Four causes

Four causes

Four Causes refers to a principle in Aristotelian science that is used to understand change. Aristotle described four different types of causes, or ways in which an object could be explained: "we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause",[1][2] He argued that, in order to understand an object, especially changes that the object might undergo, one has to understand its four causes. "Cause" might be better translated as "explanatory conditions and factors". There are four such causes: the form of the object (which will be altered during a change), the matter underlying the object (which will usually not be altered during a change), the agency that brings about the change, and the purpose served by the change. These are called, respectively, the formal cause, the material cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause. While there are cases where identifying a cause is difficult, or in which causes might merge, Aristotle was convinced that his four causes provided an analytical scheme of general applicability. [3]



Aristotle held that there were four kinds of causes:[2]

  • A thing's material cause is the material of which it consists. (For a table, that might be wood; for a statue, that might be bronze or marble.)
  • A thing's formal cause is its form, i.e. the arrangement of that matter.
  • A thing's efficient or moving cause[4] is "the primary source of the change or rest." An efficient cause of x can be present even if x is never actually produced and so should not be confused with a sufficient cause.[5] (Aristotle argues that, for a table, this would be the art of table-making, which is the principle guiding its creation.)[2]
  • A thing's final cause is its aim or purpose. That for the sake of which a thing is what it is. (For a seed, it might be an adult plant. For a sailboat, it might be sailing. For a ball at the top of a ramp, it might be coming to rest at the bottom.)

Meaning of "cause"

Aristotle's word for "cause" is the Greek αἴτιον, aition.[6] He uses this word in the sense meaning, an explanation for how a thing came about;[7] in this context, "x is the aition of y" means "x makes a y".

The Greek word derives from the adjective aitios, meaning "responsible." It was originally applied to agents. However, by the time Aristotle used the term, it had come to qualify nonsentient items as well.[8]

Original text

Aristotle introduces his discussion as follows:

"Cause" means: (a) in one sense, that as the result of whose presence something comes into being—e.g. the bronze of a statue and the silver of a cup, and the classes which contain these [i.e., the material cause]; (b) in another sense, the form or pattern; that is, the essential formula and the classes which contain it—e.g. the ratio 2:1 and number in general is the cause of the octave—and the parts of the formula [i.e., the formal cause]. (c) The source of the first beginning of change or rest; e.g. the man who plans is a cause, and the father is the cause of the child, and in general that which produces is the cause of that which is produced, and that which changes of that which is changed [i.e., the efficient cause]. (d) The same as "end"; i.e. the final cause; e.g., as the "end" of walking is health. For why does a man walk? "To be healthy," we say, and by saying this we consider that we have supplied the cause [the final cause]. (e) All those means towards the end which arise at the instigation of something else, as, e.g. fat-reducing, purging, drugs and instruments are causes of health; for they all have the end as their object, although they differ from each other as being some instruments, others actions [i.e., necessary conditions].

Metaphysics, Book 5, section 1013a, translated by Hugh Tredennick[9]

Aristotle also discusses the four causes in his Physics, Book B, chapter 3.

Material cause

The material cause of an object is equivalent to the nature of the raw material out of which the object is composed. (The word "nature" for Aristotle applies to both its potential in the raw material, and its ultimate finished form. In a sense this form already existed in the material. See Potentiality and actuality.)

Whereas modern physics looks to simple bodies, Aristotle's physics instead treated living things as exemplary. However he also felt that simple natural bodies such as earth, fire, air and water also showed signs of having their own innate sources of motion and change and rest. Fire for example, carries things upwards, unless stopped from doing so. Things like beds and cloaks, formed by human artifice, have no innate tendency to become beds or cloaks for example.[10]

In Aristotelian terminology, material is not the same as substance. Matter has parallels with substance in so far as primary matter serves as the substratum for simple bodies which are not substance: sand and rock (mostly earth), rivers and seas (mostly water), atmosphere and wind (mostly air below and then mostly fire below the moon). Only individuals are said to be substance (subjects) in the primary sense. In a secondary sense, one can also speak of a genus like fig trees. Finally, secondary substance, in a different sense, also applies to man-made artifacts.

