Reasons And Causes In Plato: The Distinction Between αἰτία And αἴτιον

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1999

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Ancient Philosophy


The terms aitia and aition often figure centrally in Plato’s discussions of causation. Commentators standardly assume that Plato uses the two terms synonymously,1 but that assumption was challenged by Frede’s proposal that Plato’s usage in the Phaedo confines aitia to propositional, and aition to non-propositional items (Frede 1987, 128-130). There are indeed good grounds for questioning the assumption that these terms are synonymous. Plato’s usage sometimes leads us to expect a distinction in meaning. For example, when aitia and aition appear together in close proximity and in philosophically loaded contexts (e.g., at Phaedo 98-99, discussed below), it seems unlikely that Plato switches between the terms merely for the sake of stylistic variation. Studies of Herodotus and Thucydides also raise questions. There, scholars have found aitia and aition systematically distinguished in meaning.2 Here I shall reconsider Plato’s use of these terms at large and particularly in the Phaedo. Although I agree that Plato does not always use aitia and aition as synonyms, I dispute Frede’s proposal for understanding the distinction. Where Plato gives these terms different meanings, I shall argue that he distinguishes not between propositional and non-propositional

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