Aristotle’s Four Causes


Hello I’m Dr. Anadale and I teach
philosophy at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In
this video I will summarize some basic elements of Aristotle’s natural
philosophy dealing with the four causes. For reference take a look at Aristotle’s
Physics, book two, chapters one through eight. Now the Greek word *physis* means
“nature.” This is the main topic of Aristotle’s work Physics. Literally then
his physics is his theory of nature, what we would today call science. The key
question for Aristotle looking at nature is: why is a is a thing the way it is?
What makes it be what it is? What is the explanation for why it does what it does?
Aristotle says we answer this why question in four different ways.
These answers are traditionally called the four causes. We can call them the
four explanations or the four ways of answering the question ‘why’ about a thing.
So to take them in order: the first one is the material cause, that out of which
a thing comes to be, for example the marble or bronze of a statue or the wool
or acrylic of a sweater. If someone asks “Why is this statue heavy?”
we answer “Because it’s made of marble.” Our answer to this ‘why’ question appeals
to the to the thing’s material cause. So that’s one way of answering ‘why.’ Second,
the formal cause: the definition of the essence of a thing. So for example the
definition of a circle is a set of points in a plane equidistant from a
given point. The definition of a human being is a rational animal. If someone
asks us “why is a circle round?” we would answer “Because of its definition,” that’s
just the shape that a set of points equidistant from a given point has. If
someone asks us “why do dogs chase cars?” we would answer “Because dogs are
predators and it’s built into their essence to chase moving things,” that’s
just what dogs do because of their nature as dogs, of their identity. So we
answer these why questions by appealing to a thing’s formal cause. Third, the
efficient cause of a thing, the primary source of change or rest. This is the
mover or the maker of a thing. So for example the parent is the cause of the
child, the one who brings it into existence. The builder is the cause of
the building. If someone asks us “why is this building here?” we would say “Because
the builders and the architect and the planners put it there.” Why did the last
domino fall? Because someone pushed the first domino.
Note that the efficient cause is the only one of the causes that is
explicitly temporal, it exists in time, it gives us the sequence of events that
leads up to the thing or event that we are trying to explain. It’s also, the
efficient cause, the one of the four causes that modern science focuses on
almost exclusively. So the fourth cause is the final cause, that for the sake of
which something is done. This is the thing’s purpose or its goal. So for
example I walk to stay healthy, so health is the cause of my walking. Learning or
getting a degree is the cause of studying. If someone asks you “Why are you
studying your notes?” you might answer, “In order to pass the test,” or more
accurately “In order to learn about the material being tested and then be able
to pass the test.” Now of these four causes Aristotle thinks that the most
important is the second one, the formal cause or essence. In fact he thinks that
the third and fourth causes, the efficient and final causes, really flow
from the formal cause. The form or essence of something determines
everything that is true about it. So to give you an illustration of this let me
take the example of a farmer. Let us think about this: Why does a farmer farm?
We could answer this question in terms of the efficient cause: we could say
“Because he steers the plow and that’s what farming is.” In other words the
farmer is the source of the motion or change that constitutes the activity of
farming. Now this answer is correct but it’s not fully satisfying. We don’t
really feel like we understand the *why* of the farmer’s activity of farming
simply by being told that he’s the one who steers the tractor, he’s the one who
physically moves the plow. We want something more than that.
It’s as though somebody were to say, when I say “Why have you come here?” and they
would say “Well, because I placed my feet in front of each other in sequence and
the friction with the floor propelled me forward.” It’s accurate but it’s not a
full story of what we want when we ask why. We’re asking for something more than
that. So we could also answer the question about the farmer in terms of
the final cause: we could say “Because he wants to harvest crops to sell at the
market to get money to provide for his needs and wants.”
This gives the purpose toward which the farming activity is directed and that
gives us something more of what we want, but both of these explanations,
Aristotle would say, of farming rest on the more fundamental fact that the
farmer *is a farmer* which means that by his very essence or definition he
engages in the activity of farming. It’s what he does, it flows somehow from
his identity or his nature as a farmer. From his identity as a farmer flows his
purposeful action in steering the plow, planning the harvest, buying and selling,
etc. So in this video I’ve given you a brief introduction to the four causes of
Aristotle and I’ve talked a bit about how Aristotle sees really the formal
cause as the governing cause of the thing from which would flow then it’s
efficient and final causes. There’s much more to say about the four causes. We’ll
talk about it some more later. Thanks for watching today; goodbye.

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