Sunday, November 1, 2009

Aristotle's Four Causes

Aristotle, in his Physics, describes the causes of a form, the factors responsible for the form of an object. In order to know a thing, four questions must be asked of it:
What is it made from? (material cause);
What is its form or essence? (formal cause);
What produced it? (efficient cause);
For what purpose? (final cause).
This thesis (or perhaps doctrine) can be stretched (often metaphorically) to apply itself to complex states, organizations, ways of being, but it is most at home when it is used in the discussion of biological objects and artifacts. Even then, because the boundaries between animate and inanimate things are blurred in an epistemology that sees all things in a dynamic state, a state of change (even intrinsically alive) the causes are not formulaic. 
(ie. keep reading!)

Plato tried to resolve the problem of a changing world by postulating that, “behind” or “inside” every (imperfect) thing (no matter what that thing) there was an essentially pure idealization of the thing, a static, enduring essence. Aristotle, on the other hand, worked to describe that dynamic world without resort to a parallel, perfect, one. Aristotle questioned the causes of changes in order to understand the nature of things in a dynamic world: What is responsible for this change? What brought this thing into being? What will take it away? Matter takes on, or looses, form. This is change, change comes about causally. Aristotle saw a dense, perhaps endless web of causality, and sought the means to describe it, by describing the causal relationships among the objects, large or small, from which the world is made.

Material cause: “that from which, (as a constituent) present in it, a thing comes to be … e.g., the bronze and silver, and their genera, are causes of the statue and the bowl.”
Formal cause: “the form, i.e., the pattern … the form is the account of the essence … and the parts of the account.”

Efficient cause: “the source of the primary principle of change or stability,” e.g., the man who gives advice, the father (of the child). “The producer is a cause of the product, and the initiator of the change is a cause of what is changed.”

Final cause: “something’s end (telos)—i.e., what it is for—is its cause, as health is (the cause) of walking.”
Of all of these, it could be said that Aristotle set purpose, the final cause as the pre-eminent cause for change, the first of the four causes to give an object form. In this exercise, use Aristotle’s causes as a framework to consider the factor you have chosen.

(an additional excerpt from Physics (Book II, Part 3) is included in the Assignment 3 Supplement - reading it carefully will help you better understand Aristotle's Four Causes and apply them effectively to this assignment)

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