Aristotle’s Four Causes

Aristotle wanted to ask ‘what causes something to be what it is, to have the characteristics that it has, or to change in the way that it does?’ This sort of questioning is often found in small children. Sometimes they go through a phase of asking ‘why?’ about anything and everything. Perhaps small children are the best philosopher

For each answer they are given, they want to know the reason for this answer, and the cause of something can be traced back, showing not just one reason but a whole chain, going from the immediate to a final ‘because it just is’, or ‘because I say so’ or ‘because it’s just made that way’.

Aristotle thought about this; he concluded that the explanation of things could be seen in the four different ways, at four different levels: the four causes. ‘Causes’ is the best translation we have of the word he used – ‘aition’ (Gk – aition – meaning cause or fault) , which is a responsible, explanatory factor.

Aristotle’s four causes can be summarised:

  1. Material cause – what is something made of?
  2. Efficient cause – what brings something about?
  3. Formal cause – what characteristics does an object have?
  4. Final cause – what is the reason for something’s existence?

For Aristotle the essence of an object was not just its material component parts, or its particular shape or characteristics; it also had a purpose, a function to perform.

When Aristotle looked at the world about him he not only asked questions such as what is such and such made of, or how can it be classified but also what is its purpose.

The fourth, final cause is the most important, and which in Aristotle’s view gives the best explanation of an object. The final end, or purpose, or ‘teleology’ of a thing, when realised, gives that thing its full perfection and reality.

When something is doing what it was meant to do, or has developed into whatever it was supposed to develop into, it has achieved goodness. The purpose of an object, for Aristotle, is part if the object itself, and not something which we might choose to impose on it – it is intrinsic.

All the different elements of nature have a purpose, according to Aristotle, and nothing is superfluous. We might not know what a slug is for but nevertheless it still has its own intrinsic purpose. But that is not all; the universe as a whole has a purpose too.

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