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Essay on Aristotle's four 'causes'


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on Aristotle's four 'causes'
Date: 9 May 2007 12:03

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 9 April, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'In what sense of 'cause' do Aristotle's four causes deserve the name?'

The essay is good so far as it goes, and keeps well to the question. However, your inkling that something is missing is correct.

You are right, of course, to point out that 'cause' is merely our translation of Aristotle's 'aitia' so the question whether Aristotle's four causes 'deserve' the name is really a question one would direct at the translator rather than at Aristotle himself. And yet, there is a point in asking *how much* is explained (regardless of what term we use) by each of the 'causes', as there is a very significant difference between Aristotle's view and the view that a scientist would take today.

So far as the classification and your explanation of it goes, a reader might think that Aristotle has merely added three dimensions of explanation to our common (I won't say Humean because not everyone agrees with Hume's analysis) notion of efficient cause.

In fact, Aristotle's view of how things are explained is markedly in contrast with the modern view, which is, however much closer to what the Greek atomists believed (although still a considerable distance away).

The structure of your essay, therefore, should reflect this contrast. The way to do this is by first explaining how we might today make sense of Aristotle's 'causes' and then contrast Aristotle's considerably more meatier notion of formal and final cause.

Why did Joe's laptop catch fire? Because (material cause) it's made of plastic. (Mine won't because it's aluminium.) There was a short circuit (efficient cause) and sparks caused the plastic to ignite. But actually, it was a 'booby-trapped laptop' (formal cause) designed by the CIA to spontaneously combust (final cause) after it has been running for more than fifteen minutes.

Aristotle can agree with all this. But there is much that he would not accept. (OK, sorry, plastic is a bad example given that plastic wasn't invented then.) Why does plastic burn? Why does wood burn? Why doesn't water burn? Why doesn't ash burn? If you asked a modern chemist (or a Greek atomist) and Aristotle you would get very different answers.

The atomist will tell you that plastic and wood have an invisible structure which we can't see, but which accounts for its observable properties, as well as its ability to interact with other substances or respond to various kinds of treatment (heat, cold, electricity etc.) We all take completely for granted the idea that we can't see everything, that some explanations require the postulation of invisible structures.

The point of postulating invisible structures is to vastly simplify the set of scientific laws which we appeal to in giving explanations. You can hardly do serious science, if all you do is note down the various things that happen under various circumstances, which is basically all that Aristotelian 'science' amounts to.

Aristotle would have none of this. He refuses to accept that explanation must be brought down to the level of invisible structures and proposes instead a model of explanation according to which things do what they do because they are the kinds of things that they are.

Wood burns because it is wood, and wood is the kind of thing that has the potential to burn. End of explanation. If you want to ask why there is such a thing as wood in the universe, well that's a different question.

Aristotelian explanation is necessarily conceived from the point of view of a cosmos which ultimately has an irreducible teleological element - something the atomists sought to get rid of. Thus formal and teleological explanation are closely linked for Aristotle in a way that they would not be regarded today.

There are two explanations that one can give of this. First, the atomist theory was put forward as metaphysics and as such had serious flaws which Aristotle points out in his criticisms of Leucippus and Democritus.

However, secondly, Aristotle was convinced that human reason is adequate for understanding the natural world and the cosmos, in the sense that nothing required for understanding is hidden from our view. So, had the atomist theory been put forward in the spirit of an empirical theory (which, historically, it wasn't) Aristotle would still have objected on the grounds that it required the postulation of something that could not, in principle, be verified by observation. The contemporary notion of 'best explanation' or the hypothetico-deductive model is one that Aristotle would not recognize as a fully satisfactory approach.

I have a reference for this which you might not be aware of: Aristotle's piece 'On Generation and Corruption' which has some passages which are relevant to the points that I have made above. The text can be downloaded from It's too late to read the piece now (although it is not very long if you just wanted to flick through and search for juicy bits). It's something to mention when you contrast Aristotle's model of explanation of change with that of the atomists.

All the best,