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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 7. Causation




The efficient cause is called efficient because it is the cause that has effects.1 It is unlike the other three Aristotelian causes in that there is such a thing as efficient causation. There is no such thing as material, formal, or teleological causation.2 These causes do not give rise to effects, except accidentally, by also being efficient causes.3 It would therefore be wrong to associate material, formal, and final causes with causal relations, i.e. relations that would hold between these causes and their presumed effects. They have no effects, so they cannot be causally related to them. It is not obviously wrong, in contrast, to think of efficient causation as a relation.

Aristotle also refers to the efficient cause as that which produces what is being produced (to poioun tou poioumenou, Physics II 3, 194b31), and as he emphasises in Nicomachean Ethics VI 5, production (poiēsis) differs from action (praxis) in that it is directed at an end that is distinct from the act of achieving it (1140b6). Therefore, producing causes are directed at something that differs from the act of producing it. This means that it must be possible to divide all productive processes into three parts: (1) an efficient cause, (2) something that this cause does so that an effect results, and (3) an effect that differs from both the efficient cause and what it does.4←159 | 160→

In this chapter, I will ask how distinct these...

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