Study Guide

Aristotle Buzzwords

The Four Causes

Causes = things that lead something else to come into existence.

To be honest, though, that word is a little misleading. The term I use is aitia, which actually means "reason," in the sense of a reason you give to explain some phenomenon. So my basic idea here is that there are four different sorts of reasons, four different kinds of explanations you can present for any particular thing whatsoever. Not all of them are "causes" in the sense the term is used in modern science.

Let me break it down for you:

Material Cause

The material cause refers to the stuff out of which an object is made. Say we're looking at a statue—a beautiful statue of, I don't know, Aristotle, say. One way to explain the kind of thing it is would be to refer to the material out of which it's composed: this is an object made out of bronze.

Formal Cause

Here we're talking about the form of a thing (duh!), which in the first instance refers to its shape. So a second way to understand what this same object is would be to refer to its (very noble) shape—that's what makes it into a statue of Aristotle as opposed to some other dazzlingly handsome movie star.

Efficient (or Moving) Cause

In this case, we have in mind whatever is immediately responsible for bringing this object into being. This statue didn't just pop into existence on its own, after all; the statue-maker had to use his tools and his skill to impose a particular shape on that blob of bronze. The statue-maker, in this case, is the efficient cause.

Final Cause

This is the ultimate purpose that a given object serves. Why is this statue standing in the middle of a Greek town? Well, it's intended to honor a very important Greek philosopher, whose name I am far too modest to pronounce. The final cause specifies an object's goal and therefore is most directly a response to the question: why?

So the next time you're at a party and someone asks you how to explain that statue sitting in the corner (you know the question comes up all the time), here's what you do. You place your forefinger thoughtfully on your chin, look off into the distance and ask, "In what sense exactly?" Then go ahead and rattle off the four causes. Your friends will be so impressed.


Telos means "goal" or "end." So "teleology" refers to an account in which a thing's goal or end—its purpose—plays a central role. To put it in terms of the four causes, to understand something by referring to its final cause is to present a teleological explanation.

Teleology is a key notion throughout my writings. Now it's pretty natural to think in terms of purposes when it comes to artifacts—things like statues, chairs, stuff like that. But here's the thing: I see purposes not only in the human world, but in the natural world, too. They're everywhere, baby!

Think of an acorn. If it manages to avoid the eager mouth of a squirrel, and instead lands in some good soil and gets enough water, it will develop into a…maple tree? No, an oak tree, genius. I hold that the acorn will become an oak tree because its telos—its ultimate goal—is built into it from the start, guiding its overall development.

Maybe you're okay with teleology as part of biology, but it's part of my physics, too. On my account, each of the four fundamental elements has a natural home: the natural home of earth is at the center of the universe; the natural home of fire is at the universe's circumference; and so on.

It's in these terms that I explain motion. Things composed primarily of earth have a natural tendency to move downward and will do so unless their motion is impeded. Things composed of fire have an upward movement…you get it. The point is that motion is caused not by external forces, but by an object's telos, which is internal to it.

Pretty smart, huh?

I know, I know: Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and all those other folks spear-heading the Scientific Revolution went on and on about how silly and useless my physics was. They were all about explaining things by means of external forces. But I say to them, "Hey, my ideas were accepted for almost 2,000 years—I must have been on to something. When we get to the year 3500, let's see what people have to say about your ideas of physics, okay?"


"Category" is a translation of the Greek word kategoria (see how much clearer everything is in my original Greek?), which more properly means "predicate."

To talk about categories in my sense is simply to talk about different kinds of grammatical predicates—the various sorts of things that can be said about a subject.

Now I don't want you to get confused, since one of my books is also called The Categories. But actually, it's not all that confusing in the end, given that my book The Categories is focused on the topic of—care to venture a guess, Shmoopers?—the categories!

What I'm talking about here in the first instance is the way we talk (and now you begin to see why some people say that philosophy is nothing but "talk, talk, talk"). Suppose we take every philosopher's favorite philosophical example—Socrates. There are various things we can ask about him.

For example, what is Socrates? (A human being, an animal, the teacher of Plato). Where is Socrates? (In the marketplace, questioning people. Where else?) What are his qualities? How is he related to other things? You catch my drift.

I identify 10—count 'em—sorts of predicates, 10 basic kinds of things that we could say of a grammatical subject. But this is more than a dull and pointless grammar lesson, people. It's a dull and pointless lesson in ontology!

No, I'm kidding; it's not dry and pointless at all. At least not for me.

"Ontology" is the study of existents (things that exist), and what I'm getting at through this discussion of language is a basic classification of everything that exists in the universe: qualities, relations, quantities, etc. This is the kind of discussion that makes us philosophers foam at the mouth with excitement.

