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.

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.

Plato’s Theory of Forms as the Object of All “Lovers”

Plato is a notorious indulger of etymology.  Not only in the Cratylus, the most famous and lengthy application of that science, but everywhere in the Platonic corpus there are appeals to the source and the sense of words.  Often these etymologies strike the reader as ludicrous, not necessarily because we know better through linguistic rigor, though we do, but because surely some of the explanations offered had to have been absurd to even the Greeks of the time.  It is frustrating then to determine the purpose of these etymologies: are they mini-myths guiding us to some moral end? are they jokes? are they (improbably) earnest explanations on Plato’s part, shockingly ignorant of the actual derivation of the word?

Whatever the explanation turns out to be, the most helpful method of exposition will be to unravel the etymology following Plato’s own announced method of explanation.  When we come to the Republic, Book V, we meet with one of the most famous explanations in all of Plato, etymological or otherwise (474c).  Here Socrates embarks on the task of explaining who the real philosopher is.  He begins by reminding Glaucon that it was agreed that “lovers” of something love all of it, not one part.  He continues to give examples of these lovers, literally “philo-” prefixed to an adjective or noun, coining what we can straightforwardly translate as, “lovers of X” or “X lovers.”  His examples include lovers of boys, lovers of honor, lovers of wine and lovers of food.

Socrates, I offer, is under the conviction that when we say that when someone is a lover of X, he loves each particular manifestation of that X.  If one fails to do so, he is not a lover of X.  This is odd reasoning, one might say, because if I am a car-lover, meaning that I, a rich man, collect cars, but nevertheless do not have a penchant for Chevrolets, then somehow I am disqualified from the title of car-lover.  This appears out of sorts.  However, let us look at this from another extreme.  If someone were to be a donut-lover in this sense, that he only loved sprinkled, chocolate eclairs, would we be right to call him a lover of donuts?  In this case it is much more suspect; we would prefer to call such a man a lover-of-sprinkled-chocolate-eclairs. 

It is perhaps in this later sense that Socrates is appealing to our everyday use of language.  When we say we are a lover of wine, to use one of his examples, we are implicitly going over and above a confession for any particular instance of wine.  This is simply what the term means.  If I had simply been after this or that cup of wine, why then, after having imbibed it, I should no longer have a need for that moniker.  Yet the name sticks. I say I am a wine-lover, not was a wine-lover, because there is something compelling me, a desire for wine which transcends instances of wine, and goes further yet. 

This then is what Socrates is after.  So the lover of wisdom, literally the philosophos, is he who determinately seeks after all and every kind of wisdom that there is.  Not the wisdom here or there, but the true Form of wisdom.  He seeks after that which does not pass away, and precisely because he is never satisfied having learned this or that, it is shown that this or that is not what he was looking for.  He yearns for a glimpse of what is, for he hastens after knowledge, not opinion.