Aristotle: The Four Causes and Nietzsche’s Rejoinder – Aoriston

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Friedrich Nietzsche in a short chapter called The Four Great Errors draws his title from two classical sources: 1) Aristotle and his theory of the four causes and 2) the Buddhist conception of the four noble truths. But Nietzsche, I think, offers a more direct critique of Aristotle on the four causes. This post will function as an ancillary to that post and will provide key backdrop that the reader must attend to in order to grasp the Nietzschean critique of causality. So, this is a detour from Nietzsche with a view to understanding Nietzsche slightly better.

Caveat lector: this post is less entertaining than I prefer. Aristotle’s prose is difficult, analytic, and dry. Yet, as difficult and challenging as it is, an understanding of Aristotle and the exercise it takes is, I think, an unparalleled form of intellectual conditioning.

What are the four causes for Aristotle? Luckily, he tells us straight away at Physica B.3—a set of definitions that he re-emphasizes at Metaphysica Δ.2. After I provide a sketch of the four causes I shall turn to an analysis of final cause in a way that points to the Nietzschean critique of religious views of final causality.

  1. Material cause: the from-out-of-which-inhering-part-something-comes-into-being. (τὸ ἐξ οὗ γίγνεταί τι ἐνυπάρχοντος. Phys. B.3, 194b24.) Aristotle provides two examples: first, the marble out of which a statue is sculptured or the letters that comprise a syllable. The ‘matter’ of a thing in this sense is a constitutive part of some unified object; it is often a material or set of materials, but not always.
  2. Formal cause: ‘The form and the example, the formula of a thing’s being what it is—both the kinds of that thing and the parts in the formula.’ (τὸ εἶδος καὶ τὸ παράδειγμα, τοῦτο δ᾽ ἐστὶν ὁ λόγος ὁ τοῦ τί ἦν εἶναι καὶ τὰ τούτου γένη… καὶ τὰ μέρη τὰ ἐν τῷ λόγῳ. Phys. B.3, 194b26-29.) The formal cause will differ between different kinds of production, e.g., a statue or a human being. Simplicius of Cilicia—the last great pagan philosopher of antiquity—clarifies that in natural things the formal cause inheres in the material object. This distinguishes Aristotelian ‘forms’ from the Platonic and renders them, among biological life, similar to the genetic information that determines the way in which the biological organisms come into being. The logical definition, the λόγος of a thing’s being what it was, explicates the dimensions of the thing insofar as it is of a certain kind. The human body follows a certain pattern because of the account of a thing’s essence. Much like modern biology, Aristotle thought that bodies contain information—that human beings can interrogate by the tools of logic and science, but that are not in themselves reducible to those tools—that determine the shape or kind into which those bodies grow. A human body grows ten fingers (usually) because it’s human—today, Aristotle might say something like “A human being is the kind of thing that usually has fingers—and ten of them.” A biologist might further elaborate this genetic description by pointing to a certain set of DNA molecules that determine how the body grows from birth.
  3. Efficient cause: ‘The primary source of change or stasis.’ (ἡ ἀρχή τῆς μεταβολῆς ἡ πρώτη ἤ τῆς ἠρεμήσεως. Phys. B.3. 194b29-30.) The producer of a change is distinct from the product. Aristotle offers the example of a person who develops a plan as the efficient cause of the plan once it’s executed; also, the parents (for Aristotle, the father) that produce a child.
  4. Final Cause: ‘…the end: that is the for-the-sake-of-which.’ (τὸ τέλος· τοῦτο δ᾽ἐστὶν τὸ οὗ ἕνεκα. Arist. Phys. B.3 194b32-3). The final cause answers the question: why perform some action? Aristotle provides the example of exercise: why do it? Because it aids my health. Once I have a scientific conception of health, however robust or simple, whatever I do for the sake of being healthy takes ‘being-healthy’ as its final cause. I might do such various activities as eat probiotic foods, start jogging, and meditate every morning, but each of these ostensibly has ‘being-healthy’ as a final cause.

Now, this is an admittedly sketchy view. Academics spend careers attempting to be more specific about what each of these terms and the terms that Aristotle uses to define these terms might mean. But that kind of work is not my object here.

