Final Cause in the Case of the Man-faced Ox

One of the strangest opinions related in Aristotle, is the view he ascribes to Empedocles in Physics II.8.  In context, Empedocles is invoked after Aristotle asks why we should not treat every natural occurrence like the rain, that is, as a process which does not occur for the sake of something, and applying this line of explanation to everything in nature, also say, for example, that teeth came to be in such a way as to be merely coincidentally felicitous for animal chewing.  Of course, on the other hand, things can also turn out coincidentally poor for animals as well, and such is the case when Aristotle relates the monstrous suggestion of Empedocles:

ὅπου μὲν οὖν ἅπαντα συνέβη ὥσπερ κἂν εἰ ἕνεκά του ἐγί-
γνετο, ταῦτα μὲν ἐσώθη ἀπὸ τοῦ αὐτομάτου συστάντα ἐπι-    (30)
τηδείως· ὅσα δὲ μὴ οὕτως, ἀπώλετο καὶ ἀπόλλυται, κα-
θάπερ Ἐμπεδοκλῆς λέγει τὰ βουγενῆ ἀνδρόπρῳρα.

So when all turned out just as if they had come to be for something [ἕνεκά του, i.e., final cause], then the things, suitably constituted [συστάντα ἐπιτηδείως] as an automatic outcome, survived; when not, they died, and die, as Empedocles says of the man-headed calves. (Trans. Charlton, Physics II.8, 198b29-32).

It was perhaps because of Aristotle’s own example of teeth coming to be fortuitously arranged that prompts his introduction of the man-headed calves, whose dentition was not favorable to the kind of food suitable for a bovine digestive system.  Whatever was the cause of the demise of the poor man-headed ox (were Aristotle to grant that it ever existed), however, we can infer that due to some mismatch of parts, the animal was unable to survive.  Yet, remember that the man-headed ox is an interlude to the discussion of rain, to which Aristotle now wishes to return, adding an important qualification to emphasize how in fact rain is determined by a final cause.       

ὁ μὲν   (32)
οὖν λόγος, ᾧ ἄν τις ἀπορήσειεν, οὗτος, καὶ εἴ τις ἄλλος
τοιοῦτός ἐστιν· ἀδύνατον δὲ τοῦτον ἔχειν τὸν τρόπον. ταῦτα
μὲν γὰρ καὶ πάντα τὰ φύσει ἢ αἰεὶ οὕτω γίγνεται ἢ ὡς ἐπὶ   (35)
τὸ πολύ, τῶν δ’ ἀπὸ τύχης καὶ τοῦ αὐτομάτου οὐδέν. οὐ
(199a) γὰρ ἀπὸ τύχης οὐδ’ ἀπὸ συμπτώματος δοκεῖ ὕειν πολλάκις
τοῦ χειμῶνος, ἀλλ’ ἐὰν ὑπὸ κύνα· οὐδὲ καύματα ὑπὸ κύνα,
ἀλλ’ ἂν χειμῶνος.

This [i.e. the biologically advantageous occurring by coincidence], or something like it, is the account which might give us pause.  It is impossible, however, that this should be how things are.  The things mentioned, and all things which are due to nature, come to be as they do always (αἰεὶ) or for the most part (ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ) and nothing which is the outcome of luck or an automatic outcome does that.  We do not think that it is the outcome of luck or coincidence that there is a lot of rain winter, but only if there is a lot of rain in August; nor that there are heatwaves in August, but only if there is a heatwave in winter. (Trans. Charlton, Physics II.8, 198b32-199a3).

Here Aristotle adds that when things occur with a level of considerable frequency, they cannot be attributed to luck or the automatic.  When rain comes about in the winter (as opposed to a meteorologically unusual time), it is the result of a final cause.  Alan Code points out how this teleological explanation of rain can be fruitfully paralleled to Aristotle’s other example of teeth, “So too we can distinguish the formation of a front tooth simpliciter from the formation of a front tooth during the development of a human, and see that the latter is not coincidentally connected with the suitability of the tooth for biting”  (132).  This is saying, in a way suitably technical for Aristotle, that teeth are not things that come about out of the blue, as if a set of marbles or flowers were just as likely candidates to have filled the mouth of a lion as were canines and molars.  Rain happens frequently or for the most part in the winter, while in lions frequently or for the most part teeth come about during its process of maturation.  These teeth, considered as parts, of the animal must be considered with an eye to the form, that is, the final cause of the animal, if we are to make any sense of why they happen to come about with regularity.

