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Aristotle's Four Causes

Boris Hennig

This book examines Aristotle’s four causes (material, formal, efficient, and final), offering a systematic discussion of the relation between form and matter, causation, taxonomy, and teleology. The overall aim is to show that the four causes form a system, so that the form of a natural thing relates to its matter as the final cause of a natural process relates to its efficient cause. Aristotle’s Four Causes reaches two novel and distinctive conclusions. The first is that the formal cause or essence of a natural thing is not a property of this thing but a generic natural thing. The second is that the final cause of a process is not its purpose but the course that processes of its kind typically take.

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Causes and Becauses

Aristotle says that in order to really understand a thing, we need to understand its aitiai, and he distinguishes between four kinds of aitia. This term, aitia, is usually translated as “cause”. However, not all of Aristotle’s four aitiai are causes in the modern sense of this word. Perhaps none of them are. There may well be no better translation, but if one uses “cause,” some explanation should be added as to what this word is supposed to mean in this context. A common way of doing so is to give an example like the following.

Take an artefact, such as a silver cup. The material cause of the cup is the silver it is made of. Its formal cause is the shape into which the silver was brought when the cup was made. The efficient cause of the cup is the person who made it (or, perhaps, her capacity of making it). Its final cause is the purpose for which it was made, which is presumably the purpose that its maker had in mind.1

This way of explaining Aristotle’s four causes is misleading in several respects (Sprague 1968). To begin with, it explains all of the causes by using a single example, which Aristotle never does. Further, this single example is an artefact, and although Aristotle refers to artefacts in many of his examples, they are not the ultimate targets of his distinction of causes (cf. Sedley 2010,...

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