Monday, January 7, 2019

Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between possibility and actuality.

Feser has issued a rather large promissory note regarding the importance of Aristotle to Western thought and the cost to the West of abandoning Aristotle.  He will take a few chapters to pay off this note.  He starts with a down payment: explaining Aristotle’s metaphysics.

Actuality and Potentiality

Change is possible.  Sounds obvious, but Aristotle had to disprove a predecessor – Parmenides – who said otherwise.  Take the actuality of a blue rubber ball: we can say it is blue, solid, round and bouncy.  We can also say it is not red or square.  It also has potentiality – the potential to be something it currently is not: gooey if melted, red if painted, a globe if the continents are drawn on it.

None of these potentials are currently manifest in the ball, but they are potential if acted upon by an outside force.  No potential can actualize itself.  Whatever is changed is changed by another; whatever is moved is moved by another:

Once you make this simple distinction between actuality and potentiality, you are on your way to seeing that there is and must be a God.

Is any potential possible?  Can the rubber ball be bounced to the moon?  No.  Aristotle suggests that the ball has the potential that is consistent with its nature – its nature as it actuality exists.  Finally, actualities and potentialities exist in a hierarchical order: humans are rational animals; because humans are rational, they have the potential for speech.

Unless you make these distinctions, you cannot fully understand the abortion and euthanasia debates…

Form and Matter

Tables, chairs and rocks – these things are paradigmatically real.  Here again, Aristotle has to overcome a predecessor: Heraclitus, who insisted that change is all that there is.  Yes, these can change, but only through the influence of an outside force.

What is “real” about the rubber ball?  Is it the rubber?  There are many things made out of rubber.  Is it the roundness?  There are many things that are round.  It is when the matter and form are combined that we have a rubber ball.  While the matter and form are essential, the color is not essential: red or blue, the ball will bounce.

Contra Plato, the form of the ball does not exist by itself – without the matter.  The form and matter can only be understood in relation to each other.

There are objective essences, natures, or forms of things, just as Plato says; but our knowledge of them derives from the senses, and is grounded in ordinary objects of our experience, just as common sense holds.

The Four Causes

·        The material cause: what is it made of?  Rubber, in the case of our ball. 
·        The formal cause: the form, structure, or pattern of the matter.  In our case, its sphericity, solidity, and bounciness. 
·        The efficient cause: what brings the thing into being – what actualizes the potentiality.  In our case, the workers, machines, etc.
·        The final cause: what is the end, goal, or purpose of the thing?  For the ball, amusement for a child.

In combination, these causes provide a complete explanation of a thing.

Certainly more questions will follow: where does the rubber come from?  Who made the machines?  But the answers to these questions will be found by examining the same four causes, just at the next level.

These four causes seem obvious – we all intuitively understand these.  It is the implications that offer meaningful insight:

…its material cause entails that it has certain potentialities and lacks others; its formal cause, being its substantial form or essence, is shared by other things and known by the intellect via abstraction from experience….

The efficient cause and final cause go hand in hand: “You simply cannot properly understand the one apart from the other; indeed, there cannot be efficient causes without final ones.”

It isn’t that the ends justify the means; it is that the ends define the means.  Feser describes this as a real problem for modern thinkers, who deny that there are final causes.  But without a final cause – an end – the efficient cause would have no basis or reason on which to act.  How would someone act, without an end – a final cause?

A lump of clay is a lump of clay without a final cause; the potter (the efficient cause) – having the matter necessary to manipulate the clay as he likes – could do nothing more than stare at the lump of clay.  The final cause determines the efficient cause: the final cause determines how the potter will manipulate the clay on the wheel.

It is the final cause that determines our action.  The question remains: what is our “final cause”?  What is the “good”?


The final cause of a thing is…the central aspect of its formal cause; indeed, it determines its formal cause.  For it is only because a thing has a certain end or final cause that it has the form it has…

…efficient causality cannot be made sense of apart from final causality.  Indeed, nothing makes sense – not the world as a whole, not morality or human action in general, not the thoughts you’re thinking, or the words you’re using, not anything at all – without final causes.

…[Aristotle’s] account of the metaphysical structure of reality, far from being empty verbiage of mere academic interest, has dramatic implications for religion, morality, and science that will repay the effort we have put into understanding it.

Medieval Christians, Jews and Muslims used the work of Plato and Aristotle to demolish the foundations of pagan culture; Feser suggests that this work can do the same regarding today’s new atheists.

My primary interest in this topic lies elsewhere: if we are to find liberty, we cannot ignore the “humanness” of humans – the material cause and formal cause; we also cannot ignore their final cause.  The final cause will not be found in “anything peaceful.”  We need something more than libertarianism if we are to find liberty.


  1. "It isn’t that the ends justify the means; it is that the ends define the means." - BM

    Is this a repudiation of the philosophy that the ends justify the means, or is it simply a way of stating that without a goal, the means of achieving the goal would have never been realized.

    "Medieval Christians, Jews and Muslims used the work of Plato and Aristotle to demolish the foundations of pagan culture" - BM

    Now this sounds like an interesting future post! Unless I'm having a 'Monday moment' and you've already done this.

    Speaking of this, have you written anything about Aristotle and Plato's different treatments on the subject of the family and how this relates to their different ideal forms of political organization and those who'd followed in their respective lines of thought? This question is more directed at your overarching quest or end to trace the roots of liberty through culture and tradition and not necessarily to this particular post. This question could also tie in with your treatment of Althusius and Bodin.

    The fundamental distinction is that Aristotle is in favor of the nuclear family and private property whereas Plato is for a communal extended family and communal property, at least among the elite ruling caste. So Aristotle is the proto-libertarian and Plato is the proto-socialist. Given this, have you also noticed that many so-called conservative intellectuals glorify the work of Plato?

    1. ATL, regarding your question on ends / means, I took it as the latter of your two possibilities.

      As to your other comments (including a future post on this Abrahamic trinity)...I mentioned in my initial post in this series that I am traveling in what is, for me, uncharted territory.

      Prior to working through this book, anything I might have known / understood about Platonic / Aristotelian logic / philosophy I knew only because I live in a western culture.

      In other words, for me until now it has been through nature (society), not nurture (education, either formal or self-directed).

      I am very hesitant to offer opinion on these topics (although given what you say about the distinction regarding family, yes...Aristotle all the way). I am taking tiny steps.

    2. I'm a tourist in the classical realm as well, but I think I first heard this distinction on family and property between Aristotle and Plato while listening to a lecture from the Abbeville Institute, though I can't remember which one.

      At the time, I wrote a note of it and attributed it to Robert Nisbet. It was interesting because the lecturer (whether following Nisbet or not I cannot remember) traced Plato's anti-family/anti-property position to Rousseau and Marx and Aristotle's pro-family/pro-property position to Burke and Tocqueville.

  2. Wonder how Aristotle defended the existence of the the 4 causes. Or was it simply that he asserted and defended the distinction of actuality and potentiality? The ideas make sense but don't know how you logically defend it outside of listing examples. The issue with that is the issue is just waiting for a counter example.

    The discussion about the 4 causes reminds me of how the issue of origins is defined by Intelligent Design.

    1. RMB, at the moment I don't have a good answer for you. I am a babe trying to work through a master's course.