Aristotle and Cause


Aristotle may have been a pupil of Plato but he didn’t always agree with his master’s philosophical ideas. It is sometimes helpful to think of Aristotle as more of a scientist than a pure thinker. For example we have said that Plato was a RATIONALIST

Aristotle employed observation, logic and reason in order to make statements about reality.

When talking about objects that can be seen in the world like motor cars, Aristotle would have used 3 terms to describe them

FORM                      Old Banger


MATTER               Metal and wood and wheels and engine bits etc

The idea of Form is fairly obvious. The Form describes the object that can be perceived with the senses.

The substance is more difficult. It describes the basic idea rather than the specific object.

So “old banger” or “posh limo” or “electric” cars would all share the same definitions as automobiles!

The idea of Matter is not easy but it describes the bits from which cars are made.

What interested Aristotle even more was why things are the size and shape that they are. Indeed why are they there at all?
Small children ask lots of “why” questions.

So too did Aristotle


He decided that the explanation about things could be seen in FOUR different ways.

Let’s talk about a statue for example

First there was the MATERIAL CAUSE

This concerned itself with the materials used in making the statue – stone usually.


This described how the statue was made. It may cover the tools used and even the chap doing the job.

Third was the FORMAL CAUSE

If there was some sort of a plan, blue print or pattern being used this would consititute the formal cause. Today it might even refer to the mould used in mass production.

The fourth was the FINAL CAUSE

Here Aristotle was concerned with the purpose of the statue. What it was made to do. What was its place in the order of things.

For Aristotle then the essence of an object was not just its material component parts or its particular shape or its characteristics; it also had a purpose, a function to perform – what purpose does it serve, why is it here at all?

Aristotle thought the final cause was the most important. When its final purpose is realized, it gives the whole thing full perfection and reality. He thought the purpose of the object was part of the object itself and not something we choose to impose on it.

He thought all the different elements in nature have a purpose – nothing is superfluous. We might not know what a snail is for, but it still has its own intrinsic purpose.

To what extent do people hold this view of nature today?

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