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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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Chapter 1. Aristotle’s Four Causes

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Aristotle’s Four Causes

It is usually assumed that when Aristotle distinguishes between the four causes the student of nature should look for, he is referring to (1) the matter of a thing, (2) its form, (3) that which initiates its coming to be, and (4) its purpose. On this basis, it must remain obscure what the four have in common such that all and only the four of them should be called causes. In what sense do the form or the purpose of a thing cause this thing? What is the effect of matter or form? And why should there be exactly four causes? For instance, why is not the weight of a thing a fifth kind of cause? If the reason is that in a wider sense of “form,” the weight of a thing is one of its forms, why should the material constitution of a thing not also qualify as one of its forms? On the other hand, many properties of a thing appear to be reducible to its purely material features. Could we perhaps reduce all of them? It seems that we might either do without material causes or without formal causes. Further, the final cause does not appear to belong in a list of causes that all natural things must have. In large areas of modern science, we do not any longer refer to purposes, and where we still do so we try not to.

When Aristotle presents his...

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