Home > philosophy > Formal Cause (Metaphysics book Zeta: 17, and book Eta)

Formal Cause (Metaphysics book Zeta: 17, and book Eta)

We took a couple of weeks off from doing this because I was on Spring Break, but it really isn’t a break in Graduate school.

Perhaps the most interesting idea that came out of the group of Philosophers known as “The Pre-Socratics” (they lived before Socrates) was that of Democritus and lesser known Leucippus. the two postulated that only two things existed: matter and void. This is a stark break from my other favorite of this group, Parmenides, who said that void cannot exist because that would mean that what is not, is and this would be impossible. Yet the “Atomists” as they are called, broke away from the dominating theory of monism (that the world is full and singular) saying that the void did exist, it had to, and that within the void were small unbreakable particles (“atomon” in Greek) that joined together to create larger objects based on shape, arrangement, and position. What’s even more important is that these two are essentially correct, all matter is made up of particles. It is only through a lack of realization that we call atoms “atoms” even though there exist even smaller and more elementary particles. Yet the labelling doesn’t matter so much as the implication of it. Today we discuss labelling, formal cause, and Aristotle’s possible addition to the theory of Democritus which has the implication that the “master of those who know” (according to Italian Poet Dante Alligheri) agreed with him.

Formal Cause

We are continuing on into the nature of substance, but instead of discussing the ‘what’ of substance in the familiar method we are getting a bit more of the ‘why’ substance is, at all. Substance is beginning to take a particular role in Aristotle’s thought as being not only the underlying of all things but also the cause of a thing being in the first place.[1] In order to continue on this road Aristotle must first establish the existence of substance, which he has done successfully throughout book Zeta of the Metaphysics, for only once this is done that we are able then to ask “why” something is rather than is not.[2]

            If we assume that Aristotle is correct with the existence of substance we can then move toward the existence of objects, and why they exist. Simple objects, being self-evident are not worth Aristotle’s time nor effort,[3] while compound objects present more of a challenge. Compound objects are those objects that are made up of two or more elements, but then also something else. That something else is what Aristotle labels “cause,” the cause brings the two elements together as being one thing. If the cause were a thing inside the compound object we would be left with an infinite regression where AB=A + B +(c)+… with C being the mysterious other object. Therefore cause-itself is actually the “+” in the above example.[4] I’m skeptical of this claim as it doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. Why must we assume that a compound object, such as a “red metal triangle” has something in it other than the three elements that need to tie it together?

            The “+” for the A and B is a misplaced term, because even simple objects need to be explained as coming into being. As has been said earlier simple objects are those that do not need to be explained as existing but they do need to be explained as coming to being if we are to understand the substance of any thing.[5] This is further illustrated in another one of Aristotle’s appeals to the definition mongers with the example of the house. If we define a house by its material we are only explaining a potential house, if we do so by its cause (i.e. the building) we are defining it as an actual house, but a combination of the two gives us the substance of the house for it is this that combines both the matter and the form.[6] The house, as a compound object, clearly illustrates the need for a coming-into-being but in simple things it seems that we still need the explanation, for how does a triangle come into being? Unless it is that simple objects are only intelligible and have no matter.[7]

            Aristotle also goes into a discussion of Democritus’ three kinds of differences as being insufficient. Given Democritus’ theory that all things are composed of small unbreakable particles (atomon) the underlying composition of all things would be the same, they are different in one or more of the following: shape, position, or order.[8] Aristotle wishes to add more to this, seemingly accepting Democritus’ theory, mode of composition, position, time, place, and “others by the affections proper to sensible things” e.g. hardness and softness; density or rarity.[9]

            While these additions are appropriate to differences in things they do not appear to be essential differences but rather accidental differences. Furthermore none of the additions are independent but they are all relative. Hardness, for example, is only construed with regard to another object that is softer than the first as in the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. Place and time are also relative to subjective influences and if changed in an object do not necessarily alter the object but possibly only alter a label we place on the object. Aristotle’s use of meals is apropos for this: I can eat the same thing in the morning as at the evening but only because of time do I label it differently. The label is merely a convention but I do not believe it to be an essential difference. Coyotes and Dingos are closely related but do we consider their chief difference in species to be where they live or by the Democritean order of their parts? It must be the latter rather than the former.


[1] 1041b6-7

[2] 1041a14-16

[3] 1041b9-11

[4] 1041b19-32

[5] 1043a3

[6] 1043a14-21

[7] 1044b5-15

[8] 1042b12-14

[9] 1042b14-24

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