[1.3.4] Aristotle on Causality, Potentiality, Actuality, Teleology

Aristotle (384-322 BC) in Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2, offers a general account of the method of the four causes. This knowledge-generating method applies to everything that requires an explanation by answering four questions regarding the matter, form, mean, and goal of an object.

  • By answering, finding out the answers to the four questions, we define the four causes of the object: material, efficient, final, and formal causes.
  • The four causes are essential elements of our knowledge regarding the analyzed object.
  • The final cause has explanatory priority over the other three causes (teleology)
  • The method of four causes includes the elements of the hylomorphism (see [1.3.5])

Aristotle’s model of knowledge of the four causes presented in the following OntoUML diagram:

ClassDescriptionRelations
ObjectA material object.
Potentiality“A Potential State (dunamis) is the of an object capacity to be in a different and more completed state…” (Cohen, Mark, Reeve)
e.g: a piece of bronze, casted into a statue or into a bowl. In Aristotle’s terminology, the piece of bronze has (at least) two different potentialities, since it is potentially a statue and also potentially a bowl.
relates Object with Matter(a)
ActualityActuality translates both energeia an entelecheia, and ‘actuality’ means just that area of overlap between being-at-work and being-at-an-end which expresses what it means to be something determinate. The words energeia and entelecheia have very different meanings, but function as synonyms because the world is such that things have identities, belong to species, act for ends, and form material into enduring organized wholes.” (Sachs)relates Object with Form(a)
Matter(a)Matter of the objectcontained by Object; is MaterialCause
MeanMean by which the object was createdcreates Object; is Efficient cause
GoalGoal of the objectcharacterizes Object; is Final cause
Form(a)Form of the objectcharacterizes Object; is Formal cause
MaterialCause“The material cause: ‘that out of which’, e.g., the bronze of a statue. […]
The bronze enters in the explanation of the production of the statue as the material cause. Note that the bronze is not only the material out of which the statue is made; it is also the subject of change, that is, the thing that undergoes the change and results in a statue. The bronze is melted and poured in order to acquire a new shape, the shape of the statue.” (Falcon)
subkind of Cause
EfficientCause“The efficient cause: ‘the primary source of the change or rest’, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child. […]
However, an adequate explanation of the production of a statue requires also a reference to the efficient cause or the principle that produces the statue. For Aristotle, this principle is the art of bronze-casting the statue (Phys. 195 a 6–8. Cf. Metaph. 1013 b 6–9).” (Falcon)
subkind of Cause
FinalCauseThe final cause: ‘the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done’, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools. […]
A model is made for producing the statue. A mold is prepared for producing the statue. The bronze is melted and poured for producing the statue. Both the prior and the subsequent stage are for the sake of a certain end, the production of the statue. Clearly, the statue enters in the explanation of each step of the artistic production as the final cause or that for the sake of which everything in the production process is done.
subkind of Cause
FormalCauseFormal cause, or the expression of what it is”, e.g., the shape of a statue. […]
The bronze is melted and poured in order to acquire a new shape, the shape of the statue. This shape enters in the explanation of the production of the statue as the formal cause.” (Falcon)
subkind of Cause
Cause“Aristotle places the following crucial condition on proper knowledge: we think we have knowledge of a thing only when we have grasped its cause (aitia).” (Falcon)exclusive part of Knowledge (ofObject)
Knowledge (OfObject)“Aristotle places the following crucial condition on proper knowledge [of object]: we think we have knowledge of a thing only when we have grasped its cause (aitia). That proper knowledge is knowledge of the cause is repeated in the Physics: we think we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause” (Falcon)

First published: 28/03/2019
Updated: 09/04/2019: Added Mean and End
Updated: 21/04/2019: Added Knowledge
Updated: 21/12/2020

15 thoughts on “[1.3.4] Aristotle on Causality, Potentiality, Actuality, Teleology

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