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On Aristotle's Comparison Between the Nature of a Natural Substance and Craft-Expertise

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

The reason(s) as to why the natural world conducts itself in the way it does has perplexed the greatest thinkers throughout human history, and thus it is befitting of Aristotle to try and shed some light upon the trying dilemma. In oversimplified terms, Aristotle essentially sees nature as an agent ‘crafting’ her products—products being the natural substances that comprise the world we inhabit. And the comparison between the nature of a natural substance and craft-expertise is a comfortable analogy for Aristotle to fall back on when other facets of his philosophy transcend the mental capacity of many of his readers. According to Aristotle, like the process of crafting any particular object, nature accounts for fundamental principles such as agency, motion, and the general process of causation for an end when ‘crafting’ its substances. As is such, Aristotle is allowed to maintain his fundamental tenet of final causation, and he is also able to continue to appeal to the prospect that anything encountered in this life is comprised of matter and form; for a ship and the veins on a leaf are each respectively the culmination of matter and form—merely the former is a product of craft and the latter is a natural substance of nature. On the surface, Aristotle appears to have an adequate way to explain causation—emulating the way in which the Hippocratics claimed to have proper control over their area of expertise because they too could offer explanations for reliable and general connections in the medical realm (Ponesse 2011: 1). However, as will be further argued, there are several strengths and weakness pertaining to Aristotle’s comparison between the nature of a natural substance and craft-expertise. For while Aristotle’s assertions should hardly be dismissed outright, he holds multiple presuppositions that are left openly ambiguous or, at times, his explanations are simply less likely than alternative propositions. Herein, Part I will take a closer look at the claim that craft imitates nature, and transition into an analysis of how motion and change comes about in craft and nature respectively. Part II will subsequently hone in on Aristotle’s conception of causality—particularly focusing upon the potentiality of causality ‘for an end’ and/or out of ‘necessity’.

Part I

            In order to warrant a comparison between the nature of a natural substance and craft-expertise, Aristotle makes the claim that craft imitates nature. Like in nature, crafters also account for matter and form—the doctor knows both the form of health and the matter of bile as the housebuilder knows the form of the house and the matter of bricks and wood (194a21-7). Hence there is a craft that knows the matter and a craft that knows the form—and human crafters, in effect, use matter for an end’s sake. Essentially, Aristotle’s crafter that understands both matter and form is synonymous to a nature that has crafted natural substances in a beneficial manner—such as leaves protecting the fruit of a tree. If this was where Aristotle concluded his ‘imitating comparison’, his remarks would be compatible with Darwinian evolution and probably not be too bothersome to liberal Western monotheists either. However, Aristotle writes, “With products of a craft, then, we produce the matter for the sake of the product; with natural things, the matter is already present” (194b7-9). He makes this move because all of nature and its matter, in his view, has existed since the creation of the Earth, but the comparison is significantly weakened after this admission. Nature may very well still be the initial crafter as the shipbuilder initially creates the ship, but the distinction lies in that the shipbuilder can repair or merely improve the ship at a later stage whereas nature is restricted to creating something for an end and leaving it be amidst hardship. One can plausibly grant Aristotle the claim that craft imitates nature at the birth of production, but if the crafter can intervene when nature cannot at subsequent points, it does not follow that craft imitates nature.


Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship

A ship is a common symbol that Aristotle uses to allow readers to conceptualize his arguments. Namely, a ship can be considered to consist in matter and form: matter being the wood and other materials that comprise the ship and the form being the ship itself created for the purpose of sailing on water.

