Friday, June 17, 2011

Reduction of Aristotle's Theory of Four Causes

Let’s start with the definition of “causality”: “the principle that agents bring something about; a person or thing that gives rise to an action, phenomenon, or condition.”

In Aristotle’s mature view, there were four ways for something to be a cause, to be an explanation of a fact: the material, formal, efficient, and final. 

The material cause is the matter that something is composed of, like a statue being made of marble, or a rock being made of granite.  The formal cause was the essential nature of something, what makes it the kind of thing it is, like the blueprint of a building, or the functional organization of a living goat.  Efficient causes are the ones we’re most familiar with, the “how” of something’s present existence or state, “A leads to B, B leads to C,” etc.  And the final cause was Aristotle’s idea that things are acting in such a way as to reach some end-state, whether an artist’s purpose in creating a piece of art to reflect the final product of it in his head, or a seed’s development into a tree, or a baby’s development into a man.  A good deal of the induction of this will have to focus on the differences between these four views, and why Aristotle thought that he needed four.

So, what is the next step down?  From “there are four causes,” we need to reach the idea that there is such a thing as a “cause.”  And a “cause” is an agent, something that is responsible for something else.  Aristotle viewed this “something else” as a change, causes are things that are responsible for changes in the world.  Something causes a person to die (in fact, we sometimes even say “a biological/chemical agent killed him”), or causes an unfinished building to become complete, or causes the ocean tides to move, or you becoming happy.  Changes do not occur by chance, but by something that has the capacity to produce the change: I can only write essays while I’m alive; once I’m dead and gone, I will no longer have the agency to perform such actions, and they will cease to exist as a result.

What comes after that step is an ancient philosophical problem which confronted Aristotle’s predecessors, and which Aristotle solved as a part of his philosophy, which we’ll cover when I do the induction.  It is known as “The Problem of Change,” and amounted to: “how can things with stable identities change?”  The alternatives of the Problem were either change is an illusion and deception of the senses, all things stayed as they are and never become something that they are not (the position of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides), or change is occurring constantly, and is the law of the universe, nothing is ever stable (Heraclitus).

That solution came as a result of certain novel ideas about change and existence that Aristotle developed in his philosophy, and these developments are the next step down from his answer to the Problem of Change.  Change, he observed, is a process with three meanings: something potential becoming actual, some kind of matter taking on a certain form, and a process of moving from one contrary state of being to the other, or an intermediate (fat becomes skinny or skinnier than before, tall becomes shorter, hairy becomes bald, etc.).

The last step down is noting the phenomenon of change as such, watching and perceiving things change all around you, even yourself.  Changes occur all the time, and Aristotle was the first philosopher to give an accurate and helpful explanation of the changes by means of his theory of causes.  And since observing changes is at the level of perception, this concludes the reduction.


  1. To go beyond the notion of change itself, to the idea of cause, the regularities of changes must be noted, no? Changes occur in regular ways, to categories of things, with certain reversible and other irreversible possibilities.
    If that were not the case, change would be a raw, unanalyzable fact. While change is an alteration of the identity of a thing, it still presents order and lawfulness through its regularities. This identity of what opposes identity (change) is a further sort of identity, and we need a special term for it--"cause."

  2. In my upcoming essay on the induction of Aristotle's four causes, I discuss the point that change is an alteration of a thing's identity, and that it happens regularly. I'll need to add the point that Aristotle held that changes occur to categories of things.

    Thanks for you input, Mindy Newton.

  3. Hmm, a thought just occurred that the end of this reduction should have been "identity," not "perception of change," because you would need to know the idea of identity, nature, etc. to know that what changed is, in some way, the same as what was there prior to the transformation.