Explain Aristotle’s Understanding of the Four Causes

Explain Aristotle’s understanding of the four causes. Unlike his teacher, Plato, Aristotle believed that the world could be explained by physical observation. This approach of using the five senses, cataloguing and categorising, is the foundation of scientific study. The approach is known as empiricism. Plato believed that we needed to look beyond the physical for an explanation of the universe in the guise of the World of Forms. Aristotle disagreed with this. Aristotle’s understanding of the four causes begins with the assumption that is present in all Greek philosophy, the notion of pre-existing matter.

He observed the world around him and noticed that it was in a state of constant motion, a movement from potentiality to actuality This movement from potentiality to actuality lead Aristotle to the conclusion that there are stages in causation. He called these the four causes: Material, Efficient, Formal and Final causes. He understood that each of the four causes was necessary to explain the change from potentiality to actuality. His first cause, the material, explained what the object or thing being described was made from. Aristotle used the example of a bronze sculpture and a silver saucer.

Bronze or silver in this case would be the material cause. However, objects can have more than one material cause. Take for example my laptop. It is made of wires, plastic, alloys and other materials. These things become the material cause of my laptop. His second cause was the efficient cause. To continue Aristotle’s sculpture idea this was the way in which the marble was moved from its state of potentiality to becoming the actual marble statue. A chisel, hammer and sculptor primarily but also a cloth or water perhaps in order to change the material into the shape required.

My laptop’s efficient cause may vary from machines and people to plastic moulds and screwdrivers. The third cause takes the formal shape of the object or what the object actually looks like, for example the shape of the object, the colour, the weight, the density of the object. For example the formal cause of my laptop is a rectangular shape, quite heavy, grey and silver, and has a screen and a keyboard. Lastly in terms of his understanding of causation, the final cause of a thing or object was its purpose (telos).

The purpose of the statue is aesthetic in that it is admired; the purpose of my laptop is to help me do my work well. Aristotle uses the example of health being the cause of walking, ‘Why does one walk? ‘ he asks, ‘that one may be healthy’. This is perhaps the most important of all the causes. Yet his understanding does not end here. Once something has achieved a state of actuality it is also in a state of potentiality. In this sense we can see that Aristotle saw that the universe was moving constantly between ‘potentiality’ to ‘actuality’ back to ‘potentiality’ once again.

This idea required Aristotle to explain things further still because in order for this theory to work it must explain everything in the universe, including the universe itself. It is the Prime Mover that finishes Aristotle’s understanding of the four causes. The Prime Mover becomes the efficient and final causes of the universe. Its ‘action’ in the universe is passive. It exists in a state of ‘pure actuality’ incapable of change, only contemplating its own existence. This is Aristotle’s god. Things are attracted towards the perfection found within its ‘pure actuality’.

This is why the Prime Mover is known as the great attractor. Objects that move from potentiality to actuality fulfil their purpose because their change is brought about through the existence of the Prime Mover. This is how Aristotle explained the final cause of the universe as objects in the universe moved towards their actuality. To conclude, Aristotle understood the four causes as a movement from potentiality to actuality. This movement through material, formal, efficient and final causes was ultimately brought about by the Prime Mover.

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