Nevertheless, craft does not need to completely replicate nature in order to warrant a comparison, and granted the aforementioned conclusions the plausibility of a strong correlation between craft and nature is still intact. Bearing this in mind, Aristotle also makes the claim that purpose does not require thought in either craft or nature. Of course, this seems to follow in relation to craft—the house does not inherit the thoughts of the housebuilder or, in the words of Aristotle, “…crafts do not deliberate” (199b27). But Aristotle also posits that plants and animals’ purposes do not require thought, and that such natural substances have an individual, innate ‘project’ of ‘living well’. This proposition is more difficult to accept—namely because Aristotle appears to subtly impose the view that natural substances can have individual purposes that all strive towards ‘living well’. If natural substances’ purpose is individualized and established outside of thought, then the premise that such purposes would be geared towards ‘living well’—not to mention that ‘living well’ is a rather subjective pretense—is an assumption. Using humans as an example, we are born with drives, but rational thought dictates whether one chooses to live solely for such desires, whether to pursue ‘higher knowledge’, or whether to even live rationally at all. Accordingly, there are instances in which purpose will require thought for natural substances for reasons including innate desires not yielding a purpose or, in the case of plants and ‘lower animals’, one’s purpose—survival being at the forefront—may not be attainable in a certain environment. Therefore the natural substance is forced to adapt, in many cases using thought, in the manner of either altering its structure to achieve its purpose or altering its secondary purpose(s) altogether. Purposiveness does not appear to be distinguished and static for the natural substance like it is for the individual craft, and a natural substance’s purposiveness does also appear to require thought in a multiplicity of scenarios.

            Further questions regarding the validity of comparing craft and nature arise when the principles of motion and change are considered. Aristotle notes that natural things are unique because “each of them has within itself a principle of motion and rest”, but he does not distinguish whether a natural substance is self-moved or moved by something else or a culmination of the two (192b15). The notion that the principle of motion lies ‘within itself’ would seem to suggest that natural substance is self-moved yet, as an example, Aristotle postulates that body is moved by soul—but, similar to contemporary dualism-monism debates, whether the soul is an entity within or outside of the body is a disputed issue. Elements such as air and water must be moved by something too, and Lang writes in summation of Aristotle’s explanation’s shortcoming, “[for Aristotle] the problem lies in identifying the mover” (Lang 2007: 44). Clearly natural substances have the capability of moving, changing, and resting in relation to what attributes respective natural substances were endowed with ‘by nature’. Whether to denote agency to either external nature or the internal natural substance, often times a freely-living actor, still remains unsolved. In contrast, craft-expertise does not have this problem: the crafter produces the craft, and the craft can only change [or not change] as a result of what the crafter allows. There is no agency and natural locus of control in the craft—the crafter holds the keys to the car. Again, the craft and nature analogy has some strength but any strength in the comparison appears to be outweighed by weakness; in Aristotle, agency and motion is clear in craft production and unclear in the nature of natural substances—leaving a fundamental divide.

Part II

                In terms of causation, Aristotle adamantly advocates that causal sequences are directed towards ends until reaching ‘the final end’. Therefore, he sees regularly occurring benefits as neither a result of accident nor of chance because chance events do not occur regularly. Emphasizing the frequency of causal sequences, Aristotle writes, “A man, for example, is building because he is a builder, and he is a builder insofar as he has the building craft; his building craft, then, is the prior cause, and the same is true in all cases” (195b22-23). In the aforementioned example there is a clear chain directed towards an end: man learns how to be a builder, practices his craft, and proceeds to build a house. In addition, and this is important to Aristotle, due to the sequence of learning, practicing, and producing a craft, the result of a qualified housebuilder is going to usually or always occur—the sequence directed towards the end for something (a built house) ensures this. Aristotle then highlights the comparison between nature and craft in causality when ascertaining, “If, then, the products of a craft are for something, clearly the products of nature are also for something; for there is the same relation of later stages to earlier in productions of a craft in productions of nature” (199a17-19). Aristotle uses the growth of leaves to protect fruit and the downward direction of roots garnering nourishment as examples showing that nature consists of causal sequences geared towards ‘an end’ as well (199a28). Aristotle’s distinction between ‘for an end’ and ‘of necessity’ will be addressed shortly, but nevertheless this is a very strong argument by Aristotle. Causal sequences directed at ends are clearly existent in craft and in nature and, by acknowledging that chance events can and do occur, Aristotle is not restricted by a hard determinist vantage point that could call into question whether crafters have the required agency to direct sequences ‘for something’.

