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A. Aristotle's Theory of Dispositions.

From the Principle of Movement to the Unmoved Mover

It could well be argued that no one influenced and shaped our thinking about dispositions and causal properties more than Aristotle. What he wrote about power (dynamis), nature (physis) and habit (hexis) has been read, systematised and criticised again and again during the history of philosophy. In what follows, I will sketch his thoughts about dispositions and argue that it can still be regarded as a good theory.[1]

A1. It's all Greek to me

If asked to give an account of the thoughts of some ancient thinker about some modern concept, the first problem is: Which is the word I have to browse for in the index? The origin of the problems connected to contemporary theories of dispositions – be it of dispositional predicates or of dispositional properties – dates back to the heyday of logical empiricism. The problem of disposition arose from the quest for an intimate bound between experimental observations and the explanatory theoretical language. This is very much a project of the twentieth century and it is, thus, no trivial matter that an ancient thinker had any thoughts about this at all.

Now, it may give us some hope that the word “disposition” itself has a Latin origin in the word dispositio that in turn has a Greek equivalent, diathesis, but taken in this way “disposition” means something like “orderly arrangement”, be it of things, speeches or soldiers in an attacking army. Aristotle, of course, has a theory about the correct arrangements of the parts of a speech or drama. For this meaning of the word “disposition” we have to consult his writings on rhetoric and poetics, but this is not at all at stake when we are asked for Aristotle's theory of dispositions. In this question, “disposition” means rather something like “causal power”. Of course, there is ample material on causal power in the writings of Aristotle, but this material is connected to words like dynamis (“capacity”), physis (“nature”) or hexis (“habit”). In fact, much of the theorising about causal powers routes back, one way or other, to Aristotle's thoughts about dynamis, physis and hexis. In my discussion, I will start with presenting what Aristotle says about dynamis and will later contrast with his statements about physis and hexis.[2]

  • [1] This appendix is an English précis of the book, together with some new material
  • [2] That Aristotle's theory of dynamis is a theory of dispositional properties has also been seen (among others) by Liske 1996 and Wolf 1979, who (though under the name of “possibility”) discusses both Aristotle's theory and modern theories of dispositions in her book
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