Workshop in Ancient Philosophy (Week 7, HT18)

Ancient Philosophy

The School of Athens

Speaker: Francesca Masi (Venezia) 

Title: 'The distinction between chance and luck: Aristotle Physics II 6'


Purpose of this paper is to analyse the distinction between automaton and tyche as it is treated in Arist. Phys. II 6. Interpreters agree that, in this passage, Aristotle’s aim is that of isolating, within a general notion of automaton, a more specific one, to be coupled with that of luck and to be applied exclusively to the natural realm. Under this reading, however, the chapter becomes problematic: the examples proposed do not perfectly seem to fit for the case of natural casual processes. Two solutions have been proposed: to look elsewhere for more adequate examples of natural casual processes or to deny the existence of natural processes satisfying the Aristotelian definition of chance.

I will defend the claim that Aristotle’s aim is not that of showing the existence of a restricted notion of chance, but rather that of showing that the notion of automaton is more generic and extensive than the notion of tyche. The examples proposed by Aristotle seem to be better suited to this aim. They suggest that automaton includes all those typically teleological processes where a “formal replication from the mover to the moved” is lacking and thus – besides fortuitous process – it includes all those processes having an internal cause -- either according to nature (spontaneous generations) or against nature (anomalous generations) -- and all those having an external accidental cause -- pure natural casual processes (the survived seated horse) or mixed ones (the fallen tripod which stands).

Showing that automaton and tyche are related as genus to species amounts to show that tyche is epistemologically and ontologically prior than automaton. On the one hand, luck is for Aristotle the relevant causal configuration able to discriminate unintentional from intentional actions, to explain the fallible nature of deliberation, to justify the openness of the future and to grant the existence of deliberative space. On the other hand, automaton is, for Aristotle, a secondary, derivative notion: by contrast, from teleology, by extension, from luck. As such, the role of automaton is that of capturing and explaining those physical processes that are not captured by the other two models of explanation.

I am going to explain how the distinction between automaton and tyche, so interpreted, is relevant to reconstruct the debate against the naturalistic philosophers and it is helpful in defusing their mechanistic explanations. One cannot appeal to tyche, as Empedocles does, in order to explain the disposition and function of the bodily parts of living things, because luck is not only inadequate, qua accidental cause, to explain the recurring functional organisation of the bodily parts, but it is only applicable to intentional processes. One cannot appeal to automaton, as Democritus does, in order to explain the origin of the universe, for two reasons: (i) because it presupposes the existence of a given teleological order; (ii) because it is better suited to explain those anomalous and casual physical processes belonging to the sublunar world, that, unlike those discussed by Empedocles, are marginal and cannot be subsumed neither to teleology nor more specifically to luck.


Convenors: Dr Karen Margrethe Nielsen, Prof Ursula Coope, and Dr Luca Castagnoli

Webpage: Workshop in Ancient Philosophy