A passage that might be pressed into service on this point of the poverty of material explanation is in Physics II.9 as Aristotle us tells how a real rube might suppose a wooden city wall is built.  On this person’s misunderstanding, what happens is that the foundation of the wall, the stones and gravel, sink down into the earth because they are heaviest, then the earth, a little lighter, comes to rest on top of this, while finally, lightest of all, the wooden posts of the fence itself surmount the earth.  His criticism of this understanding of a city wall is that although it is necessary for a city wall to have these three parts, they are nevertheless nothing more than a material cause of the wall.  They do not tell us that the wall is for the protection and preservation of certain things (ἕνεκα τοῦ κρύπτειν ἄττα καὶ σώζειν) (Physics II.9, 200a6-7).  Aristotle’s explanation helps to draw out the fact that the form of something can also be referred to as its account or definition (λόγος).  Within the definition of a city wall, of course, is the notion that it is for the protection and preservation of certain things, and definition to a greater degree in fact, than whether it is made of wood, chain links, or concrete, gives us a meaningful explanation of the wall.  In the ox-headed man example, then, the reason a man has a man-head is because the form of the man dictates that he has such a part as a man, not, as Empedocles might erroneously assert, that the reason a man has a man-head is because, of the parts that happened to come about, one was a man-head.  Similarly, if Empedocles’ ox-man was more than merely fanciful, but based on observation of biological deformation, then the rare irregularity of these monsters presents the same case: the regularity of the occurance of non-deformed boys and oxen testifies to the existence of a final cause, their form.

Form as Neither Art nor External

I have already, with much frustration, attempted to make sense of the beginning of Lamda 3.  In light of the rest of the remaining parts of the chapter, it strikes me that there is a possibility that Aristotle had some Third Man-ish worries in mind.  But, be that as it may or may not be, there is undeniably an assault on the Theory of the Forms here. 

In conjunction with his opening statement that there must be 1) a subject 2) a form 3) an initial mover, Aristotle says we must next,

“observe that every substance is generated from something which has the same name (“substances” including not only natural but all other products). Things are generated either by art or by nature or by chance or spontaneously. Art is a generative principle in something else; nature is a generative principle in the subject itself (for man begets man); the other causes are privations of these” (1070a4-10 trans. Treddenick) (1).

Aristotle continues on with an explication of form, matter and the hylomorphic compound consisting of form and matter.  Then he notes,

“Moving causes are causes in the sense of preexistent things, but formal causes coexist with their effects. For it is when the man becomes healthy that health exists, and the shape of the bronze sphere comes into being simultaneously with the bronze sphere”  (1070a21-24 trans. Treddenick) (2).

He concludes by referencing his aphoristic “man begets man” from earlier in the chapter and says,

Clearly then there is no need on these grounds for the Ideas to exist; for man begets man, the individual begetting the particular person. And the same is true of the arts, for the art of medicine is the formula of health”  (1070a26-30 trans. Treddenick) (3).

Aristotle it appears, is using nature, form, and account interchangeably in this chapter, for at least one important reason: to emphasize that form is a “generative principle in the subject itself,” and does not arise from outside itself.  This claim is already at odds with Plato’s concept of Form, and “man begets man” is evidently a common sense vindication of how things come to be, from which there is no deviation.  Indeed figs don’t come from thistles.

Plato dismisses Aristotle’s dictum that, “formal causes coexist with their effects,” i.e., they come to be at the same time (ἅμα).  Plato instead maintains that forms precede their effects, and that, returning us to the beginning of the chapter, conflates the form and the initial mover.  Thus, instead of  1) a subject 2) a form 3) an initial mover, there is 1) a subject and 2) a form/initial mover.  If a form is an external force, as it would have to be on Plato’s view, then by Aristotle’s understanding above (“Art is a generative principle in something else”) this would make a form an art.  But Plato’s concept of form is clearly not an art, so either form has some other definition or there are no forms.



