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  • Formal Causes: Definition, Explanation, and Primacy in Socratic and Aristotelian Thought by Michael T. Ferejohn
  • Keith E. McPartland
Michael T. Ferejohn. Formal Causes: Definition, Explanation, and Primacy in Socratic and Aristotelian Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xii + 211. Cloth, £35.00.

Ferejohn’s clear and elegant book makes a strong case for a developmentalist reading of Aristotle’s views about the nature of philosophical understanding. It is a pleasurable read and engages with several issues central to Socratic and Aristotelian scholarship. Formal Causes will be an important resource for anyone thinking about Aristotle’s philosophical method and the relationships between his thought and that of his predecessors.

Ferejohn’s general picture of Aristotle’s philosophical development is familiar, if also somewhat controversial. In the works comprising the Organon, Aristotle’s thinking occurs largely within the confines he inherits from the Academy. He emphasizes the importance of formal causes in explanation, and conceives of a formal cause as the essence expressed by a definition. But as he engages in his physical studies, Aristotle recognizes the shortcomings of Platonic thinking in explaining change, and comes to emphasize the role of efficient and final causes in explanation. Finally, in his Metaphysics, Aristotle integrates the “logical” thinking of the Organon with the hylomorphic and teleological foundations of his physical thought.

What is novel and instructive is how Ferejohn uses careful analysis of Aristotle’s theory of scientific demonstration to support and give structure to his version of developmentalism. According to Ferejohn, Aristotle’s view of scientific understanding (epistēmē haplōs) is essentially the same as the view Socrates expresses in the Meno—we have understanding of something only when we have an explanatory account of it. Moreover, Aristotle inherits from the Euthyphro the idea that the best explanations will be definition-based. The basic structure of the dominant form of scientific explanation in the Posterior Analytics (APo) is already present in an inchoate form in Socrates’s discussion with Euthyphro. Socrates claims that being god-loved is a pathos of piety but is not what it is to be pious. An adequate account of what it is to be pious will explain the fact that piety has this pathos.

In Aristotle’s terms, god-lovedness is an idion of piety but not its essence. All and only pious things are loved by the gods, and this fact is non-accidental. However, we need the [End Page 672] definition stating the essence of piety to explain why all and only pious things are god-loved. Only then can we deploy the definition as the middle term in a demonstrative syllogism, the conclusion of which will be the claim that god-lovedness belongs to all and only pious things.

In APo B.11 Aristotle recognizes four types of aitiai that can serve as middle terms: the essence (formal aitia), necessitating condition, the initiator of change (efficient aitia), and the purpose (final aitia). Ferejohn points out that most of Aristotle’s examples involve the demonstration of an idion through a formal cause. The search for efficient causal explanations gives rise to a non-canonical form of demonstration. When we seek to explain the lunar eclipse, for example, we explain the fact that loss of light belongs to the moon. We do not begin with a definition stating the essence of the moon or the eclipse and demonstrate an idion. Rather, we use the efficient causal demonstration to arrive at a type of causal definition of the eclipse: an eclipse is a certain familiar loss of light of the moon due to the interposition of the earth between the sun and the moon. These non-canonical cases of demonstration display a concern with efficient and final causation that mark Aristotle’s departure from Platonic “logical” investigations, and his embrace of a new form of scientific explanation.

In Metaphysics Z, Aristotle integrates these two explanatory approaches in his mature thought about the nature of primary substance. Rather than taking substance kinds as static entities that can be given purely taxonomic definitions, Aristotle comes to see that the definitions of substance kinds will resemble the causal definition of an eclipse. Eclipses are accidental unities whose...


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