Aristotle says repeatedly that we understand something when we grasp its causes—indeed, he defines wisdom, our highest cognitive achievement, in these terms in Metaphysics A—but he doesn’t say much about how we grasp causes successfully. The few primary texts in which he treats the question at all directly pull in two directions, and the view that emerges is neither obviously coherent nor clearly inconsistent. Furthermore, these texts, which are largely confined to the Posterior Analytics, lack any clear connection with the sophisticated accounts of causation and of our mental faculties, which are dealt with in works such as the Physics and the De Anima, and which would be highly relevant. To answer the question of how we know causes on Aristotle’s account, then, we need to combine a careful analysis of the direct evidence with an attempt to state what, if anything, follows from Aristotle’s views about the modes of causation and human cognitive capacities. When we do this, a textually and philosophically satisfying answer can be given, which finds Aristotle quite plausibly rejecting some assumptions common to many philosophers who have discussed causation, from Plato to the present day.
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Workshop in Ancient Philosophy Convenors: Ursula Coope, Karen Margrethe Nielsen, and Luca Castagnoli