Techne, ends and production
It is right, Aristotle says in De Anima II.4 (416b23),‘to call all things after their end’ (telos), and it is the ends of production and action that for Aristotle primarily serve to distinguish craft from practical knowledge. This distinction works in two ways for Aristotle in ENVI. Already in Chapter 2 he had pointed to the difference between the goals of production and action:
T5 Thought by itself moves nothing; what moves us is goal-directed thought concerned with action. For this thought is also the principle of productive thought; for every producer in his production aims at some [further] goal, and the unqualified goal is not the product, which is only the [qualified] goal of some [production], and aims at some [further] goal. [An unqualified goal is] what we achieve in action, since acting well is the goal, and desire is for the goal.
Here we might say that the difference lies in the extent to which the goals of production and action actually count as goals. Clearly a craft has a goal which is unqualified in relation to the production itself. Health is the goal of medicine as such, as we saw. Health is not a qualified goal of medicine, but it may be a qualified goal of a human being. We don’t produce the goals of production willy-nilly but only when we want to achieve some further goal. We only aim to produce health for example if we want to live or live well. The goal of production points then to a goal outside itself, the goal of action.
In reply to our earlier question about the relationship between the two distinctions between techne and phronesis, (A) and (B), we can say that because the product is not such as to be an end without qualification, the production points to another kind of end, the end of action, which is an end without qualification. Here the craft’s end being an end with qualification does not mean being the same sort of end as the end of action, only qualified in a certain way, as one might say for example that a zebra is white only with qualification because it has black stripes whereas a swan is completely white. Rather the difference picks out the end of craft as an objectively different kind of thing from the good of practical wisdom, namely something that is such as to have only instrumental value. It should not surprise us, then, given distinction (A), that distinction (B) points to generically different kinds of objects for productive and practical knowledge.
There is, however, yet another way, way (C), of distinguishing the goals of production and action, which is to see whether the goal is fulfilled in the activity itself or outside of it. Here the concern is not, as earlier, with whether the goal once achieved is a goal unqualifiedly or not. Rather the point is that while the goal of production cannot be achieved (be it an unqualified goal or not) in the production itself, the goal of an action lies in the action itself, namely in the good performance of the action (eupraxia). So in T4 above Aristotle said:
The remaining possibility, then, is that prudence is a state of grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about things that are good or bad for a human being. For production has its end in something other than itself, but action does not, since its end is acting well itself.
The italicised lines can be read as saying that while the end of the production is something other than the production, the end of the action is just the action itself. So house-building aims at a house, which is something other than house-building in the sense explained in Physics III. 1: while the house-building is ongoing the house is not yet there; when the house is finished the house-building is no longer. Production is a process (kinesis) which is complete only at the end of it. An action meanwhile is an activity (energeia) which is complete at each moment it is taking place, that is to say it realises its end while it is happening.14 The activity of seeing is one example. Aristotle, to be sure, talks here not just of the activity itself as the end but the good activity (eupraxia), but we may take this to mean that an activity that is fully realised as the activity it is is also a good activity of its kind. Seeing fully is seeing well. In any case, the good activity is not the activity plus some other attribute, but a modality of the activity itself.
While these points are all relevant, it is not yet clear why we should accept the exclusiveness of Aristotle’s distinction. In particular, there seems no reason why an action should not also be a production or a production an action. After all, in many cases we act in order to achieve further ends, a point on which Aristotle’s account of deliberation is premised. We may act bravely in order to save the nation, or show kindness to make another person happy. Here the mere fact of a means-end relationship doesn’t turn our action into a production, though there may also be such cases. For example, you may by eating moderately set an example for your children so that they too become moderate. In this case, it would seem appropriate to judge your action by its effectiveness. On the other hand, we have cases of production that coincide with actions. In John Ackrill’s example, mending your neighbour’s fence may be returning a favour.1’ Here the production itself constitutes, it seems, the return of the favour. Returning the favour is not a further result of fixing the fence. Given that one and the same activity here can instantiate both an action and a production, it may seem best to take the distinction to be one of how we describe activities, and not as a distinction between numerically different activities.16 We might say today that the same activity is an action under one description and a production under another; Aristotle would say that sometimes the production and the action are one in number, but different in being or definition.
