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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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