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Introduction to Aristotle: Knowledge and the Four Causes

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Introduction to Aristotle – The Four Causes

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle famously claimed that “all men by nature desire to know”. But what, according to Aristotle, does it mean to know something, and how do we arrive at knowledge of the world? The purpose of this video is to answer these questions and in the process we will provide a detailed examination of Aristotle’s famous doctrine of the four causes, paying particular attention to his teleological view of nature.

Aristotle, is without a doubt one of the most influential thinkers in history. His influence has been so great that he has been given prestigious nicknames such as ‘the master of those who know’,  ‘Aristotle the wise’,  ‘the first teacher’, and simply, ‘the philosopher’.

Aristotle made contributions to many fields, including logic, biology, epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, political theory, aesthetics, rhetoric and philosophy of mind. The huge body of his work, the duration of time that has passed since he lived and the fact that he is one of the most commented upon thinkers in history, makes the interpretation of even the most basic points of his thought controversial. This point should be kept in mind when studying Aristotle.

Aristotle was driven by a desire for knowledge, and believed that human beings, by virtue of having rationality, are animals that naturally desire explanations of things in the world. Throughout his life he constructed an edifice of thought laying out the requirements and processes necessary for the attainment of knowledge.

The first step in the acquisition of knowledge, according to Aristotle, is to identify the puzzles and difficulties that the various phenomena of the world present to us.

As he wrote:

‘…one should have surveyed all the difficulties beforehand because people who inquire without first stating the difficulties are like those who do not know where they have to go.’

Identifying a puzzle, whether it be in ethics, natural philosophy (science), or metaphysics, requires the use of the senses. Observation with the senses allows one to ‘state the appearances’ making us aware of the puzzles that require explanation while also providing us with the information our minds need to discover the potential solutions to these puzzles. It is important to stress that for Aristotle it is not merely sensory experience that leads to an understanding of the world, rather understanding arises from the activity of the mind working with the information form the senses.

In addition to stating the appearances, Aristotle also saw great value in examining what he called endoxa. Endoxa is a Greek word translated as “credible beliefs” or “reputable opinions”. A significant portion of the writings of Aristotle consist of him examining and critiquing the views of other philosophers such as Plato and the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

The appearances and endoxa were not the end point of Aristotle’s quest for knowledge, but only the beginning. As he wrote in Physics, in the quest for truth the natural process  “is to start from the things which are more knowable and obvious to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature.” In other words, while there is value in credible beliefs and appearances, ultimately the goal is to use these as starting points in one’s journey to knowledge of the world.

The question now arises as to how Aristotle determined when proper knowledge of something had been acquired or whether further investigation was required? For Aristotle a proper explanation needed to satisfy what has come to be called the four causal account of explanatory adequacy. This doctrine is one of the most famous, important, and powerful components of Aristotle’s philosophy, playing a significant role in much of his thought.

The first thing that should be emphasized concerning this doctrine is that a lot of confusion surrounding it comes from the use of the word cause, as the 20th century philosopher

John Lloyd Ackrill  explains:

“[The doctrine of the four causes] might better be called a doctrine of the four ‘becauses’: Aristotle is distinguishing different sorts of answers that can be given to the question ‘Why?’ or ‘Because of what?’. . . .therefore, remember that the four so-called ‘causes’ are types of explanatory factors. Aristotle’s suggestion is that a full knowledge and understanding of anything requires a grasp of all four.” [Aristotle the Philosopher]

So what are the four causes, or explanatory factors that Aristotle deemed necessary for proper knowledge of something?

The most basic of the four causes is called the material cause and simply requires an understanding of what something is made of, or as Aristotle put it “that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists”. In addition to identifying what something is made of,

Aristotle also believed that proper knowledge required one to identify the pattern, structure, or form that the matter realizes in becoming a determinate thing, and this is what Aristotle called the formal cause.

Next, is the efficient cause and this requires identification of the agent or entity responsible for the matter taking its specific, structure or form.

And lastly the final cause, is identified when one can state the purpose or function of the thing being explained, or as Aristotle put it “that for the sake of which a thing is done”.

In Aristotle’s work Physics, he uses the example of a statue to help explain the four causes and we will do the same using a bronze statue of Hercules. With this example the material cause, or that which the statue is made of, would be the bronze. The statue’s form, in this case the body of Hercules, would be the formal cause. The efficient cause of the statue, would be the sculptor, which is the agent responsible for the matter becoming what it is. To determine the final cause of the statute, one must identify its function, purpose, or more generally what the statue is for. In our example, the statue’s function could simply be to honor Hercules – so this would be its final cause. The ability to spell out these four causes, or explanatory factors of the statue, would, according to Aristotle, reveal that we have a full understanding of it.

