Aristotle’s Guide to Home Interiors

The clock in the picture is on our living room wall, and was a birthday present to my wife from my sister and my mother a year or two ago.

I often find myself looking at it and pondering why it feels like a “single” object, given that it consists of four parts, each mounted separately on the wall. And perhaps that’s how it should be seen: four separate items, with the connection between them being purely illusory – or at least, simply a connection that the observer makes in their head, rather than something inherent to the clock as an object (or set of objects).

But it occurred to me the other day that a better (and less reductionistic) answer might be found in Aristotle: specifically, his concept of the “four causes”. Or, to put it another way, that our clock might be a way for me to try to get my head round this concept (and to invite more knowledgeable contributions from those who already understand it!). So here goes. 🙂

Wiki summarises the four causes as follows:

  • A thing’s material cause is the material of which it consists. (For a table, that might be wood; for a statue, that might be bronze or marble.)
  • A thing’s formal cause is its form, i.e. the arrangement of that matter.
  • A thing’s efficient or moving cause is “the primary source of the change or rest.” An efficient cause of x can be present even if x is never actually produced and so should not be confused with a sufficient cause. (Aristotle argues that, for a table, this would be the art of table-making, which is the principle guiding its creation.)
  • A thing’s final cause is its aim or purpose. That for the sake of which a thing is what it is. (For a seed, it might be an adult plant. For a sailboat, it might be sailing. For a ball at the top of a ramp, it might be coming to rest at the bottom.)

So I think we can now see how the clock can be regarded as a single object “in itself”: because each part shares the same “four causes”:

  • They are made out of the same material.
  • They share an overall form, each part being intended to form part of the greater whole (see how two of the butterflies fit the outlines in the clock, as if they’d broken away from it).
  • They share the same efficient cause, since they were made according to the same principles of design and manufacture.
  • They share the same final cause: namely, to provide an object that is both a timepiece and a wall decoration.

So, over to you, philosophers: have I got the right end of the stick here?


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