Especially important in this classification schema is the first category, the category of things: Socrates, human beings, animals, the list goes on. These are what I call "substances." Now, within this category, I make a further distinction, counting universal notions like "human being" as "secondary substances." On the other hand, particular individual things, like Socrates, I term "primary substance."

Primary substance is, well, primary.

Why is primary substance so important? Just look at the way we talk! (I know "talk, talk, talk," but still…). We predicate all kinds of things of Socrates—"Socrates is healthy," "Socrates is a man." But notice it doesn't work the other way—"health is Socrates." All these other categories depend logically on the subject. It then seems as if a term like "Socrates," and therefore the category of substance in general, has a privileged position in our language.

This linguistic fact reflects the fact that out there in the world the property of substance likewise is privileged, primary, independent. (You could say that substance is the spoiled rich kid of logical categories.) Qualities don't exist on their own, but only insofar as they exist in substances. Likewise with relations, quantity, and all the rest of the categories—they all depend for their existence on the existence of substance in the primary sense.

Substance rules!


Like so many other things in philosophy, the word "metaphysics" comes from yours truly. (Thank you, thank you very much.) For most of its history, the philosophical tradition has used the term to refer to the branch of philosophy that inquires into the most fundamental, most abstract questions. But in fact I never use the word in this sense. For me, "metaphysics" is only the title of one of my books. And while I can't say I remember for sure at this point, that title may have meant no more than that this work occurred in my corpus after my other book The Physics ("metaphysics" literally means "after physics").

Still, my work the Metaphysics is definitely an exercise in highly abstract theorizing, and it's about as difficult a piece of philosophy as has ever been produced (you have to give the professors a lot of stuff to think about if you want them to be still reading you a couple thousand years later). That's not surprising, since for me, "first philosophy," as I like to call this branch of the subject, is the science of "being qua being."

What does that mean? Well, of course, like everything profound and philosophical, you could spend a long time reflecting on its full implications. But the short answer is that it is a maximally general study of existing things ("beings"). So while physics studies phenomena insofar as they are subject to change and mathematics studies them insofar as they are subject to being quantified, first philosophy inquires into beings simply insofar as they exist. It is, in other words, the most universal and abstract discipline possible.

Sounds challenging, huh?

It is.

There is a focus to this inquiry, though: substance. Ultimately, to understand being qua being we have to understand the nature of substance.

As it turns out, we were just talking about substance, remember? (Just say you do.) And in the Metaphysics, I build on my work from the Categories. What does it mean to be a substance? In this work, I hold that it requires that a thing be (1) an individual and (2) separable (i.e., not dependent on anything else for its existence). I spend a long time—and I mean a long time—reflecting on what entities best satisfy these criteria.

Where do I come out in the end? Well, let me ask you this: have you ever repeated a word over and over so many times it no longer made any sense? It's a little bit like that with my endless, convoluted investigation into "substance" in the Metaphysics. By the end, it's hard even for me to know what I'm saying.

My best guess, though, is that my final position is similar to what I said in the Categories: concrete, particular things—Mort the pug, your nightstand, the oak tree outside your window—are the best examples of substances; these are the things that most fully exist. And that's to say that, once more, I end up being the anti-Plato. He thinks that abstract general concepts like justice and whiteness (what I call "universals") are most real, and that things in the world around us only exist by somehow "participating" in these notions. Crazy, huh?

I hold pretty much the opposite view. And that shows yet another great thing about me. I can engage in the highest, most esoteric (most "metaphysical," you modern folks would say) sort of philosophical investigation. But I always end up with my feet planted firmly on the ground.


I hold that all knowledge begins with what you would call "experience"—what I call "sensation." Whatever the term, we're talking about the information that comes through your senses, okay?

Now because of this position, a lot of folks like to describe me as the first empiricist…and to some extent that's true. But let's not get too carried away, people. I'm really not the same as the famous British empiricist John Locke, let alone someone like the German philosopher, Rudolph Carnap, who seeks to reduce all knowledge to sense data (source).

For me, sensation is more like the starting point, presenting us in germ form with everything we can know. In the Metaphysics, I describe how the higher stages of knowledge—craft and science—involve the unfolding of that initial concept, allowing us to understand more fully the information that is given at the first stage of sensation. But I'm definitely not one of those guys who says that only the things we can immediately see and taste and touch are real.

My general position can best be appreciated by contrasting it with the view of—who else?—Plato. That guy, nut that he is, suggests that ideal, immaterial concepts are what truly exist; sense experience serves only as a trigger to somehow remind us of those special ideas. So for him, the information gained through the senses serves only as a way of pointing toward a higher truth. For me, by contrast, the truth of things is buried within sensation itself and must be carefully extracted.

