions of Aristotle’s systematization of the instinctive rules of the tribe were amplified with the adaption of Aristotelian teaching in the thirteenth century by Thomas Aquinas, which led to the proclamation of Aristotelian ethics as virtually the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The anti-commercial attitude of the mediaeval and early modern Church, condemnation of interest as usury, its teaching of the just price, and its contemptuous treatment of gain is Aristotelian through and through. It has found a new religion in socialism.
For Aristotle, all order of human activities was the result of deliberate organization of individual action by an ordering mind. To early thinkers the existence of an order of human activities transcending the vision of an ordering mind seemed impossible (final causation). Aristotle still believed that order among men could extend only so far as the voice of a herald could reach, and which men would deliberately determine. Yet what Aristotle thought impossible had already happened in the very city in which he lived by the time he wrote these words.
The astonishing fact revealed by economics and biology is that order generated without design can far outstrip plans men consciously contrive. Our values and institutions are determined as part of a process of unconscious self-organization of a structure or pattern. Adaptation to the unknown is the key in all evolution...the whole structure of activities tends to adapt, through these partial and fragmentary signals, to conditions foreseen by and known to no individual.
There can be no deliberately planned substitutes for such a self-ordering process of adaptation to the unknown. In the marketplace, as in other institutions of the extended order, unintended consequences are paramount. Individuals, acting for their own ends, literally do not and cannot know what will be the net result of their interactions.

Inotherwords, capitalism. We do not know the cause, we know the effect; it is then we figure out the cause, if we care to. And it is never final. Men hate this, because it violates their instincts, so they constantly struggle to return to what will ruin all which they have built without understanding it.

Deogolwulf said...


I cannot see that Aristotelianism has much to do with socialism. Also I am not sure what all this has to do with the concept of final causation, which, broadly speaking, is just that commonsensical-metaphysical concept which makes causation as a whole intelligible, as opposed to the scepticism of very idea of causation which arises with radical empiricism.

xlbrl said...

Aristotle is the socialists rock, whether they know it or not. He believed everything was capable of being put in order by a single mind, or group of minds working together. That, it seems to me, is Aristotle's idea of final causation. Hayek saw that belief as being a part of our very instincts, formed in small groups long before the process of civilization began. Solidarity and altuism represent those instincts, as well as the desire for a strong leader. Even Freud agreed with Hayek in that civilization requires the renunciation of instinct. Socialist and Arisotle share the hatred of the unpredictability and unmanagability of civilizational processes. Even as Athens became the worlds first great commercial center, Aristotle pined for a return to the practices of Sparta, which resisted commercial practices as strongly as they rejected private property.
If radical empiricism is sceptical about final causation, so is Hayek, but quite independently and as I have paraphrased him.
He considered the extended order of civilization to be transcendent--that which far surpassed our understanding, wishes, purposes, and sense of perception; and that to extend human cooperation beyond the limits of human awareness required being governed not by shared purposes but abstract rules of conduct.
Perhaps you could call that final causation as well. I don't know.

Deogolwulf said...

“He believed everything was capable of being put in order by a single mind, or group of minds working together. That, it seems to me, is Aristotle’s idea of final causation.”

It seems to you wrongly. The belief which you impute to Aristotle has nothing to do with the idea of final causation, or rather, no more so than Newton’s idea of mass has anything to do with popular suffrage. Admittedly, apart from its large irrelevance to the matter in hand, I am not entirely sure what to make of that imputed belief. If you mean to suggest that he believed that everything in the state ought to be held in common or that everything ought to be unified therein, then your suggestion is wrong.

