Excerpt from:  “Teaching Composition: Goals, Definitions, and Strategies,” Journal of Teaching Writing I.2 (Fall, 1982):  221-34.


The third strategy I have to recommend is a methodology of teaching based on the model of Aristotle’s four-part, causal analysis of objects. Aristotle’s scheme of analysis is designed to explain the existence of things in terms of their fundamental, necessary causes, those causes, that is, without reference to which one could not possibly account for any object’s having the shape and function that one actually sees it to possess in its concrete particularity.


Aristotle’s four causes are the material cause, the matter out of which, or the medium in which, an object exists; the efficient cause, the technical manner by which the material is worked up, the technical mode by which the matter is shaped and formed; the formal cause, the organizational design, or the blueprint, that operates as the organizing principle—the literal constructive principle—of the object’s making; and, finally, the final cause, the purpose for which the object is being made, the function it is intended to fulfill.


To illustrate briefly how this scheme of analysis works, Aristotle would say of a simple object such as a shoe, for example, that its material cause is leather, nails, thread, and glue; its efficient cause is cutting, gluing, pressing, and nailing; its formal cause is the imaginative model in the shoemaker’s head, or possibly the drawn design that copies his imaginative model; and its final cause, or function, is to provide a protective covering for the foot. Of all the things that might be said about this scheme of analysis—and many things have been said, of course, by commentators on Aristotle—I need say only three things here before suggesting how it can be adapted for use in composition classes. First, this mode of analysis always operates a posteriori: second, it always operates on particulars; and third, it enables one to define in an extremely precise way an object’s necessary causes of existence as opposed to its merely accidental or peripheral causes. Writing an essay on writing, for example, is an accidental cause—an accident of my biography—and the kind of paper I wrote my first draft on is a peripheral cause, but neither of these causes is capable of explaining why my essay says the particular things it says or why, in short, it is this way and not some other way.


The obvious question at this point is, how may this scheme be used in teaching composition? Clearly it must be adapted, not transplanted. Teaching Aristotle’s theory of causes simply as a mode of thinking might be intellectually enriching, or intellectually terrifying, depending on your taste for adventure, but is not going to teach a freshman to write better compositions without being given some special kind of application, or context. The potential adaptation to essay writing, however, is not difficult. The material cause of an essay is the words out of which it is made; the efficient cause is the narrative tone; the formal cause is the governing scheme of organization, or pattern of development; and the final cause is the specific set of responses aimed at being elicited from the reader.


Properly adapted, this model of analysis translates into four strategies for writing any given essay. The material cause, or words, encompasses all the strategies of style: the effective and appropriate use of images, descriptions, metaphors, similes, symbols, and other general figures of speech as well as such features of sentence structure as rhythms, antithesis, kinds of verbs, and the quality of adjectives. The efficient cause, or technical manner, encompasses all the strategies of tone: those devices that establish the writer's relationship to his or her topic; the devices that allow the writer to speak clinically, objectively, moralistically, ironically, earnestly, or comically; the devices that allow the writer to appear as the reader’s friend, teacher, fellow-learner, or authority; and the devices that allow the writer to be aggressive, incisive, tentative, indirect, inquiring, serious, or nonchalant. The formal cause, or blueprint, encompasses all the strategies of organization: cause and effect, particular to general, climactic order, anti-climactic order, or comparison and contrast. The final cause, or purpose, encompasses all the strategies of intention (the specific kind of effect the writer intends his or her piece to achieve): a satiric effect if one is ridiculing something, or persuasive effect if one is aiming to shape the reader’s opinions, an emotional effect if one is aiming at the passions, an ethical effect if one is attempting to form the reader’s moral judgment, or a comic effect if one is trying to be funny. In all of these causes the lists are intended to be merely descriptive, not exhaustive.

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