The Distinction Between Productive and Contemplative Knowledge – Part I.

Aristotle distinguishes between productive and contemplative knowledge in The Metaphysics (Book XI:7).

In productive knowledge, the source of motion is in the one who makes, rather than in the thing being made.  For example, when one exercises one’s productive knowledge by making a bookshelf, the source of motion is in the carpenter, not the bookshelf. The  source of motion is in the carpenter, because he is the cause of the bookshelf coming into being. If the source of motion were  in the bookshelf, then it could come about without a carpenter.

Productive knowledge, therefore, is characterized by more than reflection. Productive knowledge is characterized by imposing one’s will on materials such as wood or stone.

In contemplative knowledge, the source of motion resides in the thing being thought about.  When one studies a tree, the source of motion remains in the tree. Unlike the bookshelf example, if one were to not take any action toward the tree, it would still be a tree. A tree needs no carpenter. The source of motion — whatever it is that makes the seed become a full-grown tree — is in the tree itself.

The nature of a natural thing (such as a tree) is not imposed on the tree from outside, but is within the tree itself. Whereas the material of the bookshelf (wood) does not strive to be a bookshelf, the material of a tree does strive to be a tree.

In this way Aristotle distinguishes what comes to be by nature and what comes to be by craft. What comes to be by nature has an internal principle of motion, and what comes to be by craft has an external principle of motion. Productive knowledge is the kind of knowledge embodied in craftsmanship. Contemplative knowledge is the kind of knowledge that belongs to the study of nature.

In the next two parts, I will explain the importance of this distinction in the Christian doctrine of creation and in the Classical theory of education.

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3 Responses

  1. […] by Thomas If there is a distinction between natural things and products of human craft — as I argued some time ago — and this distinction lies in the presence of an internal principle of motion in natural […]

  2. The glossary to the Joe Sachs translation of the Physics is helpful:

    “Motion [kinesis] is coextensive with, but not synonymous with, change [metabole]. It has four irreducible kinds, with respect to thinghood, quality, quantity, and place. The last named is the primary kind of motion but involves the least change, so that the list is in ascending order of motions but descending order of changes.”

    In other words, motion and change are on the same spectrum, occupying both ends. At the end of the motion/change spectrum where the thing itself undergoes the most change (such as coming into being) it is more change than motion; but where the thing itself mostly remains the same through the motion (such as movement in respect to place) it is more motion than change.

    “Motion” is used more often because it tends to refer more to the motion/change that “comes out” of the thing itself, whereas change often refers to the motion/change that originates outside the thing (such as coming into being).

    Does that make sense? It’s a very fine distinction, and in many cases the terms can be used interchangeably.

  3. Why does Aristotle use the word motion and not just change? It seems confusing that way.

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