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Lecture 2: Nature, Cause and Change in Aristotle’s Physics Nature. 1.1Matter and Form. 1.2.Potentiality and Actuality 2.Cause and Explanation. PowerPoint PPT Presentation


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Lecture 2: Nature, Cause and Change in Aristotle’s Physics Nature. 1.1Matter and Form. 1.2.Potentiality and Actuality 2.Cause and Explanation. 3.Change. Aristotle’s Physics = . Aristotle’s theory of the nature of things – especially of change.

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Lecture 2: Nature, Cause and Change in Aristotle’s Physics Nature. 1.1Matter and Form. 1.2.Potentiality and Actuality 2.Cause and Explanation.

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Lecture 2:

Nature, Cause and Change in Aristotle’s Physics

  • Nature.

    1.1Matter and Form.

    1.2.Potentiality and Actuality

    2.Cause and Explanation.

    3.Change


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Aristotle’s Physics =

Aristotle’s theory of the nature of things – especially of change.

Nature – things that grow -  / 

  • Aristotle thinks he can unproblematically identify things that exist by nature (phusei) or which are due to nature e.g. living organisms, animals and plants.


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  • “All these things {“animals, and their parts, plants and simple bodies like earth, air fire and water”} plainly differ from things that are not constituted naturally; each has within itself a source of change and staying unchanged…A bed, on the other hand or a coat or anything else of that sort..insofar as it is the outcome of art, has no innate tendency to change.


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  • This suggests that nature is a sort of source and cause of change and remaining unchanged in that to which it belongs primarily and of itself. I,2, 192b12

  • Examples - a plant or animal compared to say, a bed.

  • The bed has a source of remaining unchanged – sameness- within it. But not a source of change.


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  • Compare this with an acorn – or, say a tadpole.

  • Antiphon’s example of the bed. 193a12.

  • A bed does not bring itself into being – unlike an Oak tree. The bed’s existence depends on the existence of the carpenter.


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  • At this point Aristotle makes two further distinctions:

  • Matter and Form.

  • Potentiality or power (dunamis) and actuality (energeia).

    With the help of these he will argue for two more theses.

    1*What a thing is – its nature – is its form, not its matter. (See for example 193b5)

    2* What a thing is its complete actualisation its end or telos. II, 2, 194a 20 & 194a 27. (See also Politics 1252 b 30)


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1. Matter and Form

  • Aristotle is really interested in the nature of living beings, but he uses artefacts as a useful point of contrast.

  • Antiphon’s example was supposed to show that the real nature of the bed is wood – or that the matter is prior to the form, and the form is accidentally imposed on it.

    This is the view that Aristotle disputes, namely that what a thing is fundamentally, is its matter.

  • It is an awful example. Why?


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  • Aristotle agrees that artefacts have their form imposed upon their matter, as it were from outside.

  • He denies that this means that a bed, the nature of the bed, is the timber out of which it is made. Until the carpenter comes along, and imparts the form of a bed onto it, the wood is only a potential, not an actual bed.

  • In this respect natural things are different to artefacts. (The tadpole will (under the right conditions) become a frog under its own steam. No external agency is required.)


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  • With artefacts (but not plants and animals) one can distinguish easily enough between the matter and the form: the bed, form of the bed. Try doing this with a Frog or a human being.

  • Organisms are matter that is organized form – all the way down. Human beings have parts – organs.

    (A part is not a bit. For Aristotle a part shares in the end of the whole.)

    But these organs are themselves composites of matter – blood, flesh, bone – that is itself organised. (Animals are not heaps or agglomerates of stuff: they are organised matter. They contain an internal principle of organisation, which is its form.


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2.Potentiality or power (dunamis) and actuality (energeia).

  • In natural beings (animal and plants) the development of this form (in matter) is their internal principle of a) change [and b) remaining the same] – or their nature.

  • We should not forget b). A tadpole does not under its own steam develop into a goat or a whale. If it develops it develops into a frog.

  • But we do not find the form of a Frog in a tadpole. This is an unusual example. But Aristotle thinks this holds quite generally. One cannot find the form of a being inscribed in a young or immature specimen.


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  • But the young organism does have the power or potential to realise this form.

    (Unlike an artefact. Polypropylene has certain physical characteristics due to its chemical and physical structure; but it does not contain the power to be moulded into a chair or boat.)

    The natural growth of the organism is directed towards its final end or telos – acorn to oak tree, tadpole to frog.

    “For whatever is the telos of the coming into existence of any being, that is what we call its nature: of man for instance or a horse or a household.” Politics 1252b33


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This is why what a thing is, is its form or rather - we can be more specific – is the complete actualisation of this form in matter.

“The form has a better claim than the matter to be called nature. For we call a thing something, when it is that thing in actuality, rather than just potentially.” II, 1, 193b7

N.B. Of course Aristotle thinks that this form is real, not in our minds. Just like the form of a shell is in the shell. This is why, when we have the notion of a shell, we can understand its nature. Nature is intelligible in virtue of its form, not in virtue of its matter. Matter as such – formless stuff – is (or would be if there were any) unintelligible.

Substance and form. Natural forms are ontologically basic. Substance is determined by form and is the reality on which everything else depends. (C.f. modern science.)


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  • Cause and Explanation

    Aristotle’s Four Causes aitia –

    Four answers to the question why?

    Aristotle’s Four Be(cause)s

    Four ways of stating what a thing is.


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We have already seen these four causes.

These are listed in II,3.

  • The matter or material cause.

    (The stuff or matter.)

  • The form (formula) or formal cause.

    (The model or account.)

  • The efficient or moving cause.

    What brings it into being.

  • The final cause.

    The ‘in order to’. What a thing is for.


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Aristotle does not justify this fourfold typology. Maybe he takes it to be a reflection of ordinary speech. Some think he gets it from Plato’s Timaeus.

Aristotle thinks that all these things can be causes.

Very different from modern notions of cause, and causal explanation.

1. No problem with overdetermination.

2. Causes are not events.

3. Not primarily concerned with prediction, but with form and order.


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