Philosophy of Religion

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Aristotle’s Concept of Matter and Form

Aristotle was interested in the material world which he saw about him. He was interested in the nature of things and their substance. However, Aristotle was still interested in questions such as ‘what is it about a table that gives it its tableness?’ However, unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle believed that the form of an object was not some kind of abstract ideal. He believed that the form of an object was contained within the object itself. To put it another way, its form was within the structure itself. This meant that the form of an object could be perceived using ones senses.

Aristotle uses the word substance in many ways which often makes it difficult to grasp his concept. Let us look at the example of a table. The substance of a table is the wood and the nails and the glue. However, the form of the table is that it has four legs…etc.

To confuse things further, Aristotle also used the word matter to mean the stuff of which something was made. A chair’s matter is wood! Its form is the structure of the chair itself – i.e. that particular chair NOT some abstract universal.

This allowed Aristotle to also wondered whether it was possible that something could have matter but no form. He concluded that there could be prime matter or stuff that has no particular form and not arranged in any particular structure. Likewise, Aristotle wondered whether something could have form and structure without having matter. He proposed that something that has form and structure without matter is God.

Aristotle’s Four Causes

Aristotle wanted to ask ‘what causes something to be what it is, to have the characteristics that it has, or to change in the way that it does?’ This sort of questioning is often found in small children. Sometimes they go through a phase of asking ‘why?’ about anything and everything. Perhaps small children are the best philosophers!

For each answer they are given, they want to know the reason for this answer, and the cause of something can be traced back, showing not just one reason but a whole chain, going from the immediate to a final ‘because it just is’, or ‘because I say so’ or ‘because it’s just made that way’. Someone once commented that this is the reason we send children to school – to make them stop asking annoying questions. By the time children enter into the sixth form they think they know it all and have definitely stopped asking questions.

Aristotle thought about this; he concluded that the explanation of things could be seen in the four different ways, at four different levels: the four causes. ‘Causes’ is the best translation we have of the word he used – ‘aition’ (Gk - aition - meaning cause or fault) , which is a responsible, explanatory factor.

Aristotle’s four causes can be summarised:

  1. Material cause – what is something made of?
  2. Efficient cause – what brings something about?
  3. Formal cause – what characteristics does an object have?
  4. Final cause – what is the reason for something’s existence?
For Aristotle the essence of an object was not just its material component parts, or its particular shape or characteristics; it also had a purpose, a function to perform.

When Aristotle looked at the world about him he not only asked questions such as what is such and such made of, or how can it be classified but also what is its purpose.

The fourth, final cause is the most important, and which in Aristotle’s view gives the best explanation of an object. The final end, or purpose, or ‘teleology’ of a thing, when realised, gives that thing its full perfection and reality.

When something is doing what it was meant to do, or has developed into whatever it was supposed to develop into, it has achieved goodness. The purpose of an object, for Aristotle, is part if the object itself, and not something which we might choose to impose on it – it is intrinsic.

All the different elements of nature have a purpose, according to Aristotle, and nothing is superfluous. We might not know what a slug is for but nevertheless it still has its own intrinsic purpose. But that is not all; the universe as a whole has a purpose too.

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