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Why Aristotle needs his four causes


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why Aristotle needs his four causes
Date: 2nd November 2011 12:18

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 24 October, with your essay for the University of London BA 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 not bad essay, but I have two main problems: The first problem is that I am not persuaded that you fully understand what a 'formal cause' is. The second problem is that there isn't anything here which relates to the specific structure of Aristotle's theory of change, as contrasted with any other theory -- e.g. the view of change that would be taken by a contemporary scientist.

Aristotle states that each of his four causes provide a different answer to the question, 'Why?' We both agree that it's pretty obvious what the question is looking for in the case of efficient, and also in the case of final causes. (Why = what brought something about, vs. Why = for what purpose something was brought about.) So far, so good.

When would you ask 'Why?' in the case of a material cause? It's not quite so obvious, but an example soon resolves the difficulty. 'Why did the spoon melt when I stirred my coffee?!' 'Because it was a joke spoon made of Field's alloy, which melts at 62 degrees C.' What things are made of, their 'material cause', explains what they do, their physical properties and powers.

What about a 'formal' cause? This is also an answer to the question, 'Why?', but which question?

Here, I will follow your examples:

'Why did you give me that horrible jangly metal object for my birthday?!' 'Because you asked for a charm bracelet, and that's what a charm bracelet IS.' 'I didn't realize, sorry.'

'I don't like my feet all covered up like that. Why didn't you make me what I wanted?' 'You asked for shoes, and that's what a shoe is. If you had wanted bare toes you should have asked me to make you a pair of sandals.'

'Look at that, the ball has run away from him!' (said by someone who has never watched a game of soccer before). 'The player passing the ball to his team mate. That's what a pass is.'

The example of the tomato. I don't agree that the final and formal causes are the same. 'That's what it is for a tomato to be ripe', is a different answer to, 'That's why ripe tomatoes are tasty' (the 'purpose' or function of fruit in the biology of seed propagation).

By contrast, I don't see a 'final' cause in the case of the eroded rock, except perhaps if one took the perspective of a wise architect who fashions rocks to be of sufficient permanence for the purposes they serve; or maybe because of the utility of sand, the erosion of rock being the optimal way to achieve this. Whereas, one can perfectly well envisage a question to which the answer would be, 'Because that's just what erosion is.'

In the Socratic dialogues, the question of formal definition assumes supreme importance. 'Why did you prosecute your own father for impiety?' (Socrates to Euthyphro). 'In the name of piety!' 'What IS piety?'

So far, we have completely gone along with Aristotle's four-fold classification. However, there is also a question whether, or to what extent this classification requires, or is required by Aristotle's theory of change in terms of matter and form.

Towards the end of your essay, you talk about genetic codes and their instructions as the modern version of Aristotelian 'entelechy'. There is a problem here, however, in that Aristotle was firmly opposed to the kind of microstructural explanation which this implies. (Of course, there is every possibility that he would change his mind if we could bring him to the present day in a time machine.) Aristotle didn't accept the view of the atomists. He believed that human observation and reason are the ultimate standard by which explanations are judged. Unverifiable speculation about unobservables isn't explanation.

The upshot of this is that in Aristotle's account, formal and final 'causes' play a much heavier theoretical role than they would play for us. It is the formal nature of an acorn, 'what an acorn is' that explains, in the only way this can be explained, why an acorn grows into an oak.

From a contemporary perspective, this looks rather quaint. Yet arguably there are cases, in subatomic physics maybe, where despite the best efforts we cannot find any suitable candidate for an 'underlying structure' (because we are already, or seem to be, at the bottom level) and all we can do is appeal to an entelechy-style Aristotelian 'explanation'.

All the best,