At the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes two ways an activity can be related to the end for which that activity is done: either the activity is distinct from its end, or they are the same. We call those activities that are distinct from their ends transient and those that are the same immanent.
Now, because an activity can be done for a variety of reasons, it’s possible that sometimes it is transient and other times that it is immanent. For example, a paradigmatic example of transient activity is the building of an object, like a chair or house. In the paradigmatic case, you perform the activity for the sake of having the object, and since the object itself is distinct from the activity that brings it into being it follows that the activity is transient. But in another instance, you may not necessarily build a chair for the sake of the chair, but simply because you enjoy the process itself — perhaps you’ll break the chair down again after you’re done, so that you can rebuild it again tomorrow. In this case, the same underlying activity is now immanent. The upshot of this is that while we speak of the activity being transient or immanent, it’s really the activity considered with respect to a particular end that is transient or immanent. If we keep the activity but change the end, then we might also change between transience and immanence.
Moreover, there is a sense in which the distinction between transience and immanence is really between two ends of a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. To see this, imagine building a chair for the sake of developing skill in carpentry. There’s a sense in which this is transient, since the skill exercised in an activity — and future activities of the same sort — is not the same as the activity itself. But even so, the skill of an activity surely has more in common with that activity than the completely separate object it produces. So, we might say that building something for the sake of developing skill is more transient than building something for the enjoyment of building while being more immanent than building something in order simply to have that thing.
Speaking paradigmatically, then, the building of an object is a good example of a transient activity. A good example of an immanent activity, on the other hand, is the musical performance by an orchestra. In this latter case, the orchestra doesn’t perform in order to produce something at the end of it all, but simply for its own sake.
Interestingly, there are other immanent activities which seem qualitatively different from the orchestra performance, and our aim here is to give an account of this difference. The first example that jumps to mind is the activity of life in a living thing — life is, after all, a continual activity that a living thing is engaged in until it dies, and is immanent insofar as it is concerned with developing and sustaining the living thing. Another simpler example is the activity of learning, insofar as learning some things now enables me to learn other things later.
The main difference between the immanent activities that we’ve mentioned so far is that living and learning both involve a feedback loop of sorts, where earlier actions in the activity can enable or hinder later ones. If I start with learning correct things then this sets me up to learn more correct things later, but if I am taught mistaken information then this will hinder with my ability to learn correct things later — or, as Aristotle and Aquinas said, a small error in the beginning will lead to a large error in the end. Something similar could be said for life, although in this case there are many feedback loops that we could consider. To take a simple one, if I eat improperly then this can interfere with my ability to eat food that is good for me, which in severe cases can even lead to things like refeeding syndrome. Or, again, if I damage my legs to the point where I can’t use them anymore, then moving myself to food and drink becomes more difficult.
Now, orchestra performances do not involve feedback loops of the kind we see in living and learning. Certainly what happens earlier in the performance will influence what should happen later in the performance, as the orchestra reacts to tempo changes or unplanned off-keys. In fact, such influence will occur even if everything is going exactly as planned, since the performance itself depends on the proper ordering of the actions within it. The difference here, though, is that earlier actions in the performance will not enable or hinder any musician’s ability to act later in the performance: the cellist playing a certain set of notes will not affect the violinist’s ability to play the violin.
In order to give an account of this difference between immanent activities, we must start with an account of activities in general which is expressive enough for us to point out where the difference lies. And indeed, we can give such an account: an activity is the measured exercise of powers for the sake of some end, where the end for which the activity is done determines the appropriate measure. A thing’s powers are what determine what it can and can’t do, and whenever that thing engages in an activity it does so by exercising its powers. The end for which the activity is done determines how and when those powers are to be used, which is what we refer to as their measured exercise. Thus, we can distinguish between three things: the activity, its end, and its powers.
We’ve already said that the difference between immanent and transient activities lies in the unity of the activity with its end: they are the same in immanent activities but distinct in transient activities. Going a step further, we can see that the difference between the two kinds of immanent activities that we’ve been discussing lies in the unity of the activity with its powers: either the activity influences its own powers, for better or worse, or it doesn’t. The orchestra performance does not affect the powers by which it exists, but the activities of living and learning include within themselves the development and sustenance of their powers.
Now, if the activity consists in the exercise of its powers, then what is happening when it influences its powers like this? To answer this we borrow a series of distinctions from Kenny: a power can be distinguished from its possessor, its vehicle, and its exercise. The possessor is the thing (or things) that has the power, and the exercise is the manifestation of the power in a particular context. The vehicle of the power is that feature (or features) of the possessor which grounds the power by providing the components used in its exercise. To give an example, I am the possessor of the power to walk, which I exercise whenever I use my legs to move, and the vehicle of which includes the bone and muscle structures in my leg together with the relevant parts of my nervous system. And the vehicle of a musician’s power to play an instrument includes their skill in playing that instrument, the relevant body parts, and the instrument itself. Influencing the vehicle of a power will influence the possessor’s ability to exercise that power, for better or worse, which is precisely what happens when an activity influences its own powers. When I stub my toe while walking, for instance, I hinder my power to walk by damaging a part of the vehicle of that power. And when I do physical exercise, I enable my power to walk by developing the strength of that vehicle.
All of this helps us see more clearly the difference between the immanent activities we’ve been considering. The orchestra performance does not affect the vehicles of the powers of the musicians to play their instruments, but what we choose to do in our life can and does affect the vehicles of the powers we exercise when living, causing our muscles to strengthen or weaken, our blood pressure to raise or lower, and so on.
Oderberg has called the latter class of immanent activity self-perfective, where the sense of perfection is that of completedness or wholeness or actualization rather than of moral perfection. Self-perfective immanent activities are immanent activities which are unified with the powers that underlie them so that part of the activity is the further enablement of those powers. We might wonder, could there be an immanent activity which is done for the sake of hindering its powers rather than enabling them? Reflecting on what we’ve already said we can see that there could not: an immanent activity is done for its own sake and consists in the exercise of its powers. Thus, the hindrance of those powers would go contrary to that activity, and so if it were done for the sake of this hindrance the activity would both be done for its own sake and against its own sake, which is absurd.
Of course, this is not to say that a self-perfective immanent activity always succeeds in enabling its powers, for any number of things could cause it to fail to one degree or another. But in order to fail, you are nevertheless still aiming at the goal you failed to achieve, which is the point. Moreover, what it means for an activity to enable its own powers cannot be divorced from the appropriate measure of those powers. For example, part of human development is an increase in height, but it’s not as if increasing your height is always better for your life as a human. At some point, increasing your height will hinder your ability to live well.
- Paraphrased from the opening of Aquinas’s On Being and Essence, himself citing Aristotle’s On the Heavens and the Earth.
- I got this from Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics (p. 45), who was citing Kenny’s The Metaphysics of Mind (pp. 73-74).
- For a detailed discussion of this, see Oderberg’s Finality Revived: Powers and Intentionality.
- See Oderberg’s Teleology: Inorganic and Organic.