In this vein, we could say that production and action pick out different evaluative aspects or bases of an activity, using the word ‘activity’ as neutral between ‘production’ and ‘action’. We evaluate an activity as a production when we focus simply on the value of the product, we assess it as an action by evaluating it in its own right. Take again Ackrill’s example: here what you do, fixing the fence, may be described as a production, and as such it is complete when the fence is in fine working order. But the same activity numerically may also be considered an action, returning a favour, which is complete only insofar as the neighbour is satisfied. If the neighbour had changed his mind about having a fence at all, or wanted it somewhere else, or a hedge instead, then we wouldn’t say that the favour had been returned, fine as the fence may be. So one and the same activity may be a failed action but a successful production. We might say that the aim of the production is only per accidens that of the action, since there is no guarantee that fixing the fence will return the favour.Vice versa, the aim of the action is only per accidens that of the production since if some other product had served the action better, returning the favour, we would have chosen to make that thing.1'
This evaluative difference may be captured by saying that the end of the production is outside, while the end of the action is internal to the activity. We evaluate the production on the basis of the quality of the product. The value of the production lies in the product not in the production as such. In contrast, the value of the action lies in the action itself, that is in the attributes that belong to it as that kind of action, returning a favour, doing a kindness and so on.1’ Nothing here is said about that action not also coinciding with a production or process or some other entity, but that is not the basis on which we evaluate it.
The evaluation of the production in relation to the product seems clear enough. But how we evaluate an action as good or bad is perhaps less clear. In ENII.4 Aristotle points to features that we take into account when evaluating an action which don’t feature in our assessment of a production:
T6 Again, the case of the crafts and that of the virtues are not similar; for the products of the crafts have their goodness in themselves, so that it is enough that they should have a certain character, but if the things that happen in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or tem-perately.The agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge; secondly, he must choose the actions, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. These are not reckoned in as conditions of the possession of the crafts, except the bare knowledge; but as a condition of the possession of the virtues knowledge has little or no weight, while the other conditions count not for a little but for everything, i.e. the very conditions which result from often doing just and temperate actions.
EN 1105a26-b5, transl. after W. D. Ross
One way of seeing the criteria of a virtuous action is in relation to the idea that the action is a manifestation of a certain character, a term we may here take to refer both to the moral character, that is the emotional dispositions, and the intellectual character, knowledge. A just action follows from a just character and is chosen knowing what is just. While there are ways you can describe an action independently of its relation to the agent, just as there are features of the product you can describe independently of the producer, these are not the features of the action that make it virtuous. That is not to say that the virtuous-making features of the action do not belong to the action as such, since being chosen or manifesting a character clearly are defining features of action, at least if action is taken in the strict sense that Aristotle seems to have in mind here.19 The contrast with craft is that when we assess the production we look not to the way the production realises the characteristics of the craftsman (except, Aristotle says, for the limited case of knowledge), but simply to the quality of the product. And the product is not the actuality of the craftsman, but that of the materials from which the product has been made, that is the goodness here is predicated of something other than the craftsman.
If this, at least roughly, is Aristotle’s account of the difference between production and action, how successful is it? One problem we may have with allowing action and production to be different descriptions of the same activity is that action and production seem to have not just different but mutually incompatible properties. So we might say that a production is necessarily extended in time, an action not so, or that the cause of a production has a cause (namely the goal) that lies outside of it, while the action has an internal goal. As incompatible, these properties seem to point to different subjects or activities. But then we have the problem again of understanding cases like fixing the neighbour’s fence. We should note, however, that generally Aristotle does allow things that are one in number to have mutually incompatible descriptions. For example, the same stretch of road goes both from Thebes to Athens and from Athens to
Thebes, the same activity is both teaching and learning, or perceiving and being perceived. It has to be admitted that these cases are not themselves easy to understand, and that the opposition in these cases is not obviously like that between an action and a production. It may be hard in the end to resist Ackrills verdict that when it comes to the distinction between action and production Aristotle was less clear than one could have wished.2"