The Ends of Productive Activity (EN 1094a3-6)

I’m reading EN I in preparation for the MPhil seminar on the same this coming term, and it’s already proving to be a fruitful exercise. After working through the first four or five chapters, I have a long list of questions, and I’ve just written a paper on the purpose of the EN and the Politics – as a reply to John Cooper’s forthcoming article “Political Community and the Highest Good” [1] – that draws primarily on these early chapters and EN X.9. I want to try out some of the interpretive points I make in the paper in this forum, especially since many of them deal with difficult and crucial passages in the text.

Today, however, I was reading Gabriel Richardson Lear’s Happy Lives and the Highest Good [2], where she makes a point about a claim to do with productive activity that Aristotle makes at the very beginning of the EN. As it happens, I was thinking about this point earlier this year when, as I recall, Carlo Natali brought up a similar worry at a conference on κίνησις and ἐνέργεια in Oxford.

Aristotle’s claim is this:

There’s a certain distinction to be made among ends (τελῶν); for some are activities, others are products (ἔργα) of some sort over and above the activities. Where there are ends (τέλη) over and above the activities, the products (ἔργα) are by nature better than the activities. (EN I.1, 1094a3-6)

This is what Lear has to say:

This will become an important claim, and it is one with which we might disagree. For instance, we tend to recommend productive activity for its therapeutic value. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter if your clay pots are a bit wobbly or your mosaic made of broken dishes is rather hideous. The value of undertaking handicrafts is in doing something–anything–with your hands. Similarly, we think it is an open question whether the excellent exercise of carpentry is less valuable than the house it produces. After all, such activities can constitute a valuable life. (p. 16)

There are two different objections here to Aristotle’s claim that the products are always better than productive activities. I’ll focus on the first, the hideous mosaic case. As Lear goes on to argue persuasively, for Aristotle, the τέλος of an intentional action is much more than simply the desired goal of the action (see esp. pp. 34-6). Genuine τέλη are normative – they set the conditions for what counts as a successful engagement in that type of action. So even if a doctor aims at making as much money as possible, we judge her practice of medicine on the basis of the τέλος internal to medicine, i.e., creating health in one’s patients. Our avaricious doctor counts as a bad doctor, even if she’s very good at making money. So when we turn to therapeutic mosaic-making, we’re faced with a dilemma – making bad mosaics is just as effective at bringing about the goal of relaxation, but isn’t the goal of mosaic-making the mosaics? In other words, why in this case don’t we judge the success of the activity on the basis of the quality of the products?

I think there’s a perfectly good Aristotelian response here. Let’s say I sit down to relax for an hour by making mosaics, but I finish my hideous mosaic more quickly than I’d anticipated, say in 45 minutes. What do I do then? Is my activity complete? Not necessarily – if I have more materials around, I’ll simply carry on making another mosaic for another 15 minutes, and then I’ll be finished. In the case of making a wobbly pot, I might even collapse the pot and start over. These seem to be part of one and the same activity that I started at the beginning of the hour. So, in therapeutic uses of crafts, the craft-product isn’t actually the τέλος of my activity. My ultimate end is relaxation, just as my desires would indicate, and I secure this end via the proximate end of the activity itself. Of course, as the doctor case nicely illustrates, desires aren’t a firm guide to the τέλος of an activity since I might just be ‘doing it wrong’. But we don’t think that I’m doing it wrong when I collapse my pot and start over. That wobbly pot just wasn’t the point. Hence, therapeutic uses of crafts are ἐνέργειαι, that is, complete activities not mere productions [3].

A similar response might be possible in the second case, of what one might call productive ‘life-activities’, but I haven’t quite worked through the implications there. All the same, I have the same intuition that Carlo expressed at the conference and that bears some relation to Lear’s point – that Aristotle doesn’t give us a satisfying account of why a κίνησις cannot be valued in the same way as an ἐνέργεια [3]. But it might be that in the end he does give us the tools to do so on his behalf.

[1] It’ll be out early next year in the festschrift for Allan Gotthelf, but a final version is already available on Cooper’s website.

[2] Princeton University Press, 2004

[3] UPDATE: Nakul points out, rightly, that my use of ἐνέργεια here is a bit confusing – or perhaps, confused. Where I write or translate ‘activity’ above, I am referring to ἐνέργεια in the broad sense in which Aristotle contrasts it with δύναμις, ‘capacity’. This is the way the word is used above in ΕΝ Ι.1. Where I write ἐνέργεια, I mean it in the narrow sense in which Aristotle contrasts it with κίνησις, ‘process’ or ‘change’ (cf. ΕΝ X.4, Metaph. Θ.6). In this sense, it refers to the first category mentioned in EN I.1 – an activity undertaken for its own sake where the end is contained in or is the activity itself.

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    • Nakul
    • September 16th, 2010

    Your response works fine, I think — therapeutic pottery is clearly more therapy than pottery. We could try a harder case: say, pottery made by prisoners as part of a combined fund-raising/therapeutic/rehabilitative(?) project. In which case we’re talking multiple τέλη and multiple ἔργα, and the question of which ones are proximate and which ones ulterior would need to be settled by reference to the context.

