Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

Aristotle’s Aitia

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painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Dennett, Daniel Clement (Book – 1995) page 23

Our curiosity about things takes different forms, as Aristotle noted at the dawn of human science. His pioneering effort to classify them still makes a lot of sense. He identified four basic questions we might wanted answered about anything, and called their answers the four aitia, a truly untranlsatiable Greek term traditionally but awkwardly translated the four “causes.”

  1. We may be curious about what something is made of, its matter or material cause.
  2. We may be curious about the form (or structure or shape) that that matter takes its formal cause.
  3. We may be curious about its beginning, how it got started, or its efficient cause.
  4. We may be curious about its purpose or goal or end (as in “Do the ends justify the means?”), which Aristotle called its telos, sometimes translated in English, awkwardly, as “final cause.”

It takes some pinching and shoving to make these four Aristotelian aitia line up as the answers to the standard English questions “what, where, when, and why.” The fit is only fitfully good. Questions beginning with “why,” however, do standardly ask for Aristotle’s fourth “cause,” the telos of a thing. Why this? we ask. What is it for? As the French say, what is its raison d’etre, or a reason for being? For hundreds of years, these “why” questions have been recognized as problematic by philosophers and scientists, so distinct that the topic they raise deserves a name: teleology.


Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

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