Physics 2.3 (194b17-195a4)
Airtotle's four causes
- First off, Aristotle's 4 "causes" are not all causes in the
that most modern English speakers think of causes.
- For Aristotle, science = causal knowledge
- Thus knowledge of what causes are is essential for every
- we think we have knowledge
only when we have grasped its cause (APost. 71 b
APost. 94 a
- we think we do not have
knowledge of a thing until we have
grasped its why, that is to say, its cause (Phys. 194
- Aristotle's "causes" are often better thought of as
"explanations" or "reasons."
- Take any single thing, then ask yourself four questions:
Those four questions correspond to Aristotle's four causes:
- What is it made of?
- What made it/what action/what trigger led to its
creation/coming to be/happening/becoming what it is?
- What is it: shape, structure, arrangement? What makes it one
sort of thing rather than another? What holds it together?
the way it is put together makes it work?
- What is it for? What end is it likely to serve? What goal is
likely to reach?
Each of those four questions leads to a different sort of
explanation of the thing.
- Material cause: "that out of which" it is made.
- Efficient Cause: the source of the objects
change or stability.
- Formal Cause: the essence of the object.
- Final Cause: the
end/goal of the object, or what the object is good for.
- A note about final causes: they always presuppose the
cause: in order to explain the goal/purpose/end, you must
Take a statue:
- The material cause:
“that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue, the letters
- The formal cause:
form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g.,
the shape of a statue, the arrangement of a syllable, the
structure of a machine or an organism.
- The efficient
“the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g.,
the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who
advice, the father of the child.
- The final cause:
end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”,
e.g., health is the end of the following things: walking,
weight, purging, drugs, and
Causes, like primary substances, have what we can call species
and genera, and the species and genera of the cause are also
might call them secondary causes).
- Its material
its existence: a bronze statue is a
certain sort of thing, and its material constituents, the
make up bronze, cause it to have certain properties and
explain a lot
- Some qualities of bronze are important for the statue-ness
the statue. Others are not. Those that are important explain the statue and
- bronze is also the subject of change, that is,
the thing that undergoes the change and results in a statue.
- art of bronze casting in the artisan = efficient cause or the
that produces the statue (Phys. 195 a 6-8. Cf. Metaph. 1013 b
specific knowledge, which is the salient explanatory factor
should pick as the most
accurate specification of the efficient cause (Phys. 195 b
- this knowledge is not
dependent upon and does not make reference to the desires,
intentions of the individual
- it helps us to understand what it takes to
produce the statue: what steps are required
- Its form explains its existence: it is not *just* a lump of
bronze, it also has a certain shape, structure, and
- can an explanation of this type be given without a
reference to the statue? no!
- Its purpose as a statue explains it: it is "to
"to instantiate beauty," "to decorate," or some combination
of those or
something else. The need for a commemorative object, or the
express beauty, or the need for a decorative object can
- bronze is melted and poured in the wax cast. Both the
and the subsequent stage are for the
sake of a certain end, the
production of the statue.
- Clearly the statue enters in the explanation
of each step of the artistic production as the final cause or that for
the sake of which everything is done.
- conceptually the efficient and the final cause can be
separated, but the formal and final causes are tightly
- By "final causes," Aristotle offers an explanation that
the telos or end of
process= a teleological
- teleological explanation does not necessarily depend upon
application of psychological concepts such as desires,
intentions. But if they are present, they are often integral
to the final cause, although it's possible that they are
merely accidental to whatever is the object of explanation.
- Aristotle explains
natural process on the basis of a
- the artistic model is understood in non-psychological
Causes also have coincidental properties/aspects, which are
- The material cause of the statue, bronze, is a metal, and so
metal is a material cause of the statue.
- In somewhat modern terms, the material cause of our body,
organs, are made up of something like tissue as their matter,
made up of cells as its matter, which are made up of cellular
their matter, which are made up of plasms, which are made up
molecules, which are made up of elements, etc.
- all the way down this ladder, we may have mere
matter and most basic form.
Aristotle's project with causes is scientific explanation
- For instance, let us say that Joe the sculptor makes a
Joe is the efficient cause of the statue. But Joe also is a
climber, and so we might say that a mountain climber is the
cause of the statue. If we are more precise, we say that Joe's
sculpting craft is the efficient cause, and the other
qualities of Joe
are coincidental efficient causes.
