On Aristotle’s Metaphysics, book 1 (aka Alpha) (ca. 340 BCE). What constitutes a basic explanation of the universe? Featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth.
Aristotle famously give us four types of causation; the Greek word is “aitia,” which is perhaps better translated as “explanation,” and in this book, Aristotle (or whoever put this book together based on Aristotle’s teachings) considers the work of past philosophers to see if the types of explanations they give are sufficient.
For instance, Thales said that everything is fundamentally made of water, and other Pre-Socratics likewise argued that there is some one (or two or three) fundamental material types of stuff. But these explanations, says Aristotle, can’t explain why change occurs. He similarly criticizes the Pythagoreans who say that numbers are somehow the fundamental constituents of the world. Since numbers are static, how can they explain how things in the world get moving? This is why other philosophers such as Empedocles introduced two warring forces as the fundamental explanation of the world, such as love and strife. This too is still not a complete account of the “why” of things, for Aristotle; we’re going to need all four of his type of explanation: not just the material causes (the fundamental matter that makes things up) and the efficient cause (what sets something moving), but also a formal cause (what makes something have the pattern it has; this is where Plato’s forms will come in, and Aristotle’s revisions of that doctrine) and final cause (the purpose for which something comes into being; also relevant to the form, which is not just a matter of the structure of something, but what it’s internally trying to become, such as an acorn “trying” to become a tree, and an eye being designed to effectively see).
We actually spend most of our time in this first half talking about not metaphysics but epistemology: What kind of knowledge of something do we consider most comprehensive and wise? Following Plato, Aristotle criticizes people for merely having techne, which is experiential knowledge that allows them to work with some material, such as knowing how best to raise horses or build boats through having simply done a lot of this and learned practical techniques. As good an artisan as someone with this kind of knowledge might be, Aristotle claims that we regard a greater understanding than this as including the theoretical underpinnings of these practical endeavors:
We officially read the Joe Sachs translation (1999). Many of us also read the relevant portions of Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Aristotle and the Metaphysics by Vasilis Politis (2004).
Image by Genevieve Arnold. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.
If you like out podcast, check out Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.