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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 6. Essences vs. Properties

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Essences vs. Properties

In the beginning of the previous chapter, I pointed out that according to Aristotle, the definition of a natural thing defines the typical result of its natural development. I have then argued, on independent grounds, that the most promising way of defining types of natural things involves describing the result of successfully replicating their instances. In this chapter, I explore some implications of this idea regarding the notion of an essence. I begin by asking whether the essence of a thing should be identified with an explanatorily fundamental property of this thing. I deny this, because the essence of a thing is not explanatory in the right way and because it is not one of its properties. Then, after briefly comparing essences to sortal universals and types to natural kinds, I further explain the difference between essences and properties. I do this by drawing a distinction between acts of identifying an item as an instance of a type and acts of describing an instance of a type as having certain properties. This distinction is a cognate of the distinction between casting and stating that I have introduced in Chapter 2.

Aristotelian essences have often been taken to be properties or sets of properties that all instances of a type necessarily share (e.g. Cresswell 1971, p. 96). More specifically, they are sometimes described as properties such that everything that has such a property in one possible world must have it in...

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