What’s an automobile?

The car (thing one rides in. Latin : vehiculum) is called automobile (self-moving) when it moves without horses. But, of course, the car didn’t become any more self-motive than it ever was (or any more than a train car is now) it simply got a lengthened platform with a mechanical engine. It was “automobile”, I guess, for purposes of sale: instead of buying the car or cart here and the horse somewhere else one could just buy cart and power-source all at once. So it would have been better to  it a “combine” than an automobile.* If it were better engineering to separate the engine from the car and sell them separately, we wouldn’t have developed automobiles but cars on the one hand and  artificial horses on the other, which probably would have led to the same equivocation on “horse” as we now get on the word “mouse” said both of the rodent and the piece of computer equipment.

All this raises the question of what an automobile would actually be. The simplest answer is the negative one based on the previous paragraph: an automobile (self-mover) is not an automobile (engine-car combine). Any motion or moving of something requires both power and a vector, but the car has no power in itself and the engine has no direction in itself. Again, the whole point of a combine is to harness some power source, but a harness is a complex entity made of both yoke and bridle or tug and rein. The tug or the yoke get more attention, but they are obviously meaningless without the rein – the only point of harnessing a power source is to perform some definite task.

So is the automobile the car-gas-driver-passenger combine? The “car” in this sense is the harness, the gas the horse, the driver the rein-mover, and the gas the passenger-mover. In all of this the driver or passenger seem to have a special role as automobile, with the whole point being to make a passenger of a certain kind (making the passenger the first final cause) by means of a driver (the first agent cause). But “the passenger of a certain kind” is whatever is carried at whatever speed it is carried, at whatever time it is carried, i.e. the “passenger” is really just “the journey”. The problem, however, is that then the “automobile” just becomes a way of saying that the journey is the journey, at which point we realize that we haven’t found the thing we were looking for. We’re asking about what would be genuinely self-motive, not what cluster of partial and dependent causes might result in a motion.

We have two options: either we stipulate that “self” just means a cluster of partial, dependent causes or we say that any cluster of partial, dependent causes is not self-motive. “Cluster”, of course, doesn’t do the reality justice: we can’t have this cluster explained or directed by some self, since then there would be some self existing as an unmoved mover that was responsible for the motion while not itself being in motion.


*”Combine” however, was already taken, but not to name something that combined the a power source and the action, but something that combined the actions of reaping and threshing.

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