Chance causes some things, as does luck.
- thus he is interested in general causes for general
- that is not to say he does not understand that particular
things have particular causes
- this statue is caused by this bronze, this
this form, and for this end.
- Aristotle searches “for
general causes of general things and for particular causes
particular things” (Phys. 195 a 25-26)
- idiosyncrasies that may be important in studying a
statue as the great achievement of an individual artisan may
extraneous to the more general case of statues.
An example of chance is coincidence: coincidence can be a
but coincidences have no cause (Physics
- luck is a subset of chance (note that this is slightly
different terminology from that in our translation: I am using
for what was termed "chance" there)
- Only things that can act can be lucky.
- "Acting" is being confined to "agents" on this
terminology: a pebble is not an agent. A person is.
- Things that cannot act cannot be lucky, but can be affected
- A pebble is affected by chance. A person is affected by
There is no direct cause of chance/luck, even though every
has a cause.
- A scenario: 10 people fall and hurt themselves on a single
in a single building: no single thing is the cause of those 10
(one falls because she wore very slippery shoes and happened
to step in
a puddle of grease, another falls because a man pushed her out
way, another falls because he had a heart attack, etc. The
that owns the building decides to radically overhaul their
avoid accidental falls BECAUSE of the coincidence of 10 falls,
drew their attention to potential liability. But THERE IS NO
CAUSE for those 10 falls all occurring in the same building on
- Cf. Aristotle's man who ate spicy food, went to well, was
killed by brigands: no tight causal connection between spicy
being killed by brigands, but that is nonetheless why the man
killed: bad luck.
ABOUT FINAL CAUSES
- In the scenario above, each accidental fall has its own
and so you can explain all ten of those falls via direct
you cannot explain is why they all happened on the same day:
the coincidental part of the scenario. But that coincidental
what CAUSED the institution that owns the building to revise
- Physics II 8 is
Aristotle's general defense of final causes.
- He needs to defend them because, he claims, his
believed only in efficient and material causes.
- His defence of final causes shows that there are aspects
nature that cannot be explained by efficient and material
- Final causes, he claims, are the best explanation for
aspects of nature.
- Aristotle holds, for example, that certain teeth have
shapes because of what they are for. Those of carnivores are
to tear and rip. Those of herbivores are designed to crush
The Rain, for example:
- "Final" causation is often referred to as "teleology," which
derives from Greek τελος "end, goal."
- Teleology is often thought of as requiring an agent
from the thing that has a final cause. For instance, if an oak
a final cause, must there not be something apart from the oak
uses the oak tree for some goal or end?
- The ultimate result of many teleological views is that there
must be a God who designs the world: if things have a purpose,
purpose? If things have a design that makes them FOR certain
there must be a designer.
- Aristotle would say that there is no need for such a
agent, no need for a designer, for there to be teleology. The
the acorn is to become an oak tree. The acorn aims to fully
the form of a full-grown oak tree, but is not an agent, and no
agent set it in motion. It is a "self-mover."
- A question to ask about teleology is whether it uses an
occurrence in the future to explain something that happens
now. If that
is the case, how can we call it a cause? If the thing that
causing occurs AFTER the thing that is caused, the normal
cause to caused is backwards.
- Well, what of it? Think of genes: they provide a sort of set
instructions for the acorn to build itself. They cause the oak
to its environment in certain ways. They cause the oak tree to
more acorns (which is perhaps its purpose). I see no need for
enter the picture, and I see no need for a future event to
present one there. Can we characterize genes as involving
I think so.
The final cause in nature is a potential within things
what they become.
A house and an organism, for examples
- Phys 198b19-21
explains that it rains because of material processes: warm air
up and cools off and becomes water, which comes down as rain.
- 198b21-23 explains that the crops may be nourished or
as a result of the rain, and yet it does not rain for the sake
result. It is a coincidence.
- Why is it not a coincidence that the front teeth grow sharp
cutting, while the rear teeth are broad for grinding? When the
teeth grow that way, it survives. When they do not, it dies.