    I’m a little bit puzzled by your concluding references to κινήσεις — why are they relevant in this passage? The relevant distinction here seems to be between ἐνέργειαι engaged in for the sake of engaging in ἐνέργειαι, and ἐνέργειαι engaged in for the sake of the ἔργα they produce. Are you suggesting that pottery for the sake of making good pots would be a κινήσις rather than ἐνέργεια? But Aristotle denies that explicitly. I suspect I’m misunderstanding you.

    Some questions others: do you think ‘by nature’ is doing much philosophical work there? For a start, which noun does it go with? Do you think ‘better’ is best glossed as ‘more valuable’?

      • Dhananjay
      • September 16th, 2010

      1. As for your harder case, I’m not exactly sure whether this will work, but the general principle underlying my ‘solution’ would imply the following: coordinate τέλη that are really independent of each other would correspond to different activities, properly speaking. I don’t know whether it makes sense for the same actions to be part of different activities when these activities are not in a subordinate relation to each other. So for instance, in the hideous mosaic case, it’s true that there is a product of my mosaic-making, but it’s subordinate and in fact, inessential to my relaxation. But there’s no problem if the ends and hence the activities belong to different people. In any case, I think you’re right about the context being the arbiter.

      2. I was probably juggling a few too many things at once, so I’ve added footnote [3] clarifying my (narrow) use of ἐνέργεια, which draws on EN X.4, 1174a14 ff. and Metaph. Θ.6, 1048b18-35. I hope that goes some way to fixing the issue.

      3. I take it that the ‘by nature’ (πέφυκε) is indicating that this feature is essential to productive activity, i.e., it falls out of the formal structure of such activity that it has ends external to it. Since it’s the main verb, it goes with the subject τὰ ἔργα ‘the products’. My sense is that ‘better’ (βελτίω) in this context means pretty much the same thing as ‘more choiceworthy’ (αἱρετώτερα) down at 1094a15.

    • djr
    • September 23rd, 2010

    Here is a quick question: should we count all activities that have products as ‘productive activities’? I am thinking here of the praxis/poiesis distinction. Obviously all activities with products are productive activities just in the sense that they are activities with products (perhaps better: with products as their tele). But surely not all such activities are instances of poiesis?

    Lear’s example would, of course, count as poiesis. But instances of poiesis, it would seem, will always be nested within praxis (perhaps a controversial claim; it certainly isn’t obvious how Aristotle thinks of this, but I have a hard time believing that he thinks the praxis/poiesis distinction is mutually exclusive; cf. Ackrill ‘Aristotle on Action’). So, when I build pots to relax, I am not much different than the potter who makes pots to earn a living. The difference is that I can achieve the goal that led me to take up potting in the first place without actually potting very well, whereas the professional craftsman needs to make good pots if he wants to pay his bills. But the making of pots still has the same telos in each case, and thus can still be judged by the same standards. In fact, it *is* still judged by the same standards; otherwise we wouldn’t regard the product as a bad pot.

    In short, in cases like these Lear’s objection fails because there are multiple tele involved (if I recall correctly, she does not accept this objection, but answers it herself: how?). For the same reasons, I would *not* agree that an avaricious doctor is a bad doctor. If we ask how good he is at healing people, it hardly matters what motivates him to do it.

    We might not want or be able to tell the same sort of story in cases where non-poietic activities nonetheless have products as their aims. Much virtuous activity aims at ends external to the action itself, even though it is *also* chosen ‘because of itself’ (NE 2.4). So courageous acts typically aim at, say, protecting one’s polis; just acts typically aim at a fair distribution of goods; etc. In these cases, we can certainly distinguish between achieving the aim well and seeking it for the right reasons (Aristotle does this with various species of pseudo-courage in 3.6). But, leaving aside those aspects of the action that fit the model of exercising a technique (the techniques, say, of military combat), there is a much tighter connection between our evaluation of the action and our judgment of the agent’s motives.

    In cases where we have poiesis embedded in praxis, the praxis can be successful even where the poiesis is fairly poor. The same thing seems not to apply to non-poietic praxeis with external ends, or at least not in the same way. If I *want* to be produce a fair distribution, but have a wildly distorted sense of what fairness is, I don’t get to be just (though I get to be better than somebody who knows what fairness is but doesn’t seek it). I also doubt that I would be deemed courageous if, willing to face danger in battle for the sake of protecting my community, I rise up valiantly only to trip on my shoelaces, knock over a bunch of supplies, make a lot of noise, ruin our battle formation, and contribute to the enemy’s success.

    The difference here is, I think, that there are not different ends as there are in any case of poiesis embedded in praxis. But in all cases I can have a variety of motives or aims that do not count as the telos of the activity as such. What does so count depends on how we specify the activity; what I am completely at a loss for is to explain which descriptions are privileged and prior and which descriptions are incidental or dependent. It’s at that point that you may have to look to the metaphysics of kinesis, energeia, entelecheia, etc.

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