Μετὰ ταῦτα ὅτι ἑκάστη ἐκ συνωνύμου γίγνεται οὐσία· τὰ γὰρ φύσει οὐσίαι καὶ τἆλλα· ἢ γὰρ τέχνῃ ἢ φύσει γίγνεται ἢ τύχῃ ἢ τῷ αὐτομάτῳ. ἡ μὲν οὖν τέχνη ἀρχὴ ἐν ἄλλῳ, ἡ δὲ φύσις ἀρχὴ ἐν αὐτῷ (ἄνθρωπος γὰρ ἄνθρωπον γεννᾷ), αἱ δὲ λοιπαὶ αἰτίαι στερήσεις τούτων.

Τὰ μὲν οὖν κινοῦντα αἴτια ὡς προγεγενημένα ὄντα, τὰ δ᾿ ὡς ὁ λόγος ἅμα. ὅτε γὰρ ὑγιαίνει ὁ ἄνθρωπος, τότε καὶ ἡ ὑγίεια ἔστιν, καὶ τὸ σχῆμα τῆς χαλκῆς σφαίρας ἅμα καὶ ἡ χαλκῆ σφαῖρα.

φανερὸν δὴ ὅτι οὐδὲν δεῖ διά γε ταῦτ᾿ εἶναι τὰς ἰδέας· ἄνθρωπος γὰρ ἄνθρωπον γεννᾷ, ὁ καθ᾿ ἕκαστον τὸν τινά. ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν τεχνῶν· ἡ γὰρ ἰατρικὴ τέχνη ὁ λόγος τῆς ὑγιείας ἐστί.

Goes On Forever, Then Stops With Aristotle

After these things, [one must observe] that neither matter nor form comes to be, I mean the ultimate ones.  For everything undergoes change as something and by something and into something.  The by something is the initiating mover, the something is the matter, and the into which is the form.  Therefore they continue into an infinite regress, if not only bronze comes to be round but also the round comes to be and the bronze comes to be.  Indeed, there must be a stopping point. (My translation, Metaphysics 1069b35-1070a4) (1) (2).

In an attempt to explain the “infinite regress” mentioned above, I have made two previous posts (1st post, 2nd post).

There are at least two errors in the explanation of change, considered as opposite extremes.  One is to claim that something comes from nothing.  This is no explanation, however, for we simply have two incidentally contiguous events, the state of non-being and then the state of being, which are erroneously construed as having a causal connection.  The other error is to become “cause happy” and multiply explanations, destroying any causal cogency which an account of change might have had otherwise.  It is this second notion which I think Aristotle is trying to neutralize.  When he claims that having to give an explanation for both the “round” and the “bronze” apart from the bronze becoming a round, leads to an “infinite regress,” the point he is pressing is that, unless we accept the termini of a change “from a this, to a that” we are stuck with the philosophically inert task of endless explanation.  In this erroneous method, from Aristotle’s point of view, what is being proposed is simply an ever increasing succession of events, with nothing tying it together.  A subject of change would provide this unity of account.  Without this subject of change, a substratum, there is a chain of succession both receding and similarly reaching out into the future without limit.  There is likewise nothing that could be imposed on this succession to prevent it from applying to the cosmos as a whole.  Thus the “infinite regress” is perhaps better understood as an infinite succession, intended primarily to single out for criticism a futile explanatory chain.   The explanatory role of change cannot be pawned off, the buck must stop somewhere.     



Μετὰ ταῦτα ὅτι οὐ γίγνεται οὔτε ἡ ὕλη οὔτε τὸ εἶδος,   (35)
λέγω δὲ τὰ ἔσχατα. πᾶν γὰρ μεταβάλλει τὶ καὶ ὑπό
(1070a) τινος καὶ εἴς τι· ὑφ’ οὗ μέν, τοῦ πρώτου κινοῦντος· ὃ δέ, ἡ
ὕλη· εἰς ὃ δέ, τὸ εἶδος. εἰς ἄπειρον οὖν εἶσιν, εἰ μὴ μόνον
ὁ χαλκὸς γίγνεται στρογγύλος ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ στρογγύλον
ἢ ὁ χαλκός· ἀνάγκη δὴ στῆναι.

Note that I have flip flopped (again!) on the translation of the last sentence, owing to considerations laid out above.