Aristotle’s Causes

This post continues a series on the uses of soul throughout history. The concept plays out very differently in the Bible and Plato, both of which are very different from modern concepts. As a run-up to Aristotle’s concept of soul, I want to introduce his ideas about substances and causes.



Aristotle thought there were four important types of explanation. We usually call them the four causes, but the word aition can also be translated “case,” as in a court case. What evidence do we have for a particular event? What will it take to convince us that we understand it properly? Aristotle noticed that different types of explanation satisfy us at different times.

I might ask, “why is my book on fire?”

“Because the pages came in contact with flame” is technically correct, but likely will not give me the information I want.


Material Causes

One valuable explanation has to do with composition, what something is made out of. Being made out of iron explains why cannonballs are heavy. Being made out of paper explains why books are flammable. And being made with sugar explains why cookies are sweet.

Such basic examples give us a good starting point, but I want to add that composition comes at a number of levels. Material cause explanations ask about parts, but they need not be reductionist (or materialist or physicalist). Cookies are sweet because they are made with sugar, but not because they are made with carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (the atoms that make up sugar). Sweetness has to do with how molecules interact with other molecules; it cannot be explained in terms of atoms. We will need a different type of explanation to understand why sugar is sweet. So it can be misleading to think of material causes as the raw material from which things are made. That goes a step to far. Being made of cells helps explain why humans crave sugar (cells run on glucose). Being made of books helps explain why libraries have policies against smoking. Material causes make no claims about fundamental stuff or substances, they only point out what something is made from.

Aristotle’s actual term would be closer to “that out of which” as in “the statue is made out of bronze.”


Formal Causes

Another valuable explanation deals with the pattern or shape of a thing. The pattern of metal on the cookie cutter explains why the cookie came out in the form of a ginger bread man. The shape of the wells in the ice tray explains why the ice is in cubes. The blueprint provided by the architect explains the flow of rooms in a house.

Once again, we need to be careful, though, because Aristotle does more with this concept than just speak about the physical extent of something. He also cares about the organization, the relationships, and the movement of things. His actual term is best translated “the account of what-it-is-to-be a thing.” That sounds complicated, but it isn’t really. In my post on substance, I said that form keeps track of where your attention lies. Sharon eats the cookie and we think of Sharon continuing and the cookie going away. When you identify a pile of clothing, pile plays the role of form. Aristotle again makes no fundamental ontological claim. He wants to know what features you see as identifying the thingness of the thing. The pile formation explains why the cat cannot stay perched on top and why one more shirt will make it fall over. Formal causes will become particularly important in the 20th century as we start to understand stochasitc and chaotic systems that cause objects to pile up or spread out in reproducible ways – like sand dunes and smoke plumes. We have many concepts of form without design or intent. We also have cases where the boundaries of a thing aren’t clear and yet the properties, the thingness of it is still nameable (e.g., a flame, a vortex, a mob). Plato and Thomas Aquinas tried to make forms do more work, but that’s not necessary for Aristotle.


Efficient Causes

The third type of explanation has to do with the actor or means through which something was brought about. A baker explains why there is a cookie. A father and mother explain why their is a child (and so does the act of conception). A donor explains why the museum was built, and so does a board of trustees, an architect, engineers, and builders.

My examples show that efficient causes need not be simple or solitary. Often they involve a long chain of actors and arts. The one closest to the action or object in question are the proximate efficient cause. In the case of the museum, the donor causes the museum through the board, through the architect and engineers, through the builders. We say the builders are the proximate efficient cause of the building.  On the other end of the chain is the primary or ultimate efficient cause. Who got the ball rolling in the first place. As I have presented the chain, the donor is the primary efficient cause. Note that this is much harder to identify than the proximate cause, because it’s hard to say that the donor was not motivated by something else. That said, efficient causes are quite useful and clear when we don’t require them to be exclusive or primary.


Final Cause

The notion of final causes has caused great anxiety in philosophy for 2500 years. Aristotle refers to it as an account of “that-for-the-sake of which.” The easiest example comes from human intention. Why was the candle snuffed? Because I wanted the room to be darker. A desire for music explains the iPod.  A need for trucks to cross the river explains the bridge. This simple “intentional” final cause is useful by itself, but it does not appear to be Aristotle’s goal to limit final cause in this way. He cared about change and so was very keen that we be able to speak of the end toward which something was directed, thus an oak tree is the final cause of an acorn, though we rarely attribute intention to either trees or nuts. We sweat for the sake of cooling off, even though we don’t do so intentionally. In fact, nearly everything in biology seems to have some sort of “for the sake of which.”

For many years Aristotle was interpreted in a way that equated final cause with intent, but in the last 40 years, we have begun to see that he had a broader idea here as well. Aristotle applied this “for the sake of which” into his rules for understanding plants and animals as well as humans. It has to do with the action of living things as they survive and reproduce – an idea near and dear to modern biologists.


Multiple Causes

Aristotle was convinced that the best explanations used all four causes, often acting in parallel or one through another. The sculptor (efficient cause) shaped the clay (material cause) into the form of Venus (formal cause) in order to sell the statue (final cause). Souls will be a special case where the efficient, formal, and final causes come together, but that discussion will have to wait for next time.


4 thoughts on “Aristotle’s Causes

  1. Pingback: Aristotle’s Vegetable Souls | Lucas's Weblog

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