Aristotle on Skill: a Power that is Both Rational and Productive
Ursula Coope (Oxford University)

March 3, 2014, 9:00am - 10:00am
Institute of Philosophy, University of London

Senate House
United Kingdom

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5.00pm, Room 243, second floor, Senate House, WC1

Ursula Coope (Oxford) Aristotle on Skill: a Power that is Both Rational and Productive

Abstract: Aristotle describes skill (techne) as a power that is both rational and productive. When he says skill is rational, he means something quite specific: in exercising a skill, one must be guided by kind of explanatory account, an account that explains why what one is doing is likely to be successful. On Aristotle's view, explanatory accounts are inherently general. Just as I couldn't understand a proof of Pythagoras' theorem without grasping certain general geometrical principles (principles that would also enable me to understand some other geometrical proofs), so also, I don't count as understanding whythis is the correct way to get down the mountain, unless I understand what I am doing in terms of certain more general principles of mountain-climbing (principles that would enable me to explain how to get down other mountains, or how to get down this mountain in other conditions). As the above examples suggest, Aristotle holds that both skill and theoretical understanding are rational in this sense (that is, both essentially involve grasp of general explanatory principles). However, skill differs from theoretical understanding in that it is a power aimed at production. In describing skill (techne) as a productive power, Aristotle is saying that it is a power whose success lies in producing things in this or that particular circumstance. The skilled person must, then, be able to adjust what she does to the indefinitely various particular circumstances in which she might need to operate. The claim that techne is both rational and productive raises a puzzle about the unity of techne: how can one and the same unified power both have kind of generality it must have if it is to be explanation-involving and at the same time be responsive to the indefinite variety of particular circumstances, as it must be if it is to be productive? I argue that we can go some way towards answering this puzzle if we recognise that the skilled person is using her grasp of the explanatory principles of the skill both in her deliberative reasoning (when she works out new ways of doing things) and also in some of her immediate perceptual responses to relevant aspects of her surroundings.

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