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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 8. Causal Processes



Causal Processes

I have argued in the previous chapter that causation is not a relation between distinct items. Although one may split up instances of causation into separate and distinct segments, one should not expect to be able to put these segments together again and thereby get back what one started with. This would work only if causation were nothing but a relation between separate items to begin with, which it is not. Characteristically, one can conceptually separate a cause from its effect only at the cost of abstracting from the cause being the cause of the effect. To consider a cause in isolation is to consider it insofar as it is not a cause of anything. It is no wonder that Hume could not discover the causality of a cause by abstracting from its being a cause.

This does not mean that there are no causal relations. It is in many cases important and sufficient to know how two factors are related, counterfactually or probabilistically, without knowing anything further about the causal processes that connect them. Some such dependencies are rightly called causal ones, and the question as to under what circumstances a relation is a causal one is important. However, this question is not the same as the other important (and more fundamental) question that I am going to address in this chapter: under what circumstances a process is a causal process. I will consider three possible ways of answering this...

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