Aristotle, I think, was amazed at the apparent connection between the randomness of the formal cause and the final causes that drive biotic life. He notes that the weather, for instance, is random in relation to human needs. But the body itself seemed to him designed precisely for the sake of fulfilling its highest ends. He takes the example of teeth:

What is wrong with the idea that the front teeth necessarily come through sharp and suitable for biting, and the back teeth flat and good for crushing food? Why should there be purpose behind this? Why should it not just be an accident? …the things mentioned turn out as they do either always or usually, and so does every other natural object, whereas no chance or spontaneous event does…[things like teeth are natural things… so i]t follows that purposes are to be found in natural events and natural objects. (Arist. Phys. B.8 199b23-199a7)

This is sort of a mind-blowing argument. For Aristotle, animal bodies are pre-adaptive to their environments. That connection between the form of the animal (its genetics) and the environment in which it lives consists is too strong not to point to a final cause that inheres in biological organisms. There is a sort of natural and biological intelligence—distinct from human consciousness—that governs the formal essence of a thing the determines its material being. For Aristotle, the features of the biological body are too useful to be reduced to randomness.

Charles Darwin developed this perspective with considerable acuity. The SEP entry on Darwinism has a nice list of causal links that I won’t reproduce here. But Darwin very basically thought that random mutations among individuals came to express themselves among larger populations through ‘natural selection’. Though Darwin receives credit for having repudiated Aristotelian final causality, the theory of natural selection seems entirely to entail that ‘favorable variations’ will lead to a sort of biological progressivism where the species just gets better and better. On the one hand, it is far from the case that Aristotelian science could not account for genetic differences among members of the same species—i.e., an inherent flexibility in human genetic instructions. On the other hand, that progressivism entails that only the good genes get passed on. Nietzsche criticizes Darwinian natural selection by levying the argument that ‘bad genes’—decadent, disordered, resentful, petty—have come to dominate the reproductive marketplace.

When I compare my picture of Nietzsche’s critique of causality to the Aristotelian framework of causes, I am almost overwhelmed at the possibilities for comparison. Nietzsche seems roughly to agree with Aristotelian intuitions on the errors of ‘confusing cause and effect’ and of ‘false causation’, because I read Aristotle a) as adhering to a constitutive naturalism that sees the body itself as the cause of states like eudaimonia and b) as positing nothing like the Kantian ‘responsibilist’ egoism, but more a Sophoclean picture—the side of Sophocles in Oedipus Rex that subordinates even the highest achievements of human reason to the more powerful forces of nature that determine it. Like any aspect of Aristotle, these are debatable views that must be qualified and contextualized, but I think that they are generally right.

Nietzsche’s departure from Aristotelian causality comes primarily in relation to final cause—the error of imaginary causes. For Nietzsche, the whole idea of a ‘final cause’ will relate to the human perceptual faculties. What he might notice about the Aristotelian picture of the connection between the organism as a genetic product and the environment for which that body is well-suited is a sort of naïve amazement at how in the world such a nexus between body and world is possible. But that naïve amazement at the rather awe-inspiring complexity of the human body and the attunement of the body to the Earth devolves into an assumption that there has to be some explanatory reason why they are connected. This assumption is nothing less than a projection of human practical life onto the whole of nature. I should like to argue that Nietzsche disrupts the projection of ‘purpose’ onto nature by claiming that purpose is a human and not a natural category. Because Aristotelian purpose is a human imposition onto the natural, is the idea that is the effect of a psychological experience of seeing how a biological form fits in some ways perfectly into the world, scientific claims about purposiveness must be unpacked in terms of a psychology of unconscious desires. A claim of knowledge about any inherent ‘purpose’ of human life qua natural is not an epistemic claim, but is reducible to a ramification of a hidden desire for self-exertion over that natural world, particularly over the other human bodies that comprise it.

Aristotle: The Four Causes (and Nietzsche's Rejoinder) – Aoriston
Article Name
Aristotle: The Four Causes (and Nietzsche's Rejoinder) – Aoriston
Aristotle lays out his theory of the four causes in Physics II.3 and Metaphysics V.2. This post offers a rich view of the fourfold Aristotelian causality (and how Nietzsche responds).
Publisher Name
Publisher Logo

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Privacy Preference Center