Events In Karabakh Explained By Aristotle’s ‘Four Causes’ Doctrine – Analysis


Given all the polemics and distortions around the recent Azerbaijani military operation in Karabakh, we should return to basics. This will provide a clear understanding. One of the foundational and most influential constructs in the history of logical thought is Aristotle’s “doctrine of the four causes”. This “doctrine” permits an explanation of the nature of things and why they change.

Aristotle believed that to understand why something is the way it is and how it changes, one must consider four different types of causes. These are the proximate cause (also called the efficient cause), the formal cause, the material cause, and the ultimate cause (also called the final cause). Before explaining these causes, we should note their relation to the situation in Karabakh. Additionally, some further preliminary remarks are useful.

In order to understand what is today happening in Karabakh, it is not enough simply to try to follow events. For Aristotle, a knowledge of causes was important because it was only by grasping a thing’s causes that we believe we understand it. Illustrations of Aristotle’s four types of causes usually proceed by application to artistic creation. However, he believed that they could also, by extension, explain human action.

These elements of logic have a slightly more extended sense than in traditional exegeses of Aristotle. Therefore, they can be applied to understanding the situation in Karabakh. Proceeding in this manner will produce an understanding of the nature of that situation, of how it is changing, and of why it is changing in the manner it is changing.

For Aristotle, the proximate cause is the agent or mechanism that brings something into being. In the case of sculpture, for example, the efficient or proximate cause is the sculptor. The famous “butterfly effect” whereby a butterfly’s flapping of its wings is said to “cause” a hurricane days later and miles away, is also an example of this idea.

As applied to human action, the proximate cause refers to an event that is otherwise inconsequential but which produces a crucial result or effect. It is the immediate “how” of the process by which something comes to be. Mines laid by Armenian forces in the formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan have claimed over 300 casualties since the end of the Second Karabakh War in November 2020. This number rises to nearly 3,400 deaths since 1991. However, it was the explosion of additional mines, which killed nine Azerbaijanis, including two civilians, in previously de-mined territory, that triggered Baku’s most recent military operation.

The formal cause of a thing refers to the its form or pattern, its structure and specific characteristics. In the case of a sculpture, the formal cause would be the shape or configuration that the sculptor has in mind in transforming a block of marble into the sculpture. In the case of Karabakh, consider the block of marble as the authority structures of the former “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”, which has now formally dissolved itself. Even after the end of the Second Karabakh War, it never renounced its claim to the seven adjoining regions occupied by Armenian military forces in the early 1990s.

Several days before the outbreak of new hostilities, the ruling clique in Khankendi (called Stepanakert during the Soviet era) took the decision to allow entry to a Russian Red Cross vehicle via the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam. The fact that they had refused to take such a decision before would seem to confirm that they were not blockaded by Azerbaijan but had, rather, blockaded themselves. Indeed, in August, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the UN observed to the Security Council that there are five additional roads to Khankendi from various points in Azerbaijan. All were closed by Armenian military forces illegally occupying sovereign Azerbaijani territory.

For Aristotle, the material cause refers to the substance or material out of which something is made. In the case of artistic creation, for example a sculpture, the material cause is the unformed block of marble from which the sculpture is hewn. In the case of human action, the connotation is broader. In the Karabakh situation, the material cause is not only demographic, geographic and other natural resources of the region.

More specifically in the political sense, and in the case of Karabakh, the material cause concerns that which catalyzed the Azerbaijani action, beyond the proximate cause mentioned above. In this sense, the material cause of the current military (or as Azerbaijan calls it, anti-terrorist) action in Karabakh is the presence of formations of the army of the Republic of Armenia on internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, as well as their reinforcement and resupply over the years.

Armenia had committed itself to withdrawing its troops from Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized sovereign territory with its signature on the November 2020 Trilateral Declaration, negotiated in Moscow. These are not any self-defence forces of any so-called “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh”. In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights determined that all ethnic-Armenian military forces in Karabakh from the early 1990s on were in fact formations of the army of the Republic of Armenia and under the direct command and control of Yerevan. Even since the end of the 2020 war, these Armenian formations were supplied and reinforced under the watchful and sympathetic eye of Russian so-called “peacekeepers”, until Azerbaijan established a border-control point on the new Lachin road earlier this year.

In addition to the approximately 10,000 illegal troops in Azerbaijan equipped by the Republic of Armenia, the region has been found to have high concentrations of offensive armaments. Dozens of tanks and other armoured vehicles were turned over to Azerbaijani forces. Additionally, over 200 heavy artillery pieces, including multiple rocket launchers, dozens of different types of radio electronic warfare equipment, and approximately 200 mortars were handed over in the first three days after the end of hostilities. More have been surrendered since then, and this does not even include small arms, shells, grenades, still more anti-personnel mines, and the like.

The ultimate cause for Aristotle (also “final cause”) is the purpose or end for which a thing exists, its function or goal, the “why” behind its existence. For a sculpture, this could be to express an idea or ornament a room. For a chair, the final cause would be to provide seating or support for someone. For the operation in Karabakh, this would be to re-establish, on the ground, Azerbaijani sovereignty over its universally internationally legally recognized territory.

In this sense, the forces against which Azerbaijan prevails are also an element of the ultimate cause. These forces would include the intolerant radical irredentist diaspora and their financial support, in co-operation with political remnants of the Karabakhi Armenian hijackers of the Republic of Armenia, who were in power in Yerevan from 1998 to 2018 (i.e. the still-influential political-client networks of former presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan).

To summarize, following Aristotle, the causes of the Azerbaijani operation in Karabakh are: the mining of Azerbaijani territories by Armenian military forces and consequent loss of life (proximate cause), the effective existence of the illegitimate and unrecognized “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” (formal cause), the presence of military formations of the Republic of Armenia occupying sovereign Azerbaijani territory (material cause), and the support given them by the vocal and influential Armenian diaspora in collusion with political elements in Yerevan.

These are the necessary and sufficient elements for understanding the present situation in Karabakh.

Robert M. Cutler

Robert M. Cutler was for many years senior researcher at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University, and is a past fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *