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Aristotle’s Fundamental Principles of Nature

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In Metaphysics VII, Aristotle marvels and deeply reflects on what change is, and what is fundamental to our world for change to be possible in it. He inquires into the fundamental principles of nature by attempting to describe what happens in a process of change, in hopes of developing a sense of how the world is arranged. In his investigation, Aristotle then makes an important claim, that among things that come to be, some come to be by craft, some by nature, or some by chance. However, all things that come to be, share something in common: they all come to be by some agent, come to be out of something, and come to be something (Metaphysics VII.7). This fact is critical for understanding Aristotle’s four different types of causes, which act more like what we call “explanations.” According to Aristotle, change takes place according to these four causes, and they each explain why a change proceeded in different ways.

The four causes are material causes, formal causes, efficient causes, and final causes. A material cause  is the aspect of change which explains the material that composes the changing thing. A formal cause  explains the arrangement, shape or appearance to which something changing corresponds to. An efficient cause is the source of change, which explains the agent by which something came into being and is what we typically mean by ‘cause’ in our everyday language. Lastly, a final cause explains the intended purpose that the change serves. Aristotle recognizes each of these four causes as four different types of answers to why-questions.

In the making of a wooden desk, there are four causes we can cite for why the desk came to be. The material cause of the wooden desk are the very materials which are used to build the desk, such as wood, etc. These desk materials are some X’s that undergo change by being built into a desk. The pre-assembled desk pieces depict the material cause for the desk, because the explanation cited for the desk’s coming to be, is in terms of the material that the wooden desk is made out of. If one were to ask, “Why did this desk chip?” the explanation would be, “because it’s made from wood,” which refers to the material the desk is composed of. The formal cause of the wooden desk, would be the builder’s design or blueprints for changing the desk materials into a wooden desk. In order cite a formal cause in this case, the explanation for why the desk came to be would have to be in terms of some Y into which X changes, where Y is some quality, quantity, locomotion, or substance that X has the potential to be. The wooden desk, Y, represents a substance that the desk materials, X, have potential to be and change into. Therefore, the design, for changing the desk materials into a desk, cites a formal cause because its explanation is in terms of what the desk materials essentially are, i.e., it is only because the desk materials are wood, that the wooden desk can come to be. The efficient cause of the wooden desk would be the builder of the desk, whether it’s a manufacturer or a regular person putting together a desk from Ikea. The builder of the desk, which is distinct from the desk materials, acts as an agent that initiates the change of desk materials into a wooden desk, by putting pieces of the desk materials together, and moving towards its unfulfilled potential to be a wooden desk. Lastly, the final cause for the wooden desk is the intended purpose that the change, from desk materials into a desk, serves. In our case, the final or further cause for the desk, is the intended purpose of reading or writing on the desk. The wooden desk was made so that whoever owns the desk can use it to read, write and study on it.

Drawing on Physics II.I, analyze and explain Aristotle’s distinction between (i) things that exist/occur by nature, and (ii) things that exist/occur but not by nature.

In Physics Book II, Aristotle claims, “Among beings, some exist by nature, some from other causes. By nature, animals and their parts exist, and plants and the simple bodies: earth, fire, air, water…” (Physics II.I). Here, he argues that there are things which exist by nature, and artificial things which do not exist by nature. He distinguishes between natural substances, non-natural substances, and things which occur by nature.

Aristotle states that substances in the primary sense are beings that underlie other beings without any further beings underlying them. Aristotle notes that [the definition of a] nature is a source or cause of “being changed and being at rest within that to which it primitively belongs, as such and not by virtue of a concomitant attribute” (II.1 192b8-23). This definition is saying that what it means for something to be a natural substance is for it to possess the capacity of an inherently self-directed power for initiating and halting change with respect to some range of alterations, locomotions, or growth and diminutions. For example, a plant is a natural substance because its changes occur within itself when it grows in height and size over time.

In addition, X itself must be the proper subject. A proper subject is one with only essential properties, meaning that for a substance to natural, it must also come-to-be essentially, rather than coincidentally. For example, an artistic human who comes to be a tennis player, comes to be this coincidentally (improper subject). Whereas the [same] non-tennis player, who is also potentially a tennis player, essentially comes to be a tennis player. Another example is where being rational is an essential property of what is means to be a human (proper subject), because a human without rationality ceases to be human, but being artistic is not an essential property of being human (improper), because a human without artistic skills can still be a human.

It’s important to also note that a natural substance must initiate a change or happening, rather than simply guide them. Artifacts, or non-natural substances, typically navigate and weave together happenings that the artifact’s form does not initiate (lecture notes). For example, if a non-natural substance such as a cup gets filled with tea, the cup does not initiate it being filled with tea, but rather the cup’s form allows change to happen, hence, it being filled with tea. Whereas, in contrast, a natural substance initiates happenings, such as a tree that initiates its leaves to change colors in autumn.

Typically with other-directed powers, the object on which a power is exercised is distinct from the subject which possesses that power. An example for an other-directed power would be a fire’s power to heat being exercised on a person making a fire for warmth. We see that the fire is the subject which possesses the power to heat, and the person seeking warmth is the object on which the fire’s power to heat is being practiced on.

However, an inherent self-directed power is a power whose very nature requires that the object a power is exercised on to be identical with the subject which also possesses this power. For example, when a fawn is born, it moves toward maturing into a grown, adult deer by growing in height, weight, etc. This change in height, weight, and age are all internally sourced and come from some innate element within it. We can observe that this is a case of a natural substance with a self-directed power, because the fawn is a subject which possesses the inherent, self-directed power to grow into a mature deer. The fawn is also the object this power to grow into a mature deer is exercised on, as we can see by its growing height, legs, and weight over time, until it reaches being in fulfillment as a mature deer.

