Knowledge According to Aristotle


The Greek philosopher, Aristotle   famously claimed that “all men by nature desire to know.”   But what, according to Aristotle,   does it mean to know something,   and how do we arrive at knowledge of the world?   The purpose of this article is to try and answer these questions and in the process provide a detailed examination of Aristotle's   famous doctrine of the four causes, paying particular attention to his teleological view of nature.

Aristotle,   is without a doubt one of the most influential thinkers in history. His influence has been so great that he has been given prestigious nicknames such as “the master of those who know”  ,“Aristotle the wise”  ,“the first teacher”  , and simply, “the philosopher”  .

He made contributions to many fields, including logic, biology, epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, political theory, aesthetics, rhetoric and philosophy of mind. The huge body of his work, the duration of time that has passed since he lived and the fact that he is one of the most commented upon thinkers in history, makes the interpretation of even the most basic points of his thought controversial.


Aristotle   was driven by a desire for knowledge, and believed that human beings, by virtue of having rationality, are animals that naturally desire explanations of things in the world. Throughout his life he constructed an edifice of thought laying out the requirements and processes necessary for the attainment of knowledge.

The first step in the acquisition of knowledge, according to Aristotle,   is to identify the puzzles and difficulties   that the various phenomena of the world present to us. As he wrote:

“ …one should have surveyed all the difficulties beforehand because people who inquire without first stating the difficulties are like those who do not know where they have to go. ”

Identifying a puzzle, whether it be in ethics, natural philosophy (science), or metaphysics, requires the use of the senses. Observation with the senses allows one to “state the appearances”   making us aware of the puzzles that require explanation while also providing us with the information our minds need to discover the potential solutions to these puzzles. For him it is not merely sensory experience that leads to an understanding of the world,  rather understanding arises from the activity of the mind working with the information form the senses.

In addition to stating the appearances, Aristotle   also saw great value in examining what he called endoxa.   A Greek word translated as “credible beliefs”   or “reputable opinions”  . A significant portion of the writings of his consist of him examining and critiquing the views of other philosophers such as Plato   and the Pre-Socratic philosophers.


The appearances and endoxa were not the end point of Aristotle’s  quest for knowledge, but only the beginning. As he wrote in Physics, in the quest for truth the natural process

“ is to start from the things which are more knowable and obvious to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature. ”
Aristotle   Physics
In other words, while there is value in incredible beliefs and appearances, ultimately the goal is to use these as starting points in one’s journey to the knowledge of the world.

The question now arises as to how Aristotle  determined when proper knowledge of something had been acquired or whether further investigation was required?

For him a proper explanation needed to satisfy what has come to be called the four causal account of explanatory adequacy.   This doctrine is one of the most famous, important, and powerful components of Aristotle’s  philosophy, playing a significant role in much of his thought.

A lot of confusion surrounding this doctrine comes from the use of the word cause,   as the 20th century philosopher John Lloyd Ackrill   explains:

“ [The doctrine of the four causes] might better be called a doctrine of the four ‘becauses’: Aristotle is distinguishing different sorts of answers that can be given to the question ‘Why?’ or ‘Because of what?’. . . .therefore, remember that the four so-called ‘causes’ are types of explanatory factors. Aristotle’s suggestion is that a full knowledge and understanding of anything requires a grasp of all four. ”
John Lloyd Ackrill   Aristotle the Philosopher

The Four Causes  

The explanatory factors that Aristotle  deemed necessary for proper knowledge of something: The most basic of the four causes is called the material cause   and simply requires an understanding of what something is made of or as Aristotle   put it:

“ that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists. ”

In addition to identifying what something is made of, Aristotle  also believed that proper knowledge required one to identify the pattern, structure, or form that the matter realizes in becoming a determinate thing, and this is what Aristotle  called the formal cause.  

Next, is the efficient cause   and this requires identification of the agent or entity responsible for the matter taking its specific, structure or form.

And lastly the final cause,   is identified when one can state the purpose or function of the thing being explained, or as he put it:

“ that for the sake of which a thing is done. ”


In his work Physics, he uses the example of a statue to help explain the four causes using a bronze statue of Hercules.   The material cause, or that which the statue is made of, would be the bronze. The statue’s form, in this case the body of Hercules  , would be the formal cause. The efficient cause of the statue, would be the sculptor, which is the agent responsible for the matter becoming what it is. To determine the final cause of the statute, one must identify its function, purpose, or more generally what the statue is for. The statue’s function could simply be to honor Hercules   – so this would be its final cause. The ability to spell out these four causes, or explanatory factors of the statue, would, according to Aristotle,  reveal that we have a full understanding of it.

The final cause, in particular, has proven very controversial to those who study Aristotle. The controversy arises because Aristotle identified final causes not only in artifacts, but he also saw final causes as operative in nature. In other words he believed that natural organisms such as plants and animals, as well as their parts, such as the liver, teeth, lungs etc.., had final causes. The view is known as a teleological view of nature   as in Greek the word telos is translated as “end”   or “purpose”  


What has never been shunned, however, is Aristotle’s observation noted earlier that human beings by nature have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Going further than this relatively tame observation, he posited that the exercise of reason, along with being the most pleasant activity we can engage in, also gave one the potential to transcend their mortal existence, and come in contact with that which is divine:

“ . . .it is not insofar as he is man that he will live [a life of contemplation], but in so far as something divine is present in him. . . If intellect is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything. ”
Aristotle   Nicomachean Ethics


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