Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the Four Causes

Aristotle’s Metaphysics is one of the most important works of philosophy, and also one of the most controversial.  In the work, Aristotle lays out his famous “four causes.”  Ultimately, Aristotle is interested in establishing a systematic doctrine of epistemology: what is knowledge and how do we know what we claim to know.  Many people often misunderstand Aristotle’s basic argumentation, as well as his general epistemology.

First, Aristotle is claimed to be an “empiricist,” that experience, senses, and sense-driven information is what constitutes knowledge (as opposed to strict rationalism).  This is misleading.  According to Aristotle, “[a]ll men by nature desire to know.” That is, all humans have an innate want for knowledge, truth, and wisdom – this is something that makes us human.  Aristotle argues that sensation and experience as evidence for man’s natural desire for knowledge.  However, Aristotle also argues “the human race lives also by art and reasoning.”

However, Aristotle builds from Plato rather than reduces from Plato.  It is not so much innate ideas that we have, per Plato, but instinctive appetites.  This is what propels our search for knowledge.  In fact, Aristotle even states he builds from Plato insofar that he interprets Plato’s philosophy as really being about the material cause and formal cause.  Plato just confused this with the efficient and final causes which we build up to through phenomenological desire leading to our empirical observations of the world which help to satiate those instinctive appetites of the soul we have.

Aristotle does not disavow rationalism, per se.  However, he does think there are deficiencies to pure rationalism (of the likes advocated by Plato, and then later by Plotinus).  Aristotle is a pluralist in his metaphysics and ontology (properly understood), this is best reflected in his hylomorphism – the doctrine that all is matter and form, rather than just form (Plato) or matter (Ionians).  The same is true for his epistemology.  It is really a combination of reason with experience, but experience and observation are critical for reason to become sharpened and “on point” if you will.  As he states, “experience seems in no respect inferior to art, and men of experience succeed even better than those who have theory without experience.”

The arts are not an intellectual endeavor (or just an intellectual endeavor as Plato seems to suggest), rather, they are lived endeavor with concrete ramifications for life.  They are to be experienced, rather than abstractly thought about in the mind.  What use would it be for an artist to think of beauty but not paint or sculpt?  What use would it be for a writer to just think about something, and not put it to pen?

The claim that “men of experience succeed even better than those who have theory without experience” is Aristotle’s way of claiming that experience, which comes from the senses, enhances reason.  We must remember that everything exists in a scheme of ontological dependency for Aristotle.  A does not lead to B, and B to C, leaving behind A and B in the process, instead, A leads to B, B subsumes A, B(+A) leads to C, and so on and so forth.  Things do not become “ablated,” but find greater fulfillment as they proceed up the hierarchy of knowledge and ontology.  For Aristotle, men of theory may have a well-crafted and rationally coherent theory, but sans experience, we never really know if it is true.  As he later states, “If, then, a man has the theory without the experience, and recognizes the universal but does not know the individual included in this, he will often fail to cure; for it is the individual that is to be cured.”

While Aristotle is an empiricist, he is, as some philosophers describe, “classical empiricism.”  Classical empiricism, the combination – or unity – of reason and experience, is unitive so that one can come to know the why as to what they are observing. Without this, one may “stumble” upon the why through pure reason, but that would have been otherwise accidental.  Instead, testing, through observation and experience, helps prove the why far better than mere rational argumentation according to Aristotle.  When one calls Aristotle an empiricist, we must distinguish Aristotle’s empiricism from modern empiricism in two important ways.  First, Aristotle believes experience helps lead to an understanding of the Final Cause, rather than just the Material Cause, as in modern empiricism.  Second, Aristotle’s empiricism demands rational cultivation just as much as it demands an understanding of observation.  Observing, or experience, without a cultivated intellect will likely not understand the why just as much as theory alone doesn’t prove the why without experience.

Moving on to metaphysics, metaphysics means “first principles.”  For Aristotle, metaphysics is the highest form of intellectual pursuit.  To understand the why, or the first principle of nature, is the highest intellectual endeavor one can engage in.


