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Why Aristotle distinguishes four causes


To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why Aristotle distinguishes four causes
Date: 29th October 2009 12:38

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 22 October, with your essay for the University of London Greek Philosophy: Aristotle module, in response to the question, 'How do Aristotle's four causes relate to each other? Does he need all four of them?

This is in many ways a model essay on Aristotle's four causes, which gives an accurate and full answer to both parts of the question. Your device of asking 'how we would explain a bed to an extraterrestrial, ET' is a good way of making the case for the plausibility of Aristotle's claim that there are exactly four kinds of way in which one would 'explain' a bed.

My only quibble with the way you do this concerns what you say about the formal cause, 'In the case of our bed we can, for present purposes, identify this with its shape.' Later, you speak of the formal cause stating 'what it essentially is'.

Explained in this way, to modern ears it seems rather redundant to cite the formal cause of something. What exactly is it for something to 'have' a formal cause?

A more convincing way to explain this is to imagine, not ET, but someone who thinks they know a bed when they see one. I show my guest his bedroom, and he (ungratefully) complains, 'That's not a bed! That's a circular hole in the floor!' 'If you climb down the ladder and lie down, you'll find that it's quite comfortable. The floor is padded. Something you can lie down on and sleep comfortably is JUST WHAT A BED IS.'

My reply to the ungrateful guest clearly illustrates Aristotle's point about the connection between the final and formal causes in the case of artefacts. The fact that the bed is below floor level rather than raised, and circular rather than rectangular is inessential so far as the purpose or function of a bed is concerned. The artefact in question fully satisfies that purpose, as it was designed to do, and that is why it *is* a bed.

Of course, you can sleep on anything. If I sleep on the roof of my car, that doesn't make a car roof a 'bed', because it wasn't designed for that purpose. 'Things are designed and constructed, for a purpose,' is a fundamental observation about human life.

Or to take a more philosophically substantial question, let's say we are arguing over Helen's beauty. You don't find Helen beautiful. I reply, 'If you don't think Helen is beautiful then you don't know what beauty is.' However, to a modern ear, this is also more contentious. The idea that something like beauty, or justice 'has an essence' that in principle anyone who is prepared to think about it can agree on, is problematic. Aristotle doesn't see this as problematic in the same way as we do, because he has a less modest view of the role of philosophy, which he inherited from Plato.

This takes us to the main issue raised by Aristotle's account of the four causes, for the modern reader. Although it is true that we can agree on the logical structure of Aristotle's classification, it remains the case that Aristotle had a very different notion of the roles of the four causes in explanation, and in particular the respective roles of efficient and formal causes.

It is true that the theory of evolution has to a large extent vindicated the idea we can understand organisms has having as their end to flourish and propagate. Explanations in biology typically take the form, 'Entity x has attribute y because y enables x to...'. By contrast, modern physics takes a very different view from Aristotle of why physical things interact as they do.

That's why it would be relevant to mention that, although we can agree on some suitably selected examples of formal causation, it is also true that Aristotle saw a vastly greater role for formal causation. For Aristotle, physical things interact in the way that they do, for no other reason than 'That is just what it is to be an X'. The explanation of why ice melts when heated is that it's ice, and that's just what ice does.

Aristotle was aware of the possibility of a different form of explanation, where the notion of efficient/ moving cause is extended to cover the microstructural properties of objects, in the theories of his predecessors Democritus and Leucippus. But he rejected it (for reasons which go outside the scope of the present essay).

The point is simply that although we can legitimately use Aristotle's four-fold distinction, as you have demonstrated in your example of ET, in order to fully explain 'how the four causes relate to each other' one needs to say something about how Aristotle conceived of explanation of physical processes and changes, and in particular his very different conception of the role of efficient causation from the one that is held today.

All the best,