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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 9. Basic and Derived Final Causes

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Basic and Derived Final Causes

In the previous chapter, I have maintained that causal processes are processes that instantiate complex types of processes. In the case of natural processes, the reason why they instantiate these types is that they are governed by principles of motion and rest, which are inherent in the natural things that are typically involved in them. As instances of generally specifiable types, causal processes have essences. I have also claimed that causal processes must provide us with “two handles,” that is, it must be possible to identify them as instances of a type on the basis of one set of facts about them, so that one may then expect further facts to be true of them. This means that the essences of causal processes must be complex. For instance, thunder is a causal process, the essence of which is noise in the clouds as caused by the extinction of fire in the clouds. This essence is such that one may distinguish a cause from an effect within an instance of thunder.

In Chapter 1, I have argued that the material cause of a natural thing relates to its formal cause in the same way in which the efficient cause relates to the final cause of this process. The material cause of a thing is that which potentially is this thing, and the formal cause is what the material cause potentially is. The “closest” efficient cause of a natural process...

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