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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 5. Types and Classes



Types and Classes

In Chapter 1, I have argued that the formal cause of a natural thing is what such things come to be as a result of their natural development. When a natural thing is fully developed, its formal cause is what it actually is. When it is not fully developed, either because the development is not yet complete or because something went wrong, its formal cause is what it would be if it were fully developed.

The formal cause is closely related to what Aristotle calls the ti ēn einai of a thing (“what it was to be this thing”). In Physics II 3, Aristotle refers to the formal cause of a thing as the “account of its ti ēn einai” (Physics II 3, 194b27). In Metaphysics Ζ 4, he writes that only such things have a ti ēn einai whose account is a definition (1030a6–7). In Posterior Analytics II 11, he says that the ti ēn einai of a thing is that which is signified by its definition (94a34–35). This entails that the ti ēn einai of a thing is what is signified by its definition. Thus for a natural thing, the following three questions amount to the same:

(1) What is its formal cause?

(2) What would it be if it were fully developed and all went well?

(3) What does its definition describe?←111 | 112→

Aristotle emphasises that no...

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