39 - Form and Function: Aristotle's Four Causes

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Aristotle's Physics presents four types of cause: formal, material, final and efficient. Peter looks at all four, and asks whether evolutionary theory undermines final causes in nature.



Further Reading

• J. Annas, “Aristotle on Inefficient Causes,” Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982), reprinted in T. Irwin (ed.), Aristotle: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Natural Philosophy (New York: 1995).

• D. Charles, “Aristotle on Hypothetical Necessity and Irreducibility,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 69 (1988).

• C.A. Freeland, “Accidental Causes and Real Explanations,” and J.M. Moravcsik, “What Makes Reality Intelligible? Reflections on Aristotle’s Theory of Aitia,” in L. Judson (ed.), Aristotle’s Physics: a Collection of Essays (Oxford: 1991).

• S.S. Meyer, “Aristotle, Teleology and Reduction,” Philosophical Review 101 (1992).

• D. Sedley, “Is Aristotle’s Teleology Anthropocentric?” Phronesis 36 (1991).


Andrew Smith on 2 March 2022

Aristotle's Causes Seem to Apply More to Things Than to Events

In 20th-century metaphysics, when we discuss causation, it is often in regard to events.

By contrast, Aristotle seems to address his concept of causation toward things.

Compare: "What caused the volcano eruption?" or "What is the cause of lava?"

Compare: "What caused the vehicle to crash?" or "What is the cause of the wrecked vehicle?"

Is this a difference of merely surface grammar? Or is there a deeper difference?

Compare: "Why is that rock there?" or "What is the cause of that rock?"

In reply to by Andrew Smith

Peter Adamson on 3 March 2022

Four causes

Yes though I would say that the four causes are explanations of both things and events, since Aristotle would use this scheme also to explain things like the fighting of a war or a recovery from an illness.

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