Aristotle saw philosophy as “a science which investigates being as being” (Metaphysics Book IV, Part I), meaning that it is concerned with understanding what it means for things to exist rather than how particular things exist, which is the role of the “special sciences”. So, if philosophical “knowledge is the object of our inquiry” (Physics Book II, Part III) then we “must proceed to consider causes, their character and number.” Aristotle set out four types of causes which all things have, namely material causes “that out of which a thing comes to be and persists… e.g. the bronze of a statue”, the formal cause “the form or the archetype, the statement of the essence”, the efficient causes or “the primary source of the change or of coming to rest” and the final cause, “that for the sake of which a thing is done”, sometimes called the telos of the thing. Aristotle’s theory of causation has been enormously influential, giving rise to natural law and virtue ethics on one hand and to the cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence and the Catholic concept of God on the other. Nevertheless, and despite this, Aristotle’s four causes fail to explain “being as being”.
Firstly, Aristotle’s focus on material and efficient causation as important aspects of what makes something what it is has led to a naïve scientific materialism becoming the dominant world-view today. Although the material causes of an object are often incidental and secondary, meaning that an object can be made out of many different materials while still being that object, Aristotle’s focus on the senses as the primary source of knowledge led those influenced by Aristotle to focus on sense-experience and downplay the role that reason has in processing it. Although Aristotle himself acknowledged the important role that reason plays in enabling us to access knowledge and even warned that “if only the sensible exists there would be nothing if animate things were not, for there would be no faculty of sense…” (Metaphysics, Book V, Part V) this did little to stop the slide towards materialism and beyond into reductionism, the scientific tendency to reduce complex things and explain them only in terms of their physical parts. In this way, logical positivists Moritz Schlick and AJ Ayer argued that the only possible knowledge is based on sense-data and that any claim that is unverifiable (or not a tautology and logically necessary) is “meaningless” – claiming that claims about beauty, morality and religion are just expressions of personal feeling and emotion and without content beyond that. Further, Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” described human beings as “survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” This sort of naïve materialism and reductionism, myopically focused on the five empirical senses, has been criticised by Thomas Nagel and John Polkinghorne for being an artificially narrow view of human experience and leading scientists to ignore other possible sources of knowledge and understanding about our universe. In this way, Aristotle’s four causes and particularly his focus on material and efficient causation, fails to explain “being as being”.
Secondly, like Plato Aristotle argued that things exist by participating in a formal cause – although unlike Plato, Aristotle did not see the formal cause as “real” or having any independent existence. The idea that there is a formal cause or archetype for everything, including for human beings, has had an overwhelmingly negative effect on women. In his “Generation of Animals” Book IV, Aristotle argued that the formal cause of the human being is male, reasoning that females are defective males. Despite the fact that science has since shown Aristotle’s observations to be mistaken and his reasoning faulty, it went on to influence scientists and wider society to the present day. In 2020 the feminist writer Caroline Criado Perez published “Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men”, providing hundreds of horrifying ways in which women are still disadvantaged by Aristotle’s assumption that there is a single “formal cause” or archetype for humanity, which is male. The fact that Aristotle relied on limited observations and went on to misinterpret his observations in line with the dominant misogynistic prejudices of his day points to two other weaknesses in Aristotle’s approach. Firstly, seeking knowledge through sense-experience means that knowledge is based on necessarily limited and ever-changing data. Secondly, that sense-experience is subjective and subject to confirmation-bias and to being interpreted within a paradigm. By contrast, Plato’s focus on rational reflection as the primary source of knowledge means that the limitations of our senses and the tiny slice through time and space that is available for them to experience don’t matter. Also, Plato’s focus on reason means that there is more incentive to examine our prejudices and paradigm than there is when we are using reason only to interpret observations. In this way as well, Aristotle’s four causes and particularly his understanding of the formal cause fails to explain “being as being”.
Thirdly, Aristotle argued that all things have a “final cause” or telos, which they tend to fulfil, flourishing. This includes human beings and indeed the universe as a whole. Aristotle’s teleological world-view and his concept of the final cause is flawed because it is a product of how we as human beings tend and want to see things, rather than how they really are. The existentialist Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre argued that the whole idea that the universe is efficient and tends towards flourishing is wrong. In his novel “Nausea” he reflected on a chestnut tree root, writing “absurd, irreducible, nothing – not even a profound and secret delirium of nature – could explain it…” Reality is, for Sartre, fundamentally chaotic. We gloss over reality with a fairy-story of order, purpose, efficiency and flourishing, in order to cope with the aimless, random and meaningless chaos of existence. Sartre rejected Aristotelian ethics, arguing that “all human activities are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure.” While we may not agree with Sartre’s bleak vision of human existence, his argument shows that Aristotle’s teleological world-view is not entirely consistent with human experience and particularly with the prevalence of suffering in the natural world. Further, Sartre raises a legitimate question over whether the final cause might not be a human projection rather than a property of existence. If the final cause of a chair is to be sat on, it is fair to say that the designer of the chair – a human mind – allocates the final cause. Why could not the same be true of the final cause of an animal, or of human beings? If this is indeed the case, there is little basis for Aristotelian Ethics (Natural Law and Virtue Ethics) or for Aristotelian arguments for God’s existence, such as the cosmological and teleological arguments. In this way also, Aristotle’s four causes and particularly his understanding of the final cause fails to explain “being as being”.
Of course, Aristotle’s four causes remain influential and reflecting on them remains an important part of investigating “being as being”. Certainly, Aristotle’s widening of philosophy to investigate the material and efficient causes of things as well as their formal cause, had positive effects on philosophy as well as negative effects. His focus on observations inspired generations of scientists to document the natural world and to investigate the laws by which it operates. Of course, Aristotle never intended his work to inspire the descent into naïve scientific materialism and reductionism and didn’t appreciate the unfounded and potentially damaging nature of his work in his “Generation of Animals”. Nevertheless, this question doesn’t ask for an assessment of Aristotle’s contribution to Philosophy as a whole, but only for an assessment of his four causes and, as this essay has shown, a focus on the four causes that Aristotle identified, as he understood them, has led to an artificially narrow, misogynistic and unrealistically optimistic world-view, while also leaving unanswered questions. How can material causes contribute to being while being interchangeable? How can everything have efficient causes while the universe does not – either because it is infinite or because there is no time and space or possible causation before it? Might not the formal and final causes be a product of how we see things rather than how they really are? In this way as well, Aristotle’s four causes fail to explain being as being”.
In conclusion, Aristotle’s four causes fail to explain “being as being”. This is because they are not fully supported by experience and/or might more be a function of how we understand being than a function of being itself. In consequence, philosophers must continue to “investigate being as being” by examining the causes of things anew rather than relying on Aristotle’s 2500 year old categorization of causes.