Aristotle’s Concept of Cause

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  • Created by: Agata
  • Created on: 05-03-14 12:52


Unlike Plato, Aristotle did not believe there are two separate realms. He believed the world we live in is the only place in which we can have true knowledge, because it is through our sense experience that we come to understand things.

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Aristotle believed that ‘form’ was not an ideal, but found within the item itself. The form is its structure and characteristics and can be perceived using the senses.

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The material of which things are made

Form of a table: It has four legs and a flat surface

Substance of a table: wood, nails and glue

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Aristotle also used the term matter to define the stuff of which something is made:

A chair’s matter is wood, and its form is the structure of the chair itself

Prime Matter refers to anything that lacks a well defined form – not organised in any particular structure. It has matter but no form

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For Aristotle, God is the only thing that has form without matter

Small children often go through a phase of asking ‘why’ about everything. They demand a reason for each answer given, leading to a chain of reasons starting from the immediate response and ending with the final response – ‘because it just is.’

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The explanation of things can be seen in four different ways, at four different levels.

  • I. Material Cause – What the object is made of. The material cause of a statue would be gold or bronze, for a chair it would be wood. Material is not enough on its own to make the object what it is – we cannot understand a great painting just by knowing the colored paints and canvas used.It asks the question: What is it made of?
  • II. Efficient Cause – The agent that brings something about. In the case of a statue the act of chiseling is the efficient cause.
  • It asks the question: How did it happen?
  • III. Formal Cause – The characteristics of the object. The person or mythical beast that the statue resembles. The statue is not just a lump of marble someone is chiseling away at.
  • It asks the question: What are its characteristics?
  • IV. Final Cause – The reason for its existence. This is the most important aspect of Aristotle’s thinking. The final cause of a statue is the desire of the sculptor to make a decorative or commemorative beautiful object. It asks the question: What is it for?
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Teleology is concerned with the final end or purpose of something. The ‘telos’ of an object is part of the object itself, it is intrinsic.

For Aristotle, everything in the universe has a purpose; just as the universe as a whole has a purpose

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Something is good if it achieves its end purpose, and its telos defines its good. Aristotle said that if it were possible to discover the telos of an organism, it would be possible to determine what needs to be done to reach that end.

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