understanding media 2: aristotle's four cause types


1    marshall mcluhan's 'hot and cold media' as mapping
2    comparisons with aristotle's four types of cause
3    hot hot hot: powerpoint presentations and the easy reversibility of material cause
4    the fool and the enthymeme: it's for the audience to say . . .

aristotle's four types of cause

Readers of Aristotle's Metaphysics know the famous four-part schema: (1) Formal cause is similar to the desired physical appearance of something. More generally, it is any state that constitutes an authentic 'identity' of something. In the commonly used example of a sculpture creating a statue of Apollo, the formal cause is whatever makes the statue identifiable as a statue of Apollo; the proper look, the correct associations, attributes, etc. (2) Material cause is the material that supports this 'physical' end-point. If the statue is make out of bronze, that metal is regarded as the material cause. (3) The final cause belongs to the 'reception' or 'subjective' side of things. The final cause is the goal of having a statue of Apollo — the 'point of it all.' (4) A by-product of this goal is the set of actions undertaken by the patrons, artists, artisans, etc. in bringing about the completed project. Efficient cause takes the form of an 'action plan' to get the thing accomplished.

It's easy to see how the four causes fall into two groups — one directed towards objective states-of-affairs and another directed towards the human subjects involved. Imagine a debate about the raising money to fund the statue. The 'point' of having a statue would be a prominent issue, not so much the appearance of the statue, which would be held to certain norms and expectations. On the material side, we can easily see another dichotomy, which might be characterized as a distinction between 'representation' and 'artifact'. The formal cause has to do with how the statue works symbolically, but the material used has little or no direct symbolic value. This has to be qualified, because a statue of bronze would be more valuable than one of wood, and that would ultimately feed back into the symbolic 'message' of the statue.

This dichotomy is mirrored on the subjective side. The 'final cause' that is the 'point of it all' is supported by the 'artifact' of efficient cause. You can imagine that a vote at a town meeting could 'halt the work' if things went wrong or got too expensive. Of course this also impacts the formal cause (you're not going to see a statue of Apollo any time soon), and that deal on bronze smelting just fell through.

But, the general division between objective and subjective states-of-affairs has to do with ways of describing, acting, and evaluating. McLuhan's schema of 'hot' and 'cold' is instructive. Formal and material cause take us directly to the detail of the work. There are details on the subjective side as well, but these are 'cold' in comparison. They involve mediation, rhetoric, consensus, some idea of community or social order. A passage from Understanding Media makes this clear:

A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition." A cartoon is "low definition," simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.

--Understanding Media, p. 23

The 'heat' of formal and material cause come from this criterion of high definition. It's filled with particulars, details, and precision matches. The coolness of the subjective side matches up with what McLuhan says about the public realm in general: it is capable of modification by subtle nuance. It's not so much a 'generality' as opposed to the specificity of the hot details of material reality as it is a condition of unstable meanings that 'slide around' until fixed by some consensus or event.

Final cause is the realm of praxis — the public realm, requiring participants to be well versed in human nature. 'What subjects are like 101' would be the required course for all who wish to effect this realm. The ancient Greek goal of praxis was the polis, the ideal city. In contrast, the issues of formal cause were covered by philosophy's concern for being — eidos. Here, issues had to do with discovering the demon that seemed to work from inside matter (physis), a kind of sensus communis ('common sense' or quintessence), which had its counterpart in the eros that brought people together.

In the case of artificial objects, poiesis (pronounced 'pee-is-is') was handled by artisans, who worked from tradition. Artistic practice was based on secrets passed from generation to generation, so it's easy to see that the thought of debate and philosophical critique was antithetical to the idea of good art. Artists had control of the 'artifact' end of both objective and subjective sides of the causal quadrad, but they were principally located on the side of the object. Whoever directed their activities or funded them could be found on the right-hand, or subjective side, although the activities of causal completion were there, too.

In this way, it's easy to see how the 'hot' artists and 'cool patrons' related — low to high, socially and causally. This might seem to be a raw deal for artists, but when you're in control of the hot details and your counterpart patrons are subject to factional debates and doubts about the whole process, you're probably the only one in real control.

This re-configuration of Aristotle's cause isn't intended to provide revolutionary commentary on the Metaphysics. In fact, there are many unsatisfactory aspects of the comparison that are misleading. But, the point is, instead, to show how the hot-cold division immediately points up key relationships between those three major areas of Greek thought: philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry; or, nature, the city, and art. Without resorting to generalizations and their inevitable contradictions, this arrangement goes straight to the issue of 'richness of data' that has a topological rather than a logical configuration. 'Richness' is not in itself desirable. Rather, it is obligating. In the realm of praxis, the cool lack of richness allows for polysemy, reconfiguration, and the imagination of alternative orders. In the dialectic back-and-forth motion between object and subject, hot and cold generate a real 'trial-and-error' situation that plays a central role in social evolution.

For selections from McLuhan's Understanding Media go to:


© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved