February 23, 2016

Aristotle's Four Causes Explained Two Ways

Aristotle was one of the most brillant men to have ever lived. Hs philosophy was used by St. Thomas Aquinas in the later's synthesis of reason and revelation. Below are two explanations of Aristotle’s metahysical theory of causation, also known as the four causes. from which the Angelic Doctor borrowed heavily.

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).

Explained another way...

In Aristotle's Metaphysics, there are four main causes of change in nature: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause.

Each of these "causes" was a different sense of the Greek word aition, which Aristotle thought was ambiguous and needed to be clarified. The distinction between them can be understood using a wooden table as an example. The material cause is the wood out of which the table is made; the formal cause is the form or shape of the table; the efficient cause is the carpenter who creates the table; and the final cause is the purpose for which the table will be used, e.g. a desk, an altar, a decorative console, etc.

1.) The material cause is the substance or material out of which something is composed. Thus the material cause of a table is wood, and the material cause of a statue might be bronze or marble.

2.) The formal cause is the thing or being into which the substance or material becomes. A leather worker turns leather into shoes for example.

3.) The efficient cause is the person or thing that effects change in a substance or material

4.) The Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, the good, or the goal of something. For example, the final cause of a pen is writing. Aristotle believed that the final cause is the most important of the four causes - determining the three other causes.

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