Formal cause

Formal cause is a term describing the pattern or form which when present makes matter into a particular type of thing, which we recognize as being of that particular type.

By Aristotle's own account, this is a difficult and controversial concept. It is associated with theories of forms such as those of Aristotle's teacher, Plato, but in Aristotle's own account (see Metaphysics (Aristotle)), he takes into account many previous writers who had expressed opinions about forms and ideas, but he shows how his own views are different.

See also Platonic realism.

Efficient cause

The "efficient cause" of an object is equivalent to that which causes change and motion to start or stop (such as a painter painting a house) (see Aristotle, Physics II 3, 194b29). In many cases, this is simply the thing that brings something about. For example, in the case of a statue, it is the person chiseling away which transforms a block of marble into a statue. This is the cause of change, and as such is commonly used in modern conceptions of change, as well as cause-and-effect.[citation needed]

Final cause

Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something. Aristotle, who defined the term, explicitly argued that a telos can be present without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence in general.[11] For example (and according to Aristotle), a seed has the eventual adult plant as its final cause (i.e., as its telos) if and only if the seed would become the adult plant under normal circumstances.[12] In Physics II.9, Aristotle hazards a few arguments that a determination of the final cause of a phenomenon is more important than the others. He argues that the final cause is the cause of that which brings it about, so for example "if one defines the operation of sawing as being a certain kind of dividing, then this cannot come about unless the saw has teeth of a certain kind; and these cannot be unless it is of iron."[13] According to Aristotle, once a final cause is in place, the material, efficient and formal causes follow by necessity. However he recommends that the student of nature determine the other causes as well,[14] and notes that not all phenomena have a final cause, e.g., chance events.[15]

The four causes in modern science

Francis Bacon wrote in his Advancement of Learning (1605) that natural science "doth make inquiry, and take consideration of the same natures : but how? Only as to the material and efficient causes of them, and not as to the forms." According to the demands of Bacon, apart from the "laws of nature" themselves, the causes relevant to natural science are only efficient causes and material causes in terms of Aristotle's classification, or to use the formulation which became famous later, all nature visible to human science is matter and motion.

It has been argued that explanations in terms of final causes remain common in modern science, including contemporary evolutionary biology,[16][17] and that teleology is indispensable to biology in general for (among other reasons) the very concept of adaptation is teleological in nature.[17] In an appreciation of Charles Darwin published in Nature in 1874, Asa Gray noted "Darwin's great service to Natural Science" in bringing back to Teleology "so that, instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology". Darwin quickly responded, "What you say about Teleology pleases me especially and I do not think anyone else has ever noticed the point."[16] Francis Darwin and T. H. Huxley reiterate this sentiment. The latter wrote that "..the most remarkable service to the philosophy of Biology rendered by Mr. Darwin is the reconciliation of Teleology and Morphology, and the explanation of the facts of both, which his view offers."[16] James G. Lennox states that Darwin uses the term 'Final Cause' consistently in his Species Notebook, Origin of Species and after.[18]

Ernst Mayr states that "adaptedness... is a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking."[19] Various commentators view the teleological phrases used in modern evolutionary biology as a type of shorthand. For example, S. H. P. Madrell writes that "the proper but cumbersome way of describing change by evolutionary adaptation [may be] substituted by shorter overtly teleological statements" for the sake of saving space, but that this "should not be taken to imply that evolution proceeds by anything other than from mutations arising by chance, with those that impart an advantage being retained by natural selection."[20] However, Lennox states that in evolution as conceived by Darwin, it is true both that evolution is the result of mutations arising by chance and that evolution is teleological in nature.[16]

Statements which imply that nature has goals, for example where a species is said to do something "in order to" to achieve survival, appear teleological, and therefore invalid. Usually, it is possible to rewrite such sentences to avoid the apparent teleology. Some biology courses have incorporated exercises requiring students to rephrase such sentences so that they do not read teleologically. Nevertheless, biologists still frequently write in a way which can be read as implying teleology even if that is not the intention.