In contrast, the causes for change in artificial things, or non-natural substances, are found outside of the objects but they “have no innate impulse for change,” and while they are still capable of change if made up of natural ingredients like wood, can only undergo change due to external or coincidental factors. For example, a chair is a non-natural substance, i.e. an artifact, that does not possess the inherent self-directed power for change. Instead external things change it, like when a person sits on a chair, it adds weight to that chair which could cause it to become less sturdy over time. We see that in this case, it was a factor that was outside of the non-natural substance, the chair, that caused it to change. However, the chair could never initiate itself to move, grow or shrink in size, or alterate itself in some way, so it is a non-natural substance.

There are some special cases to the self-directed power and other-directed power distinguishment. A good example of this is the case of a doctor, who possesses an other-directed power to heal others with his or her knowledge of medicine. A doctor can also use his knowledge of medicine to treat and heal himself, however this is not what is meant as a “self-directed power,” by Aristotle because the doctor and the healing are not necessarily connected. Rather, this power to heal others is essentially an other-directed power which concomitantly allows for an unusual application of the power to to the one who also possesses the power to heal, the doctor, who then heals himself as he would like any other person.

Lastly, for something to be a nature, is for that thing to itself be this very sort of power. For example, a fire has an inherent power to heat. So, to be hot or heated would be a nature of fire.

Analyze and explain Aristotle’s De Anima II.I account of what makes something a soul. What, on this account, is the relationship between (i) an embodied soul, (ii) the living organism in which it’s embodied, and (iii) the matter of that living organism.

In his basic works, Aristotle looks for the fundamental principles of nature which must be in order for change to be possible in our world. First, he argues the form must be one principle of nature, because all change or processes of change involve something that comes to be what it is by obtaining its distinguished form. Another principle of nature must be the privation or absence of this form, the opposite from which the form came into being. In addition to form and privation, Aristotle believes there must be a third principle of nature, matter, which remains constant throughout the process of change for us to compare change to. So, he recognizes three fundamental principles of nature in every case of change: form, matter and privation. A coming-to-be example Aristotle gives to illustrate these principles is when an unmusical man becomes musical. In this case, the matter or subject is the man, the form is being musical and the privation is being unmusical.

In De Anima, Aristotle tries to investigate what a soul is. Aristotle believes there are three types of substances: form, matter, and a [hylomorphic] composite of both form and matter. Then, he states that matter is potentiality, while form is actuality, or fulfilment. There are two types of hylomorphic composites he describes, those of general consent, reckoned bodies, or artificial bodies, and those of natural bodies. Among natural bodies, there are living and non-living natural bodies, where living bodies are things like plants and animals. Aristotle argues that for living things, you cannot form without matter. Since he also argues that the psyche or soul is the form of a living thing, he believes that you cannot have a psyche/soul without a body. He distinguishes things with a soul by characterizing souls with life, where living things are those which are able to have capacity to engage in some of these five types of activities: nutrition, reproduction, sense-perception, desire, and understanding. He adds that senses are potentials for experience of external things or of receiving forms, and asks the age old question of what does something appear as when it is not perceived by anything, or for another example, “What does a tree sound like when it falls but no one is around?” He answers this by saying something like that it does not make an actual appearance, or sound, but rather it makes a potential appearance or sound. He then goes on to list the senses of substances, which include vision, hearing, and touch.

Aristotle also states that changeable entities are what he calls “hylomorphic composites,” which are composites of both matter and form, where the matter is what makes up an object and the form is the shape that object takes. According to Aristotle, forms can have two types of actuality: first actuality, which is to have the potential of serving some purpose (“being-in-potential”) and second actuality, where one is actually serving that purpose (“being-in-fulfillment”). For example, if one were to say that “Socrates does math” while he is currently taking a bath, this refers to the first actuality because this is stating that Socrates is able and has the potential to do math, but is not actively or currently solving mathematical problems. If Socrates were solving mathematical problems on a chalkboard, and one were to say that “Socrates does math,” this would refer to the second actuality, since Socrates has the potential to do math and is actually, currently doing math (being-in-fulfillment).

In addition, there are two senses in which potential is filled, the first potentiality is before the potential is fulfilled at all, the second potentiality is when the first fulfillment of such a potential is achieved, but not being used currently, and this leads to a second fulfillment of the achieved potential where one is actively using their fulfilled capacity to do something. For example, In the case of a baby, its first potentiality is when it does not know how to speak english yet but has the potential to learn english as they grow older. The second potentiality is when the baby matures into an adult and is fluent in english (this is the first-fulfillment of the first potentiality) but is not utilizing their capacity to speak english. Last is when the adult manifests their second fulfillment of this potential to speak english, and utilizes their capacity for fluent english by giving a speech.

Aristotle defines the soul as the substance [or fulfillment] of a natural material’s potential to constitute a living body, which means the soul has the potentiality of being a living thing and which comes to be living when combined with a body with potential for life. He believes that the soul is of the first actuality of a living thing because it is a fulfillment that is a capacity itself, for living a specific life, for something to possess this capacity is what it means to be that thing itself. This means that a living thing’s soul, like a human’s soul for example, constitutes the essence of the substance of a human being. A human being’s soul, for example, is a substance in the sense of being the form of another substance, which in this case is the human body. Aristotle evokes hylomorphic analysis to show that the soul is not a body, but requires a body. These two, according to Aristotle, cannot be apart and if the soul were to be separated from a living body, that body would die. Aristotle also believes that the hylomorphic relationship between the soul and body, the soul is able to move the living thing to change which is due to the virtue of a soul being an unchanging thing.

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