Aristotle famously claimed that “all men by nature desire the know”. To understand something is to know the answer to the question “why?”, and to be able to do so, we have to understand what the puzzle really is.
Why? Why? Why? Why am I a philosopher, and someone else a baker or guitarist or athlete? Why do birds fly and why are mountains high? Aristotle contends that the answer to questions like this is fourfold. Today, I’ll explain Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Four Causes.
Aristotle discusses theories of his predecessors, among whom the presocratic atomists. They reduced the cause of all movement, change or phenomena to the mechanics of atomic elements, processes which were seen as purposeless by nature. These thinkers had a mechanistic worldview.
Aristotle thought that these philosophers were fundamentally confused about something, which led to their inability to offer satisfying explanations of phenomena: they confused four different kinds of causes.
To understand something, Aristotle believed, you have to understand each of the four causes of that thing. These four causes are:
Material Cause: that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists.
Formal Cause: the pattern, structure of form that the matter realises in becoming a determinate thing.
Efficient Cause: the agent or cause responsible for the thing’s coming into being.
Final Cause: that for the sake of which a thing is done.
Aristotle explains this using the example of a statue. The material cause of the statue is the bronze it is made of, the formal cause is the body of Hercules, the efficient cause is the artist making the statue or the art of bronze-casting, and the final cause is to honour Hercules.
The final cause of each thing is intimately related to its formal cause, and these causes play an important explanatory role that Aristotle’s predecessors ignored.
It is easy to identify these four causes of artefacts, but Aristotle believed that they apply to nature as well. This means he replaces the mechanistic worldview of his predecessors with a teleological worldview: everything in nature has a purpose. Telos is the Greek word for purpose.
But this raises difficulties. Aristotle did not believe that the purpose of everything in nature was determined by an external agent or creator, a “divine craftsman”. Instead, he believed that the purpose of nature is immanent: a thing’s purpose is part of it’s nature. In the words of Jonathan Lear in Aristotle: the desire to understand:
“Real purposefulness requires that the end somehow govern the process along the way to its own realization … it is not, strictly speaking, the end specified as such that is operating from the start: it is form that directs the process of its own development from potentiality to actuality…
Of course, the existence of potential form at the beginning of the developmental process is due to the antecedent existence of actual form. … Ultimately, it is actual form which is responsible for the generation of actual form. So in this sense the end was there at the beginning, establishing a process directed toward the end: actual form.”
This brings us to two more distinctions: form v. matter and actuality v. potentiality. These can be explained thus for a certain form F:
Form: that which makes some matter that is potentially F, actually F.
Matter: that which persists and which is for some Fs, potentially F.
So, I have matter and I have form. It is because of my actual form that I have certain potential. I am, for instance, cut out to be a philosopher. That potential to become a philosopher guides my development to become an actual philosopher. What is your potential, your final cause, your telos?