  1. ^ Aristotle, Physics 194 b17–20; see also: Posterior Analytics 71 b9–11; 94 a20.
  2. ^ a b c "Four Causes". Falcon, Andrea. Aristotle on Causality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2008.
  3. ^ Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science (1992). p53
  4. ^ Aristotle, Generation of Animals II.1.
  5. ^ Aristotle Parts of Animals I.1. "For it is that which is yet to be – health, let us say, or a man – that, owing to its being of such and such characters, necessitates the pre-existence or previous production of this and that antecedent; and not this or that antecedent which, because it exists or has been generated, makes it necessary that health or a man is in, or shall come into, existence."
  6. ^ original text on Perseus
  7. ^ Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. By Douglas J. Soccio. Page 161.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989. (hosted at
  10. ^ Physics 192b
  11. ^ Aristotle, Physics II.8 (from The Complete Works of Aristotle Vol. I. The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes). "This is most obvious in the animals other than man: they make things neither by art nor after inquiry or deliberation. That is why people wonder whether it is by intelligence or by some other faculty that these creatures work, – spiders, ants, and the like... It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in art, it is present also in nature."
  12. ^ This example is given by Aristotle in Parts of Animals I.1.
  13. ^ Aristotle, Physics II.9. 200b4–7.
  14. ^ Aristotle, Physics II.9.
  15. ^ Physics II.5 where chance is opposed to nature, which he has already said acts for ends.
  16. ^ a b c d Lennox, James G. (1993). "Darwin was a Teleologist" Biology and Philosophy, 8, 409–21.
  17. ^ a b Ayala, Francisco (1998). "Teleological explanations in evolutionary biology." Nature's purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology. The MIT Press.
  18. ^ Lennox, James G. (1993). "Darwin was a Teleologist" Biology and Philosophy, 8, p. 410.
  19. ^ Mayr, Ernst W. (1992). "The idea of teleology" Journal of the History of Ideas, 53, 117–135.
  20. ^ Madrell SHP (1998) Why are there no insects in the open sea? The Journal of Experimental Biology 201:2461–2464.


  • Cohen, Marc S. "The Four Causes" (Lecture Notes) Accessed March 14, 2006.
  • Falcon, Andrea. Aristotle on Causality (link to section labeled "Four Causes"). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2008.
  • Hennig, Boris. "The Four Causes." Journal of Philosophy 106(3), 2009, 137–60.

See also

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Four causes —  Четыре причины …   Вестминстерский словарь теологических терминов

  • four causes, doctrine of the — See causes …   Philosophy dictionary

  • Four-stroke engine — Four stroke cycle used in gasoline/petrol engines. The right blue side is the intake and the left yellow side is the exhaust. The cylinder wall is a thin sleeve surrounded by cooling liquid. A video montage of the Otto engines running at the… …   Wikipedia

  • Causes De La Révolution Française — Article de la série Révolution française Causes Préludes L Assemblée constituante et ses suites (1789 1791) …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Causes de la Revolution francaise — Causes de la Révolution française Article de la série Révolution française Causes Préludes L Assemblée constituante et ses suites (1789 1791) …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Causes de la Révolution Française — Article de la série Révolution française Causes Préludes L Assemblée constituante et ses suites (1789 1791) …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Causes de la révolution française — Article de la série Révolution française Causes Préludes L Assemblée constituante et ses suites (1789 1791) …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Four Organs — is a work for four electronic organs and maraca by Steve Reich. The four organs, harmonically expound a dominant eleventh chord (D E F# G# A B with an E in the bass), dissecting the chord by playing parts of it sequentially while the chord slowly …   Wikipedia

  • Four-wave mixing — is an intermodulation phenomenon in optical systems, whereby interactions between 3 wavelengths produce a 4th wavelength in the signal. It is similar to the third order intercept point in electrical systems. Four wave mixing can be compared to… …   Wikipedia

  • Four Dissertations — is a collection of four essays by the Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, first published in 1757. The four essays are: The Natural History of Religion Of the Passions Of Tragedy Of the Standard of Taste Contents 1 The Natural History… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.