Philosophical Topics

Volume 44, Issue 1, Spring 2016

Essays on the Philosophy of Frederick Stoutland

Dorothea Frede
Pages 39-57

The Social Aspects of Aristotle’s Theory of Action

Some contemporary philosophers of action have contended that the intentions, decisions, and actions of collective social agency are reducible to those of the individuals involved. This contention is based on two assumptions: (1) that collective agency would require super-minds, and (2) that actions presuppose causes that move our bodies. The problem of how to account for collective action had not been regarded as a problem in the history of philosophy earlier. The explanation of why ancient Greek philosophers did not see joint agency as a problem is not, as sometimes assumed, that they had no, or only a weak, sense of individuality. Nor is it because they simply overlooked the difference between individual and collective agency. It is, rather, as Aristotle’s conception of humans as ‘social’ or ‘political’ animals indicates, that the aims and ends of actions, and the means to bring them about by acting together, is the result of practice from early on. Without the acquisition of language and moral habituation humans would not become humans. There is, then, a shared understanding about common agency from infancy on. Individuals may disagree about some particular aim and action, and act only because it is a decision of the majority. But no super-minds are required to explain the communality of wishes. That Aristotle ignored the fact that all motion starts in individual bodies is explained by the difference between motions and actions: moves that are not determined by their ends are mere motions, not actions. So what moves an individual body can be the wish to bring about a joint action with another person or with a collective of persons.