February 5, 2010

Aristotle’s Four Causes


Aristotle

Aristotle’s four causes are answers to four common sense questions we can ask about change in the world around us. They are; What is a thing made of?, Who made it?, What is it that is being made?, and What is it being made for? When it comes to human productions, the answer to these questions is usually easy. When it comes to answering these questions as they occur in nature, it becomes more difficult.

Regarding human production, if you asked a shoemaker what he was making his shoes out of he might reply “leather.” If you asked a gunsmith producing a rifle what he was making it out of he might reply “wood and steel.” According to Aristotle, what a thing is made of is the material cause. It is one of four indispensible factors without which the production would not or could not occur.

The second question is: Who made it? Aristotle calls this the efficient cause. When we are dealing with human productions, this would seem to be the easiest question of all. The shoemaker maker makes the shoe. The gunsmith makes the gun. However, when dealing with natural processes this question is much harder to answer.

The third question is: What is it that is being made? Aristotle calls this the formal cause. The answer to this question can seem simple but Aristotle means something specific in using the word “formal” in this instance. The formal cause for the gunsmith would be a gun. The formal cause for the shoemaker would be a shoe.

The fourth question is: What is it being made for? Put simply we might say: Why is it being made? Aristotle calls this the final cause. For the gunsmith, the final cause for producing a gun might be “for protection.” For the shoemaker the final cause for producing shoes might be “comfort.”

Let’s take a look at the four causes in action in a human production. A sculpture takes marble (sculpture = efficient cause, marble = material cause) and turns it into a statue – a statue which will bring joy and be the focal point of interest to everyone who beholds it. (statue=formal cause, a thing of beauty that will be a joy for others=final cause).

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