Formal Causation in Aristotle and in Analytic Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science

Project Description (English)

Causation is a basic feature of the structure of nature and thus in the centre of much research in both contemporary metaphysics and philosophy of science. Formal causation, however, which is one of the four traditional kinds of causation distinguished by Aristotle, is currently heavily under-researched and has even fallen into disrepute. One of the reasons for its bad reputation is that on first glance it seems to presuppose Plato’s mystical world of unchanging, eternal and detached forms, which is in conflict with the empiricist and evolutionary stance of modern science. At least in a naive version, it seems to be incapable of handling exceptions, and to be explanatory idle. This project is based on the double hypothesis that a mature theory of formal causation is not only able to withstand these objections, but also that without this variety of causation, important phenomena on both the microphysical and the biological level would remain without an explanation.

Formal causation is at play whenever a thing has a certain property because it is of a certain kind. Such properties are normally called essential properties. For instance, whales have the capability to breathe with lungs because they are mammals. In the literature, these capabilities are often seen as causal properties of things, and are often called dispositions. There is an extensive and influential trend in contemporary philosophy studying causation in terms of such dispositions, while the question of why things have some dispositions and lack others in the first place has largely been ignored.

This project wants to account for this question by means of formal causation. That is, it wants to explore the view that an object having a property can be explained through kind membership. Because a whale is a mammal, and thus has the whale form, it breathes in air with lungs, rather than in water with gills. The goal of this project is to test whether formal causation can be rehabilitated. Our hypothesis is that it can. Crucial to this is the development of a mature theory of formal causation. For this purpose, we will first reconstruct Aristotle’s theory of formal causation, taking special consideration of his biological works. Second, we will analyse how a mature theory of formal causation has to look like, in order to answer its critics. For this purpose, we will collect historical criticisms of formal causation, check their validity and, if necessary, suggest suitable amendments to the theory which avoid the objections. Finally, we show that the mature theory fills important gaps within contemporary debates about essence and necessity, dependence and grounding, laws of nature, dispositions, and functions. In outcome, the project shall bridge the gap between Aristotle scholarship and analytic metaphysics and philosophy of science.


Metaphysics, Philosophy of Science, Causality, Explanation, Aristotle, Formal cause, Essentialism, Dispositions, Functions, Ontological Dependence, Grounding, Laws of nature, Exceptions