Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 18, 2018, from

9. Causes

When we correctly answer questions such as ‘Why does this event happen?’ or ‘Why is this object as it is?’, we state the cause (or explanation; aition) of the event or object. Aristotle believes that causes are multivocal (see Physics II 3; Metaphysics I 3). Different accounts of a cause correspond to different answers to why-questions about (for example) a statue. (1) ‘It is made of bronze’ states the material cause. (2) ‘It is a statue representing Pericles’ states the formal cause, by stating the definition that says what the thing is. (3) ‘A sculptor made it’ states the ‘source of change’, by mentioning the source of the process that brought the statue into being; later writers call this the ‘moving cause’ or ‘efficient cause’. (4) ‘It is made to represent Pericles’ states ‘that for the sake of which’, since it mentions the goal or end for the sake of which the statue was made; this is often called the ‘final’ (Latin finis; ‘end’) cause.

Each of the four causes answers a why-question. Sometimes (as in our example) a complete answer requires all four causes. Not all four, however, are always appropriate; the (universal) triangle, for example, has a formal cause, stating its definition, but no efficient cause, since it does not come into being, and no final cause, since it is not made to promote any goal or end.

Some have claimed that Aristotle’s ‘four causes’ are not really causes at all, pointing out that he takes an aition to be available even in cases where the why-question (for example, ‘Why do the interior angles of this figure add up to two right angles?’) does not seek what we would call a cause (in Aristotle’s division, an efficient cause). When explanations of changes are being sought, however, Aristotle seems to provide recognizably causal explanations. Even the aitia (material, formal, final) that do not initially seem to be causes turn out to play an important role in causal explanation; for this reason, the label ‘four causes’ gives a reasonably accurate impression of Aristotle’s doctrine.

His comparison between artefacts and natural organisms clarifies his claims about formal and final causes. The definition of an artefact requires reference to the goal and the intended function. A hammer’s form and essence is a capacity to hammer nails into wood. The hammer was designed to have this capacity for performing this function; and if this had not been its function, it would not have been made in the way it was, to have the properties it has. The form includes the final cause, by specifying the functions that explain why the hammer is made as it is.

Similarly, Aristotle claims, a natural organism has a formal cause specifying the function that is the final cause of the organism. The parts of an organism seem to perform functions that benefit the whole (the heart pumps blood, the senses convey useful information). Aristotle claims that organs have final causes; they exist in order to carry out the beneficial functions they actually carry out. The form of an organism is determined by the pattern of activity that contains the final causes of its different vital processes. Hence Aristotle believes that form as well as matter plays a causal role in natural organisms.

To claim that a heart is for pumping blood to benefit the organism is to claim that there is some causal connection between the benefit to the organism and the processes that constitute the heart’s pumping blood. Aristotle makes this causal claim without saying why it is true. He does not say, for instance, either (1) that organisms are the products of intelligent design (as Plato and the Stoics believe), or (2) that they are the outcome of a process of evolution.

Aristotle’s account of causation and explanation is expressed in the content and argument of many of his biological works (including those connected with psychology). In the Parts of Animals and Generation of Animals for instance, he examines the behaviour and structure of organisms and their parts both to find the final causes and to describe the material and efficient basis of the goal-direction that he finds in nature (Parts of Animals I 1). He often argues that different physiological processes in different animals have the same final cause.

Some ascribe to Aristotle an ‘incompatibilist’ view of the relation between final causes and the underlying material and efficient causes. Incompatibilists concede that every goal-directed process (state, event) requires some material process (as nutrition, for example, requires the various processes involved in digesting food), but they argue that the goal-directed process cannot be wholly constituted by any material process or processes; any process wholly constituted by material processes is (according to the incompatibilist) fully explicable in material-efficient terms, and therefore has no final cause.

Probably, however, Aristotle takes a ‘compatibilist’ view. He seems to believe that even if every goal-directed process were wholly constituted by material processes, each of which can be explained in material-efficient terms, the final-causal explanation would still be the only adequate explanation of the process as a whole. According to this view, final causes are irreducible to material-efficient causes, because the explanations given by final causes cannot be replaced by equally good explanations referring only to these other causes. This irreducibility, however, does not require the denial of material constitution.

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Causes. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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