Four causes
Four Causes refers to a principle in Aristotelian science that is used to understand change. Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 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", 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.


Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 held that there were four kinds of causes:
  • 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 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. (Aristotle argues that, for a table, this would be the art of table-making, which is the principle guiding its creation.)
  • 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. He uses this word in the sense meaning, an explanation for how a thing came about; 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
Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. Eighteenth century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think from the ability to feel . In modern western philosophy, sentience is the ability to have sensations or experiences...

 items as well.

Original text

Aristotle introduces his discussion as follows:
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
Potentiality and actuality
In philosophy, Potentiality and Actuality are principles of a dichotomy which Aristotle used throughout his philosophical works to analyze motion, causality, ethics, and physiology in his Physics, Metaphysics, Ethics and De Anima .The concept of potentiality, in this context, generally refers to...


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.

In Aristotelian terminology, material is not the same as substance
Substance theory
Substance theory, or substance attribute theory, is an ontological theory about objecthood, positing that a substance is distinct from its properties. A thing-in-itself is a property-bearer that must be distinguished from the properties it bears....

. 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
The word concept is used in ordinary language as well as in almost all academic disciplines. Particularly in philosophy, psychology and cognitive sciences the term is much used and much discussed. WordNet defines concept: "conception, construct ". However, the meaning of the term concept is much...

. It is associated with theories of forms
Theory of Forms
Plato's theory of Forms or theory of Ideas asserts that non-material abstract forms , and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. When used in this sense, the word form is often capitalized...

 such as those of Aristotle's teacher, Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

, but in Aristotle's own account (see Metaphysics (Aristotle)
Metaphysics (Aristotle)
Metaphysics is one of the principal works of Aristotle and the first major work of the branch of philosophy with the same name. The principal subject is "being qua being", or being understood as being. It examines what can be asserted about anything that exists just because of its existence and...

), 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
Platonic realism
Platonic realism is a philosophical term usually used to refer to the idea of realism regarding the existence of universals or abstract objects after the Greek philosopher Plato , a student of Socrates. As universals were considered by Plato to be ideal forms, this stance is confusingly also called...


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.

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. 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. 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." 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, and notes that not all phenomena have a final cause, e.g., chance events.

The four causes in modern science

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, KC was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of the scientific method. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England...

 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
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

 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, and that teleology is indispensable to biology in general for (among other reasons) the very concept of adaptation is teleological in nature. In an appreciation of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...

 published in Nature in 1874, Asa Gray
Asa Gray
-References:*Asa Gray. Dictionary of American Biography. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928–1936.*Asa Gray. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998.*Asa Gray. Plant Sciences. 4 vols. Macmillan Reference USA, 2001....

 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." Francis Darwin
Francis Darwin
Sir Francis "Frank" Darwin, FRS , a son of the British naturalist and scientist Charles Darwin, followed his father into botany.-Biography:Francis Darwin was born in Down House, Downe, Kent in 1848...

 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." James G. Lennox
James G. Lennox
James G. Lennox is a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, with secondary appointments in the departments of Classics and Philosophy. He a leader in the study of Aristotelian science in light of his groundbreaking work on Aristotle's...

 states that Darwin uses the term 'Final Cause' consistently in his Species Notebook, Origin of Species and after.

Ernst Mayr
Ernst Mayr
Ernst Walter Mayr was one of the 20th century's leading evolutionary biologists. He was also a renowned taxonomist, tropical explorer, ornithologist, historian of science, and naturalist...

 states that "adaptedness... is a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking." 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." 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.

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.

See also

  • Anthropic principle
    Anthropic principle
    In astrophysics and cosmology, the anthropic principle is the philosophical argument that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it. Some proponents of the argument reason that it explains why the Universe has the age and the fundamental...

  • Causality
    Causality is the relationship between an event and a second event , where the second event is understood as a consequence of the first....

  • Teleology
    A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. The word comes from the Greek τέλος, telos; root: τελε-, "end, purpose...

  • Stafford Beer's POSIWID principle
  • Tinbergen's four questions
    Tinbergen's four questions
    Tinbergen's four questions, named after Nikolaas Tinbergen, are complementary categories of explanations for behavior. It suggests that an integrative understanding of behavior must include both a proximate and ultimate analysis of behavior, as well as an understanding of both...

  • Lacan's four discourses
    Four discourses
    The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued that there were four fundamental types of discourse. He defined four discourses, which he called Master, University, Hysteric and Analyst, and showed how these relate dynamically to one another....

External links

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