My view is so much saner than and down-to-earth than Plato's, you have to admit. Can you believe I spent 20 years having to listen to that madness being taught on a daily basis?


The syllogism is the heart of my logic. Did I happen to mention that I invented formal logic? That's right—created it entirely out of whole cloth. And I must have done a pretty good job of it, since my system of logic was for the longest time taken as the final word on the subject. Aristotelian logic was logic all the way until the end of the 19th Century, when it was supplanted by the formal systems of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell.

Anyhow, I spell out my own approach in, among other places, the Prior Analytics. So what is logic? Everyone always wants to know the answer to that question, or at least, they feign interest. But it's simple: logic is the study of proper reasoning. Or, if you want a fancier answer, we could say that logic—deductive logic—is the system of rules specifying when a given sentence (the conclusion) can legitimately be asserted or inferred on the basis of a set of other sentences (the premises).

As I said, the syllogism is the key to my whole approach. A syllogism is typically an argument consisting of three statements. The first, called the major premise, consists of a general statement. The second, the minor premise, is a specific statement. And from these a third statement, the conclusion, is logically deduced. My theory of the syllogism involves a careful categorization of all the valid forms such arguments can take.

I'll give you an example, in fact the classic example, of an Aristotelian syllogism:

• All men are mortal (major premise).
• Socrates is a man (minor premise).
• Therefore, Socrates is mortal (conclusion).

When they see this, people often ask me: "You mean Greeks back then didn't know that Socrates was mortal—even after he was put to death? You guys must have been pretty dumb." Well I always want to say, "With a reaction like that, I'm not sure you're in a great position to be calling other people dumb." But being the noble scholar that I am, I restrain myself.

The point here, as you brilliant Shmoopers no doubt instantly grasp, is only to talk about the logical relationship between the sentences of an argument. Even those backwards ancient Greeks knew that Socrates was mortal, but with logic, we're concerned to show how you would prove that fact. And in this argument we see that if the premises are accepted as true, then the conclusion about Socrates' mortality necessarily follows. That's the key: acceptance of the premises seems to logically force us to accept the conclusion.

And that's what my syllogisms are all about. They are part of a system that enables us to systematically determine when we have knowledge that is necessarily true.

Not bad work for a backward ancient Greek, wouldn't you agree?

Virtue Ethics

I've had to wait a long time for my ship to come in when it comes to my writings on ethics. Okay, I'll admit that's not entirely true. I mean, my ethical thought was extremely influential in both the ancient world and the medieval world. But at some point in modern times, my approach to ethics—often referred to as "virtue ethics"—fell out of favor. Ambitious guy that I am, that's the part I couldn't stop thinking about.

Instead, in the modern world people always seemed to be excited to talk about Kant and his so-called "deontological approach." "Deontology" is just a fancy way of describing a theory based around the notion of moral principles as absolute duties, obligations which we must fulfill. Not only does Kant not have the decency to write in Greek; he also spends endless time trying to figure out the ultimate basis of those duties. Bo-ring.

And then, when people weren't jabbering away about Krazy Kant and deontology, they were talking about utilitarianism, the view that moral principles are grounded in maximizing happiness. On this approach, again everything revolves around the attempt to find the foundation of morality. Is that really so important? What about what good old Aristotle had to say?

Well finally, finally people seem to have come back around to my ideas. See, my approach of virtue ethics is different than both deontology and utilitarianism. I'm not focused so much on moral principles and their supposed ultimate basis. No, I want to talk about what actually matters—and that is leading a good life. For me, the focus is on eudaimonia—that is, happiness or flourishing. What is it that constitutes a flourishing, successful human life?

In my view, developed most famously in the Nicomachean Ethics, the key is developing the right sorts of habits of character. In fact, the word "ethics" comes from the Greek ethos which simply means "character." So that, reasonably enough, is what I concentrate on. And I'm "happy" to say that now many others are once more beginning to see the "virtue" of my approach (heh).

Look, I've had to suffer through many, many dreary years of being ignored by the modern world. But ancient though I may be, now I'm back and I'm better than ever. I guess you could say I'm the Allman Brothers of ethical philosophers.

Doctrine of the Mean

No, this isn't my attempt to argue for the virtue of meanness, as if I'm some ancient version of Gordon Gekko. It's true that my concern here is with virtue, but I'm talking about an arithmetical mean—you know, like a midpoint?

My point is simple. If you want to determine what the virtue or moral excellence is in any given area, you have to look for the mean state between the two extremes of excess and deficiency.

Take courage, for example. There are two relevant vices here: cowardice is the deficiency, while rashness is the excess. The virtue of courage lies right in the middle, not too far in one direction and not too far in the other. All the virtues would seem to work in the same way.

So when you hear "Doctrine of the Mean," don't think Gordon Gekko—think Goldilocks.