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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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What follows is a rough summary of some of the more basic claims made in this book. It goes without saying that these claims cannot all be adequately expressed and defended within a few pages; they have already been spelled out and argued for in the rest of this book. Also, I have sometimes distinguished between what Aristotle literally says and what I take to be a possible and helpful position that he does not explicitly take, which nonetheless matches and explains other things he says. In this conclusion, such distinctions will be blurred. The following should therefore not be taken to represent Aristotle’s stated views.

Throughout this book, I have been concerned with natural things and processes. In Aristotle, these two are not neatly distinguished; he often seems to identify things, insofar as they undergo a process, with these processes, insofar as the things are involved in it. Natural things are things with an inherent principle of motion and rest, and natural processes are processes that are governed by such principles. Principles of motion and rest may be thought of as standards of typicality that apply to the processes that are governed by these principles. That they are inherent to a thing means that they follow from a proper account of the thing’s nature. Both natural processes and natural←243 | 244→ things are instances of types to the extent to which they are subject to standards of typicality, not to the extent to which they...

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