aristotle on the four causes (2008)


What are Aristotle’s Four Causes? What sorts of explanation does he use them to give? Which is his preferred form of explanation?

Aristotle wanted to find an answer for the nature of things, their substance. He questioned the notion of how something with substance came about to exist. Upon examining material objects, he began to identify certain categories such as “matter” and “form”. Aristotle wanted to explain what causes something to be what it is, to have the characteristics that it has, and how something can change in the way that it does. Aristotle concluded that as material objects change, and their changes are caused, there are four different levels of cause, and thus created the theory of the four causes.

Aristotle’s first type of cause is the so called “material cause”:

“The term “cause” is said to be applied first to “that out of which a thing comes to be and which is present as a constituent in the product”.”

                        “Ross, [1], Chapter 3, p. 72”

Here Aristotle illustrates an example of the first cause being like the “bronze of the statue.” It is these such ingredients that causes the statue to be. However, material alone is not enough to make the object itself:

“We speak of “a statue coming to be from bronze”, not of the “bronze becoming a statue.”

            “Aristotle, [3], Book 1, 190a.”

The second cause is the cause of “form or pattern”, namely, the formal cause. This is the characteristic that makes the object fall into a particular category. The thing that gives it its shape, its pattern.

“The formula of what it is to be the thing in question, as the ratio 2:1 is the formula of the octave.”

           “Ross, [1], Chapter 3, p. 72”

Thirdly, the efficient cause is the agent to which brings something about. The act of something which causes something to happen. For example, the act of painting to create a piece of art:

“This cause may be found in the region of conduct (he who advises an act is the cause of it)…agent to thing done, of producer of change to thing changed.”  

                      “Ross, [1], Chapter 3, p. 72”

 It seems a common view of causation today is taken from this approach: the causer causes the effect. In the case of a person, the partaker does a particular action, and thus receives a particular result.

Lastly, the “final cause”. This, put basically, is the reason for an objects existence.

“…that for the sake of which”, and “the goal”… as Aristotle’s example indicates… by using the connective “in order to”: “He is walking in order to be healthy.” ”

                    “Barnes, [2], pg. 54, 55.”                 

The final cause can be suggested to evoke a certain question: “what is something for?” It is this end result, the final outcome, which makes it the final cause. Aristotle believed that it is not the mere material, or the characteristics, that lied at the essence of an object, but rather, its particular and special function to be performed.  

Aristotle further explains these four causes in accordance with certain explanations. According to Aristotle, the cause and the causer are not necessarily exclusive to each other; there can be more than one cause.

“The same thing has many causes non-incidentally; for example, both the art of statue-making and the bronze are causes of the statue...not in the same way: one is the cause in the sense of matter, the other is the sense of origin of change.”

                   “Barnes, [2], pg. 56.”

 And so, as there can be more than one cause, it is understandable to say, for example, the statue is heavy because of the bronze, and the statue is a certain size because the sculptor made it so. In other words, if Y explains X, it does not mean that Z can also explain X. Aristotle tries to show that the two explanations are of two separate features of an X: two different types of causality.

Looking at it with a different example, Aristotle could say it is the shape of the book, and also the paper of the book, which causes the book. Aristotle seems to be making the point of a whole factor causing something to be. A causing B. And also C causing B. He seems to fail at pointing out the possibility of for B to be caused, A and C’s attention needs to be address, the combination of certain causes, for something to be.   

Aristotle’s explanation of a final cause lacks as much evidence as Plato’s Forms. Despite Aristotle criticising Plato’s forms for lack of evidence:

“In the Phaedo it is put in this way: forms are causes both of being and of coming into being. Yet even if forms exist there is still no coming into being unless there is something to start things moving.”

                  “Harrison-Barbet, [4],Chapter 4.3, Metaphysics, p.98”.

There is still no justification for everything in the world having a “final cause”. Things may just happen by chance, and not for a certain reason.

Aristotle’s rebuttal for this was his commentary on chance, according to Aristotle:

“He identifies “the accidental” with the exceptions to what happens for the most part.”

                  Barnes, [2], pg 57.

Meaning, chance does occur in the world, but it is not part of or subject to knowledge. Knowledge from what we can measure, what we can see, what “holds”. The things that do not “hold” are not subject to knowledge, and thus should not be included in an equation of causes.

Aristotle does not explicitly say there are random events in the world, but he acknowledges such things which are beyond scientific understanding. This in itself seems to point out that Aristotle’s final cause is not concrete: some things can be subject to chance and therefore not everything may have a final cause. If the founder of the theory himself admits to these accidental exceptions, it seems the strength of the theory is not enough to carry it to certainty.

Another explanation Aristotle gave following from the four causes was the idea of movement in conjunction with God. He says that all causes are because of something that is in motion. Motion here used not only in a kinetic sense, but also in terms such as: changing, expanding, cooling, and growing.

If A is the cause of B through a series of causes or a particular cause, then that is fine and accepted. But what, Aristotle questioned, caused A to cause B in the first place? He concluded that something has to be caused prior to A, to bring A about. In the case of the bronze statue, something had to be caused in order for bronze to come about. The theory follows on, which diverts from the subject at hand, that the caused events bought back enough indicated an unmoved mover, and this is God.

When today we think of cause, we tend to classify by the third and fourth of Aristotle’s four causes: the agent that causes it, and the purpose the creator has. If somebody does the right things, with an intention in mind, then the desired cause seems feasible. Matter and form may not be as important has Aristotle had made out, despite Aristotle saying all four are necessary to produce the effect.

Expanding on this form and matter, it seems not to matter what a person looks like, how he grew up, what type of personality he is, what gender he is etc. As long as he brings about the efficient cause (the action) to get the final cause (result in mind). This seems an important finding to look at, especially applying it into today’s society: is a deciding factor on how a pop star became to be, because of his looks and form? Or is the pure effort only recognised?

Maybe here we can introduce the varying stereotypes and schemas people have on the world, challenging what people’s background is and what they look like in accordance to what they do and wish to accomplish. An example today could be the presidential democratic candidate Barack Obama, how much has his blackness influenced the vote? There seems a huge difference between a black presidential candidate and the presidential candidate who happens to be black. The former involving the whole four causes: what he looks like as causing what he is, and the latter purely focusing on the final two causes: the effort he’s made in community service and in the senate to bring him to where he is today.

Aristotle’s four causes, as the above example demonstrates, invites us to think of the fundamental nature of causes. He gives us a clear theory of each constituent causing something to be. Each cause broken down propel us out of an everyday material lifestyle, and into deeper realms, which is why it is deemed essential for Aristotle’s works to be studied today. It’s relevance still stands.


[1] W.D Ross                                        Aristotle, Methuen & co. ltd, 1923

[2] Jonathan Barnes                           Aristotle, Oxford University Press, 1982.

[3] Aristotle                                       The works of Aristotle: Vol. II, Physica,  Oxford at the Clarendon press, 1930.

[4] Anthony Harrison- Barbet             Mastering Philosophy Second edition, Palgrave, 2001