            The main opposition that attempts to hinder Aristotle’s ‘final causation’ / ‘for an end’ explanation is addressed by Empedocles and his explanation as to why human teeth have developed the way they have. Whereas Aristotle insists that they must have come about ‘for something’ if they did not result from chance, and again Aristotle does not believe in evolution—things are how they are and always have been—, Empedocles can claim that teeth in their developed form were once rare but, due to it being beneficial, teeth have developed in a manner that is conducive to chewing the foods we digest. Empedocles’ explanation was essentially a precursor to the discoveries of Charles Darwin. In this view, developments such as human teeth or a fish’s gills can be explained as coming to be simply out of being beneficial to various species’ continuity. At first glance, this appears to shatter Aristotelian ‘final causation’; for seemingly natural substances cannot have the purpose of being directed towards an end if they are constantly subject to change. However, even though evolution did not appeal to Aristotle, ‘final causation’ appears compatible with Empedocles’ empirical stance that natural substances change if change is for its respective betterment. For Aristotle’s view was that natural substances are directed towards ‘living well’—meaning that they would direct themselves towards the very point in which Empedocles acknowledges that a change would occur. Like craft, natural substances will remain in a sequence ‘for something’—Aristotle merely does not account for the sequence’s entirety like Darwin was able to account for centuries later.


Charles Darwin
Credit: http://galapagosonline.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/charles-darwin-in-galapagos/

Since Arisotle believed that things were 'how they are and always have been' he was not have been considered an advocate of Darwinian evolution. However, in appealing to final causation, Aristotle actually hinted at many ideas that scientific progress allowed Darwin to prove. 

Lastly, Aristotle touches upon necessity, and distinguishes a difference between events occurring out of necessity and events occurring for an end. Between matter and form, he denotes primacy to the form because form is the end that the matter that is subserving purpose is directed towards. In accordance, he writes, “What is necessary, then, is conditional, but not [necessary] as an end; for necessity is in the matter, whereas end is in the form” (200a14). Aristotle uses a wall as an example: a wall requires material components, but it is the form of protection that makes a wall a wall as opposed to a ‘pile of hard matter’ per se (200a7).The chosen example Aristotle uses does not do him any favors, for a ‘pile of hard matter’ is still going to provide protection regardless of whether a crafter or nature ‘crafted’ the form of protection. Nonetheless, the real weakness here is that Aristotle seems to overcomplicate his philosophy: if something is directed for an end then the end and the preceding stages will occur out of necessity—like a causal chain by definition entails. Form may be relevant but, according to Aristotle, form is going to exist in craft and nature-initiated causal chains alike. Thus, matter would never exist independent of form: a ‘pile of hard matter’ will either have the form of a ‘crafted’ wall or it will have the form of some other purpose by nature or crafter—matter cannot exist independent of form in a causal chain that is for an end.

            In conclusion, Aristotle’s comparison between the nature of natural substances and craft-expertise is an intriguing one. There are differences between the production of crafts and the process of nature, so unsurprisingly there are strengths and weaknesses in the comparison. Overall, drawing comparisons in causality appeared to be where Aristotle made some of his strongest points, whereas the claim that craft imitates nature and its motions remained weaker. Regardless, a vast majority of Aristotle’s contributions cannot be definitively disproven, and it goes without saying that his theories are ubiquitous in the many prevalent debates of philosophy.


Irwin, T. and Fine, G., Aristotle Introductory Readings: Physics II. Indianapolis, IN / Cambridge, UK: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (1996). 42-62.

Lang, H., The Order of Nature in Aristotle’s Physics: Place and the Elements. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (2007).

Ponesse, J., “Aristotle’s Ethics”, Bryn Mawr Classical Review. 8. 1. (2010). 176.



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