Saturday, February 11, 2012


Pier Luigi Donini, Aristotle and Determinism. (first published 1989 as Ethos: Aristotele e il determinismo). Artistote: traductions et études. Louvain-la-Neuve: Peeters, 2010. Pp. 205. ISBN 9789042921948. €48.00 (pb). Contributors: English translation by Laura Kopp.

Reviewed by Marco Zingano, University of São Paulo (

Version at BMCR home site

This recent translation into English of Pierluigi Donini's book is a most welcome initiative from the Aristote: traductions et études series. This translation will help to diffuse a very important and rewarding work about Aristotle and determinism that otherwise would have been restricted to the diminishing circle of multilingual readers.

In the first chapter, Donini tackles the problem of future contingents and provides a fresh translation of De Interpretatione 9. His main interest is to investigate the principle according to which statements are true in the same way as facts (the principle of correspondence between facts and statements: 19a33). He is not interested in specifying what is that principle that applies in different ways to present-tense and past-tense sentences on the one hand, and future-tense sentences on the other (it can be either "the principle of bivalence or that of the of the excluded middle": 2). Instead, he focuses on understanding how the principle of correspondence may work for statements relating to contingent future events. Such an approach shifts the issue from truth to being: "the first thing to do, before even speaking of the truth of statements, is to ask how the facts, which are the foundation for the truth of statements, stand" (8). These facts about the future are facts which, by definition, are not yet the case. But how can statements correspond to facts that are not yet the case? Correspondence between them can subsist when there are already "present states of affairs that justify now the thinkability of the two future contrary outcomes". (This rules out statements declaring, e.g., that an interplanetary war will occur in 10,000 years' time, for there is no present state of affairs that backs it up; but see De interp. 18b34-19a1.) Donini's thesis is thus that, in the case of statements concerning contingent future facts, it is possible to speak of their truth or falsity provided that they 'correspond' to those facts. This correspondence applies when some present state of affairs allows one to say of the future ones that, necessarily, they will occur or not occur (but not that they necessarily will occur, or that they necessarily will not occur).

This is not a new interpretation, and Donini explicitly recognizes that he is restating a traditional interpretation that goes back to Ammonius. There are two traditional answers. Either (i) Aristotle endorses the validity of the determinist's argument, based on the implication from truth to necessity, but denies one of their premises, namely that future singular statements have a truth-value (and hence restricts the application of the principle of bivalence). Or (ii) singular future statements have truth-values, but not a necessity-value (in the sense that such events are not yet settled). The latter is Ammonius' answer. Donini endorses (ii), but he is not supporting it in the traditional way, for he attempts to explain it not on the basis of logical considerations, but on an ontology of future facts. A consequence of such an approach is that the formal structure of the argument is as follows. The determinist argument is: if (a) a given principle is valid (either bivalence or excluded middle), then (b) all happens by necessity. In order to rebut it, Aristotle shows first that (b) entails that (c) it is futile to deliberate — and (c) is false. But (c) is only allegedly false, for human deliberation is perfectly compatible with determinism, as Donini remarks by reminding us of Chrysippus' work. Fortunately Aristotle has another trick up his sleeve: (b) entails that (d) there are no contingent events — but it is patent that there are such events: (d) is blatantly false, and invalidates the determinist's argument. If one objects that this is no refutation of determinism but a sheer assumption of the existence of contingent facts, Donini replies that the objection misses the point, for Aristotle never aimed to refute determinism as such. Determinism did not exist at his time, at least not as a causal necessitarianism. Aristotle was facing a "logical" determinism, which tried to deduce necessity from truth. Aristotle's task was to rebut the latter, not the former: "where this task is concerned, it is my impression that his reply is substantially serious" (6).

Another consequence of such an approach is that one is committed to spelling out an ontology of events with an eye to singular contingent events in the future. Part of this task is done in Chapter 2, devoted to the notion of accident, a key notion to contingency. Another part consists in explaining human deliberation and actions. According to Donini, "Aristotle divides the field of contingent events according to a rudimentary system of statistical classification," based on the frequencies of occurrence. There is: (i) what happens for the most part; (ii) what happens and does not happen with equal frequency; and (iii) what happens in a minority of cases, the reverse side of (i). This statistical ranking of events plays a major role in the argument of the whole book. Case (ii) is assimilated to a 50/50 case: depending on whether an event in (ii) becomes more or less probable, it will join (i) or (iii). Such statistical ranking makes naturalness depend on frequency. Aristotle distinguishes between natural and indeterminate contingents, and the former belong to (i), but they are frequently such-and-such because they are normally such-and-such, and not the other way round, such that nature imposes a norm on them. This may prove to be a difficulty for his reading, but Donini retains frequency of occurrence as the basis for his classification. Granting Donini's statistical ranking may also face another difficulty. Chance events and accidents belong to class (iii) and are the counterparts of those natural events (i) which occur for the most part. But where should one place actions? The sea battle is presented in De Interpretatione as a case of (ii), but NE supposes that actions and decisions belong to (i). Donini sides with the latter concerning the action of adult human beings. Socrates will bathe tomorrow: is this a 50/50 event, like the sea battle? Definitely not: given that "Socrates is a respectable citizen, fully equipped with the level of education . . ., there is almost no doubt that tomorrow he will bathe" (59). Actions are thus scattered across two different classes, and this may seem problematic.

