Statue of Aristotle

Aristotle's Four Causes

Aristotle's theory of four causes is a common topic for introduction to philosophy courses, but is interesting enough that philosophers are still interested in it today. This article summarizes the theory and each of the four types of cause that Aristotle identified.
Why Aristotle's Theory is Important

One of the most frequently taught topics in introductory philosophy courses is Aristotle's view on causality, or, more specifically, Aristotle's "four causes." The four causes are important to students' basic understanding of philosophy for several reasons. First, with just a little effort on the part of the student, the four causes theory is easy to understand. Second, it teaches students how it's possible to view a thing or an event from many different points of view. This is one of the most important philosophical lessons students can learn. Being able to think about things from different perspectives encourages creative problem solving and critical assessment. Additionally, it introduces students to a fundamentally philosophical way of thinking about the world. Philosophers question the world and try to find new and different ways of looking at various topics, and Aristotle's four causes is a prime example of this type of activity.

What Does Cause Mean Today?

To some extent, it is unfortunate that Aristotle's theory is called, in English, a theory about "causes." Today, the word "cause" is commonly used to refer to just one of Aristotle's four causes. This is because, in the time between when Aristotle lived and now, the concept of causality underwent a number of changes as human thought developed and adapted. Today, a cause is usually something that results in something else. For example, a bad skiing accident might cause a broken leg. This kind of cause is what Aristotle called efficient cause. Since this is only one of four causes, according to Aristotle, it's important to understand what Aristotle meant by cause.

What is an Aristotelian Cause?

In ancient Greek, the word for "cause" is aiton. An aiton is not only something that directly results in something else (that's the efficient cause). The best way to understand aiton is as anything that can be an answer to the question "Why?" If you think about the question "why?" in English, it's clear that the possible answers are not all the same type. For example, if you asked "Why is this casserole so good?" the answer could be "Because Grandma made it," "Because it has all fresh ingredients," "Because it's for an important occasion," "Because it was made from a good recipe," and so on. These are all, in Aristotle's terminology, causes of the casserole's high quality.

The Four Causes

In addition to the efficient cause (which is what we commonly understand as a "cause" today), Aristotle also identified material cause, formal cause, and final cause as types of aiton. Theoretically, every object or event should have all of these four causes. To continue with the example of the casserole from the previous paragraph, the efficient cause of the casserole is Grandma making it. Grandma caused the casserole to exist. But what about the other three types?

Material Cause

The material cause of a thing, according to Aristotle, is its ingredients or components. In the example of the casserole, the material cause is all the things that Grandma put in the casserole: green beans, mushrooms, onions, heavy cream, bread crumbs, and so on. Similarly, the material cause of a table is usually wood, the material cause of a statue is often bronze, etc.

Formal Cause

The formal cause of a thing is the pattern after which it was modeled. In the case of the casserole, the formal cause is easy to identify: Grandma's recipe caused the casserole. The recipe is not itself a casserole, but is a pattern that Grandma followed when she made the dish. In other cases, the formal causes is more difficult to see. When a carpenter makes a table, the formal cause might be a specific plan for the table that he received from someone else, but it might just be the idea of the table, which exists only in his head. The formal cause of living things is even more difficult to understand. Perhaps it is an "essence" or a definition. This is a controversial issue.

Final Cause

The fourth of Aristotle's causes is the final cause. The final cause is often called the telos of a thing and refers to the thing's purpose. The final cause of Grandma's casserole is the occasion for which she made the casserole. Perhaps it was for a family dinner, for a pot luck, for charity, or for a special event. Like the formal cause, it is difficult to say whether living things have a final cause, and many philosophers are still interested in this issue.

To summarize, Aristotle's four causes are: the efficient cause, the material cause, the formal cause, and the final cause. This is a very common philosophical topic, and is a good one to think about if you are interested in thinking philosophically.
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