Aristotle’s final cause, in particular, has proven very controversial to those who study Aristotle. In the case of artifacts, or man-made objects, such as an airplane, a musical instrument, or a  hammer, it is not too difficult to identify its purpose or final cause. This is because humans build artefacts with a purpose in mind – or in other words there is a designer that gives the artefact its final cause.

However, the controversy surrounding the final cause arises because Aristotle identified final causes not only in artifacts, but he also saw final causes as operative in nature. In other words he believed that natural organisms such as plants and animals, as well as their parts, such as the liver, teeth, lungs etc.., had final causes. This view is referred to as a teleological view of nature as  in Greek the word telos is translated as “end” or “purpose”.

While Aristotle’s teleological view of nature has proved problematic for modern scholars, too often people dismiss this view based not on what Aristotle himself wrote about it, but rather because of persistent misconceptions.

To dispel these misconceptions it is beneficial to contrast Aristotle’s teleological view with two other views on purposes in nature: namely the view that no purposes exist in nature at all, and the view that purposes exist in nature, but only where there is a designer. Aristotle’s view, differed from both those who deny purposes and those who only see purposes where there is a designer and is rather positioned somewhere in between these two extremes. Aristotle believed there to be purposes in nature, but explicitly denied that there was some divine craftsman who designed nature and gave natural objects their final cause in an analogous manner to how humans give artefacts final causes. As Aristotle wrote in Physics, “it is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe an agent deliberating.”

Or as the 19th century German scholar Eduard Zeller succinctly put it:

“The most important feature of the Aristotelian teleology is the fact that it is neither anthropocentric nor is it due to the actions of a creator existing outside the world or even a mere arranger of the world, but is always thought of as immanent in nature.”

But what does it mean for final causes to be immanent in nature? While there is no consensus opinion on exactly what Aristotle meant, a common suggestion is that to better understand Aristotle’s notion of final causes one must realize the intimate relation between the final and the formal cause. As Aristotle  wrote: ‘Since nature is twofold, as matter and as form, the form is the end, and since all other things are for the sake of the end, the form must be the cause in the sense of that for the sake of which’.

To understand this idea it is useful to note that Aristotle’s teleological view of nature was developed partially in response to the mechanistic view of nature developed by his predecessors, the Pre-Socratic atomists. A mechanistic worldview, which formed the basis of the scientific worldview of the 17th and 18th century, and remains prevalent to this day, posits the behavior of all physical phenomena, including living beings, to be reducible to the operation of elemental physical processes which are purposeless and accidental by nature – atoms interacting blindly in the void, as the Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus put it.

Aristotle’s teleological view of nature, in contrast, posits purposiveness and end-directed behavior to be intrinsic in nature and the entities that make up the world. Instead of grounding all behavior in the interaction of independent elemental processes that are purposeless by nature, as a mechanistic worldview does, Aristotle maintained that holistic phenomena can have causal effects on physical systems. This type of causation, where the whole determines the behavior of the parts, is Aristotle’s notion of the formal cause – the form being the whole, structure, or essence of what a thing is.

As Aristotle wrote:

“we must think that a discussion of nature is about the composition and the being as a whole, not about parts that can never occur in separation from the being they belong to” (Aristotle, Parts of Animals I; 645a).

Jonathan Lear in his book “Aristotle – The Desire to Understand” explains what Aristotle may have meant in terms of this connection between the formal and final causes. Keeping in mind that Aristotle believed there to be a real purposefulness in the world,  Lear wrote:

“. . .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. In natural generation, the potential form of the child is due to the actual form of (one of) the parents being passed on in sexual reproduction…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 defense of Aristotle’s teleology whereby the final and formal cause are seen as intimately related is not universally accepted, but it is certainly one of the more prominent interpretations.  Philosophers continue to debate the particulars of Aristotle’s teleology, however, what should be remembered is that Aristotle saw  final causes as operative in both the parts of organisms as well as the organism as a whole and that these  final causes were immanent in nature and  not the result of a divine craftsmen.

Interestingly, Aristotle’s teleological view is experiencing a quiet resurgence of late after being shunned for hundreds of years.  Most notably in the field of robotics, where some believe that the quest for autonomous robots capable of self-directed purposive action is unreachable when operating under a mechanistic worldview.

What has never been shunned, however, is Aristotle’s observation noted earlier that human beings by nature have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Going further than this relatively tame observation, Aristotle posited that the exercise of reason, along with being the most pleasant activity we can engage in, also gave one the potential to transcend their mortal existence, and come in contact with that which is divine. And we will conclude this lecture with a passage from Aristotle reflecting this view:

“. . .it is not insofar as he is man that he will live [a life of contemplation], but in so far as something divine is present in him. . . If intellect is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.” (Nicomachean Ethics)

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