Why not a
- Aristotle replies that he wants an explanation of why it is
regular occurrence that the teeth grow in such a way that the
survives. It is implausible that it is a coincidence every
causation is offered to explain the regularity.
- In some ways, it is just a bandaid: we want to know more
how that works: Darwin offered a mechanism: does that
final causes extraneous?
- Darwin's theory holds that natural selection works like a
giant filter: those traits that confer a reproductive or
- Is this different from final causation?
- an advantage is toward some goal: there can't be an
advantage that is not for some goal
- the goal is primarily survival of the species and
secondarily survival of the individual
- it levels the goal of humanity and that of gnats and
protozoans: is that a problem for Aristotle?\perhaps
might be some favoring of "well-being" and
"development of potential" in that individuals who are
faring well are
more likely to also mate and reproduce?
procreation and causality
- In de Partibus Animalium
(Parts of Animals),
Aristotle presents an argument for the priority of the final
the efficient cause.
- Take a house:
- all the building materials are delivered
- they are necessary: without them a house cannot be built
- they are not sufficient: they will just sit there unless
there is something more
- the builder comes: the skill she has is an efficient cause
- but all of this is for the sake of a house: a house is the
- from the very start, all is done with the house in view
- without it, nothing happens
- Take an organism:
- Parts of Animals
640a18-19 says that "generation
for the sake of substance, not substance for the sake of
- the proper way to explain the generation of an animal is
begin with the end of the process, the adult full-grown
- when Empedocles explains the formation of the spine as the
result of some fetal behavior, Aristotle says that is
- first off, the fetus had to have the power to move, so
must be part of the explanation
- furthermore, the spine is for-the-sake of support of an
adult human's weight. That must be part of the explanation
God and the final cause
- Aristotle maintained that something that is in motion
an efficient cause not just to set it in motion, but also to
keep it in
- Aristotle had no concept of inertia!!!
- also no concept of causation at a distance (gravity,
- For Aristotle, efficient causation required contact, and
contact had to occur as long as the caused thing was
- So what about procreation? see Generation of Animals I and II.
- animals procreate, because it is the closest they can get
immortality (immortality is a goal because it would involve
being, which would involve more full actuality)
- males are superior: they contribute more form for the
they contribte the last thing that is necessary to create a
- remember this is Aristotle: he was limited in some ways
his environment and culture: nonetheless, as a
philosopher, he might/could/should
have risen above those limits.
- females contribute menses, cooked-up blood that falls
of human form: it is closer to human than earth, air, fire,
but it falls short.
- The female residue
[menses] is potentially what the animal is by nature,
and it contains
the parts potentially, although not actually, and
something active and something passive come into contact
... the one
immediately acts and the other is acted upon in the
manner in which
they are active and passive. And the female provides the
male the origin of the change. (GA II4
- active and passive is explained at Metaphysics Theta,
- active and passive correspond to efficient and
- the male is the efficient cause, the source of the
- the female is material cause, the thing acted on
- the semen does its work, then evaporates!
- so what about the need for an efficient cause to
contact while the change is taking place?
- does Aristotle think that the change to a human soul
takes place right away?
- What is sought now is
the material out of which but the agency by which the
parts come to be.
For either something outside them makes them, or
something which exists
within the seed and the semen; and whatever it is must
either be a part
of soul or soul, or something which possesses soul. But
unreasonable to suppose that anything outside could
create anything to
do with the viscera, or any of the other parts; for it
movement without being in contact, and nothing can be
affected by it
unless it causes movement. Therefore it must be
something which exists
within the fetation, either as a part of it or as
distinct from it. (GA II1 733b32-734a6)
- in the case of things with natures, the nature operates
permeating the material and operating from within, not
- the father's semen apparently causes a change to the
material, which then acquires a nature which works from
- the materialists hold that mechanical materialistic
explanations work for it all, but Aristotle wants an
explanation of the
organization of the growth of the human fetus.
- God, for Aristotle, is necessary, because there has to be
something which is purely actual. More on this elsewhere:
for now that Aristotle thinks there must be something that is
- God exists as pure actuality consisting in rational
contemplation of the best thing, god itself.