“Property should be in a certain sense common, but, as a general rule, private; for, when every
one has a distinct interest, men will not complain of one another, and they will make more progress, because every one will be attending to his own business. And yet by reason of goodness, and in respect of use, ‘Friends’, as the proverb says, ‘will have all things common’. Even now there are traces of such a principle, showing that it is not impracticable, but, in well-ordered states, exists
already to a certain extent and may be carried further. For, although every man has his own property, some things he will place at the disposal of his friends, while of others he shares the use with them. . . . It is clearly better that property should be private, but the use of it common; and the special business of the legislator is to create in men this benevolent disposition. Again, how immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own; for surely the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly censured; this, however, is not the mere love of self, but the love of self in excess, like the miser’s love of money: for all, or almost all, men love money and other such objects in a measure. And further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property. These advantages are lost by excessive unification of the state.” Politica, II.v.1263a-1263b.

“Unity there should be, both of the family and of the state, but in some respects only. For
there is a point at which a state may attain such a degree of unity as to be no longer a state, or at which, without actually ceasing to exist, it will become an inferior state, like harmony passing into unison, or rhythm which has been reduced to a single foot.” Politica, II.v.1263b.

Now, of course, Aristotle was not a proto-socialist, latter-day socialist, liberal capitalist, or adherent of any other modern emancipatory ideology or political-ethical system; but, if his varied works have in some particular way or detail been an inspiration to some particular socialists of whatever stripe, then I congratulate them on their good taste.

“Aristotle pined for a return to the practices of Sparta”

No. On the whole, Aristotle took a dim view of Sparta. Plato, on the other hand, was quite an admirer.

xlbrl said...

Thanks very much for the valuable and detailed link. That shows me Tony Blair's "third way" is very like Aristotle's fist way, which is a one-way ticket down the socialist drain if Britian is any example.

"Our civilization depends, not only for its origins but also for its preservation, on an extended order of human cooperation resulting not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection–the increase of population and wealth–of those groups that happened to follow them. The unwitting, reluctant, even painful adoption of these practices kept those groups together, increased their access to valuable information of all sorts, and enabled them to multiply.
How little the wealth of the leading Greek trading centers, especially at Athens and later at Corinth, was the result of deliberate governmental policy, and how little the true source of this prosperity was understood, is perhaps best illustrated by Aristotle’s utter incomprehension of the advanced market order in which he lived. Although the lives of the Athenians of his day depended on grain trade with distant countries, his ideal order remained one that was self-sufficient. He seems to have been unfamiliar with several distinctions among self-forming orders that had been known to the pre-Socratic philosophers. For Aristotle, all order of human activities was the result of deliberate organization of individual action by an ordering mind."

That is socialism. And from your definition I take it--rightly or wrongly--to be relevant to final causation, since it is a deliberate organization toward a final objective. Or Rand's definition of Aristotelian final causation: the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it.

Capitalism has no final causation whatever. Men hate that for being unnatural, even as it makes them wealthy and free.

Inotherwords, Aristotle and Aquinas had understandings on this subject that were trivial because the subject was not in fact obvious. If the concept of final causation strikes us as not absurd, we have probably failed to understand the advances of the last several hundred years, which is also the reason we will be sucked back down the deliberately ordered drain. It's natural.

Deogolwulf said...

The idea of final causation is not to be confused with conscious intent, deliberation, planning, design, choice, desire, capitalists, socialists, fruit-pickers, members of the Labour Party, or Tony Blair himself. By all means, find fault with the idea, but you cannot do so if you have not first understood what it is. You even take Rand’s not-quite-right definition and construe it as meaning something else involving choice. Everything you have said here --- and your quotation from Hayek --- is utterly irrelevant to the idea of final causation.

berenike said...

(rolls about laughing)

Funny. I just discovered Feser this week.

Buridan's Ass said...

Final causation should be uncontroversial when applied to artifacts (tables) and parts of organisms (hands). It is when Aristotle claims that whole organisms, and larger entities like states, have purposes, functions, etc. that I am less sure what to think. It is far from obvious and trivial that there is some unique way of living that is human flourishing; and if Aristotle's political philosophy suggests that there is one way of organising society that is best, I can see how that thought might be deemed the first step on the road to totalitarianism.