The relevant point here is that, according to Donini, actions done out of character belong to the class of what happens regularly. This is a big move, and it is this move that most interests Donini. Richard Loening had to some extent shown the way in his celebrated Die Zurechnungslehre des Aristoteles (1903), and many a commentator is now keen on taking the lead in ascribing to Aristotle a sort of self-inflicted determinism (to employ Hintikka's phrase). Donini's book can be seen as a powerful effort to revive such a thesis. With this in mind, NE V.1, 1129a11-17 acquires decisive significance, as this passage declares that dispositions allow one to perform actions in only one direction, to the exclusion of the opposite direction, a passage that "has been oddly ignored, or grievously ill-treated by modern scholars" (89). According to it, then, unjust men will commit unjust actions, and will commit them unavoidably; just men will perform good actions, and are bound to perform them. There is fixedness or unidirectionality of action brought in by character, such that men's actions become perfectly predictable. Actually, character is not like a (self-imposed) life sentence, for there is room in Aristotle for character- change (and there is more room for the vicious man to become a good man than the other way round: Donini rightly detects an asymmetry here). However, "without perhaps completely dismissing the idea of a self-directed, spontaneous conversion from evildoing to virtue, Aristotle simply did not pay particular attention to the problem and did not examine it in depth" (99).

One may hesitate about what the problem at issue is here: (i) the possibility of doing otherwise despite one's character, or (ii) the possibility of changing one's character? One may imagine an agent doing otherwise, without changing his character, whereas changing his character depends on acting otherwise, since any character (including a new one) results from repeatedly performing actions in a certain direction. Contending that Aristotle did not pay attention to (ii) is probably right, but what is most important is to see whether Aristotle paid attention to (i). For any solution to (ii) depends on a previous solution to (i). Donini is very convincing in restricting (ii), but what he has to do is to deny (i). He does speak of the agent "conditioned (to avoid saying 'necessitated')" (94) when acting by habit; and he proposes to see Aristotle "as a precursor of Chrysippus" (114). However, he does not show whether Aristotle definitely rejects (i) — he assumes Aristotle rejects it, but does not scrutinize all the relevant passages that might support the contrary thesis. Doing otherwise is here taken in the strong, libertarian sense of being able to do the contrary thing when one is about to perform some action. Donini wants a compatibilist notion of what is up to us, such that it is in general in someone's power to do A or not-A, as they can at time t1 do A and at time t2 do not-A. But this is recent terminology; when Donini comes to NE III.5, 1113b7-14, he faces the problem of how to reconcile this (apparently libertarian) notion of what is up to us with the doctrine of the unidirectionality of habits without the help of that terminology. He sees two possible solutions. Either Aristotle says (a) that any action issuing from a consolidated habit cannot but have the quality the character already has, but could have been of the opposite quality if those actions and choices of the agent which were done before the agent acquired his character and caused its acquisition had been of the opposite direction. This is in line with NE III.5, 111b30-14a19. Or Aristotle says (b) — and this is Donini's preferred option — that: "however rare and difficult it may be, it does in fact happen that a character habit is sometimes exchanged for the opposite one [such that] whoever acts in conformity with a habit could not, in practice, act any differently from how he acts, but he could still lose that habit, so it is legitimate for Aristotle to say that everyone has the option of doing good or evil even after the acquisition of a habit that, in fact, constrains them to always decide in one way and one direction only" (105). But this is (ii), being able to change one's character; but (ii) depends on (i), the possibility of acting otherwise in spite of a stable character, and (i) is denied by Donini at the same time as he affirms (ii). Now, the problem is not only that, apparently, Aristotle did not pay attention to (ii), but that changing one's character becomes something of a miracle, something that may (accidentally?) happen — a "spontaneous conversion", if (i) is rejected. But Aristotle denied such sudden changes, at the same time as he acknowledged the possibility of character-changes.

Donini's book was first published in 1989, at the beginning of a tide in favor of determinism which has now turned into a tsunami. Many other arguments for determinism in Aristotle have since been produced, some of which may strengthen considerably Donini's case, notably if they help to provide a proof for rejecting (i). This book already had an important impact on those discussions in its Italian version, and it is still very important to take it into account. As a matter of fact, this book is so rich and dense in details, analyses, and interpretation of Aristotle's texts that it will surely remain for years a reference-point for academic discussions. It should also be added that it constantly connects the reader with the reappraisal of Aristotelianism by Alexander, who defended a thesis — libertarianism — which the present book brings to examination with rigor and tenacity. All this makes this book a reference to the current discussions about determinism or indeterminism in Aristotle and beyond.

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