- God is the final cause of EVERYTHING
- everything aims to imitate God's perfect actuality
- everything seeks actuality, the fulfillment of its
- this "aiming" or "seeking" need not be conscious,
- even the elements, earth, air, fire, and water, strive
become fully actual, which would involve their fulfilling
- each has its own proper place, which is part of its
Aristotle as historian of philosophy
- the best explanations will consist of all four causes, but
the formal and final will have priority over the efficient and
- Aristotle realized that not everything has all 4 causes.
- An eclipse of the moon has no final cause (Metaphysics 1044b12)
- deprivation of light by the interposition of the earth
between the sun and the moon is the efficient cause
- there is no final cause
- Aristotle thought that the natural world has nisuses or
strivings within its members:
- acorns are simply aimed at becoming oaks
- human embryos are aimed at becoming adult humans
- thus he thinks that developmental biology is an
error-theory: the thing that needs to be explained is not
become what they do, but why in so many cases they fail.
- common objection: Aristotle is just saying that things do
what they do because that is the sort of things they do.
- where's the explanation in that?
- until we come up with a way to bridge the gap from a
mechanical/material explanation at the most basic
(atoms? quarks? energy?) to the macroscopic level (us,
mountains), there is a point to asking what is different
- Aristotle's theory sorts the world into natural kinds:
humans beget humans, plants beget plants. Certain things
come to be
from certain things, and that has to do with their form
and their goal.
- if we believe DNA is the code of life, how far are we
from Aristotle? Think of it as a formula for local
decrease in entropy:
that's what a "final goal" is: the instructions for a
local decrease in
entropy: DNA is the formula
- Also, Aristotle's theory contributes to our
of how organisms work: the function of parts and the
wholes. That's what final and formal causes are about.
- Thus formal and final causes do a bit more work than
saying that things do what they do because that's the sort
- Aristotle begins the Metaphysics
with a survey of how his predecessors investigated causes
- this is part of Aristotle's typical procedure: phainomena,
endoxa, puzzles, then solutions.
- among the most important predecessors:
- Leucippus and Democritus developed ancient atomism: a
materialistic theory which posited atoms and void as the
- Empedocles posited four elements: earth, air, fire,
water, which can be compounded and dissolved by two
forces, Love and
- Anaxagoras held that everything had the seeds
everything else in it, but Mind directed it all.
- Pythagoreans held that number imposed a limit or
structure on matter's indeterminacy.
- Plato held that there is material and formal
according to Aristotle. Plato also held that everything
is arranged for
the best, which is a sort of teleology, but not like
- Aristotle's comment:
- While all generation
destruction may well be from one or more elements, still
why does this
occur, and because of what cause (aition)? For it can't be that the
moves itself. I mean for instance that neither
wood nor bronze
are responsible (aitios) for
each of their changes: it's not the wood which makes the
bed or the
bronze the statue, but something else is the cause of
the change in
each case. To investigate this is to investigate the other cause, that from which
origination of change. (Metaphysics A3 984a19-27)
- For neither earth nor
anything else of
that sort seeem a likely cause of things either being
or becoming good
and beautiful, and nor did they seem so to them (Aristotle's
predecessors). Nor can it be right to
entrust such a
matter to chance and fortune (Metaphysics A3
- Aristotle was the first to engage in anything like a history
- But he is not an impartial historian.
- Aristotle's account of his predecessors is oriented almost
completely toward his own way of viewing causes: thus he
have a different idea got it wrong or missed crucial things.
- This situation is frustrating, because Aristotle's account
his predecessors, especially those called "Pre-Socratics,"
is often our
best source for our own knowledge of his predecessors: the
lens distorts their intentions and makes it difficult to see
- Unfortunately, many people blame Aristotle for this. That
unfair, because Aristotle was not trying to give a
account of his predecessors' thoughts. He is, rather, trying
that his ideas have a history, but are new, different, and
- The fact that his account is often our best information
his predecessors is not his fault. But it's still
we would really like to know more about those predecessors.
Good additional material: Cause of Persian War (hankinson P. 225-6),
stars twinkling (ibidem 225), antlers (ibidem 227).
- Texts of interest for Aristotelian causes
- Physics II.3 (general discussion of types of causes)
- Physics II.8 (final cause: has bits tantalizingly
close to evolutionary theory)