Aristotle then lays out the four causes: (1) material cause, (2) formal cause, (3) efficient cause, and (4) final cause.

For Aristotle, the material cause, is the material property of the things in nature that our senses can perceive or feel—it is the material from which all things in nature come from or are made of.  According to Aristotle, philosophers like Thales and the resulting Ionian School were preoccupied with understanding material cause.  This was both a blessing and a curse.  It was a blessing because it represented the first formalization of philosophy – an attempt to understand the natural world and its metaphysics (first principles).  It was a curse because it only tried to comprehend the material cause, being unaware of the formal, efficient, and final.

Aristotle’s dialectic works different than Socrates’ dialectic.  The Socratic dialectic is one of introspective questioning and the parties involved in the question reach a rational conclusion.  Aristotle’s dialectic reflects his scheme of ontological dependency and hierarchy.  While knowledge of the material cause is the lowest form of metaphysical knowledge, it allows us to reach to formal cause.  The formal cause is the structure of a material thing (in other words, the design—Aristotle believes in design or nature).  The formal cause is superior to material cause but contingently dependent upon the material cause.  According to Aristotle, this was the advancement made by Plato.  Platonic philosophy understood material and formal causation, and therefore represented a movement closer to full truth, but did not yet reach full truth.

Here we see Aristotle’s dialectic at work.  It is one of constructive building rather than deconstructive destruction.  The materialism of the Ionian School allowed for philosophy to move to the understanding of the materiality of things in formal cause, which was the great advancement made in Platonic philosophy.  The problem, according to Aristotle, is that Platonic philosophy still did not fully understand the efficient and final causes.  This is what Aristotle believed himself to be engaged with, the pursuit of full knowledge through final cause.

Material and formal cause lead to an understanding of the efficient cause – which is the principle that brings something into existence.  For instance, a table is made of wood.  So, the material cause of a table is wood.  The formal cause of wood is the table (because wood is the nature and structure by which the efficient cause builds).  (Wood, of course, can take on another form or structure, but within the context of this example, the formal cause is the table.)  Aristotle then asks, what brought the table into existence or being?  The answer is the efficient cause (in this case, it would be a carpenter).

Material and formal cause find greater fulfillment in the efficient cause, but material, formal, and efficient cause find their fullest fulfillment in the Final Cause.  We see that the final cause is the top of the pyramid, so to speak.  Material cause led to formal cause and found greater fulfillment in the formal cause.  Material cause + formal cause led to the efficient cause, in which material and formal cause find ever greater fulfillment in the efficient cause.  The efficient cause is what leads to the Final Cause, which is the true first principle of all things, and therefore represents the fullest understanding of knowledge – final cause also brings forth the fullest fulfillment of the material, formal, and efficient causes. The Final Cause is what something is for—in other words, its telos (or end purpose).

Everything is dependent and builds upon each other.  In other words, everything “stacks.”  Understanding the material cause is a form of knowledge, but in the schema of metaphysics, it is the lowest form of knowledge.  This is not to say that pure knowledge of material causation is not knowledge.  It just isn’t the fulfillment of the highest knowledge possible, which is knowing the final cause.  Knowledge of the material cause leads to the formal cause, which, when understood, represents greater knowledge than just material cause, but material cause must be known first to reach the formal cause.  The process repeats itself until you reach the final cause. We also see, in Aristotle’s metaphysical outlook, everything is relational and builds from each other to a higher purpose or goal. Nothing exists in isolation.

Science, which is knowledge, is about understanding final cause according to Aristotle.  Philosophy, as a dialectic, is a constructive and building enterprise, rather than a destructive and deconstructing enterprise.  Since humans have an innate desire for knowledge, humans have an innate desire to come to know the final cause.  Thus, for Aristotle, the highest form of knowledge is in metaphysics.  To understand the first causes of nature, or being, represent the highest possible knowledge man can seek – and this knowledge will bring solace and happiness to those who achieve it.  And happiness is the telos, or end, of human existence.

This post is adapted from a post on Hesiod’s Corner, August 4, 2017.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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