Translated with introduction and notes by A.E. Taylor

Appendix A:Universal Axioms and Experience← TOC→Appendix C. Popular Resumé Against the Platonic Ideas


The Four Senses of Cause

Aristotle, Metaphysics, Δ 2, 1013a24-b28. = Physics II.3, 194b 23-195a 26.

A cause signifies in one of its meanings that out of which anything is formed and which continues to exist in it; e.g., the bronze of the statue, the silver of the goblet, and the universal classes of these materials; in another meaning it signifies the form and the archetype,182 i. e., the formula expressive of the essential nature183 and its universal classes. e.g., that of the octave is the ratio 2:1, and universally number and the constituent parts of the definitory formula are causes of this kind. It signifies also the first source of change or of rest, e.g., the giver of advice is the cause of its consequences, the father of his offspring, and universally the agent of the act, the producer of change of the change produced. Also, the term is used in the sense of the end, i. e., the purpose for the sake of which anything is done; e.g., health is the cause, in this sense, of walking. For why does the man take walks? We answer, "in order to keep in health," and when we have said this we believe ourselves to have assigned the cause of his action. This applies also to what occurs under the agency of another in the process of attaining the end; e.g., in the case of health, the lowering treatment, the purgation, the physician's drugs and implements; they are all there for the sake of the end, though there is this difference among them that some of them are implements, others their effects. These, then, are the principal different senses of the term "cause." It follows that since the term is an equivocal one, there may be many causes of the same effect, and that not merely in an accidental sense. Thus, e.g., both the sculptor's art and the bronze are causes of the statue, and that not in respect of some further characteristic but in its character of a statue. But they are not its causes in the same sense of the term; the one is its cause in the sense of its material, the other in the sense of the source of movement. Things may also be reciprocally causes of each other; for instance, exertion of good bodily condition, and this of exertion, but not in the same sense; the one is cause in the sense of end, the other in the sense of the source of motion.

Further, the same thing may in some cases be the cause of opposite results. When a thing, by its presence, is the cause of a given result, we sometimes regard it as being, by its absence, the cause of the opposite result. Thus the cause of a vessel's capsizing is said to be the absence of the captain, whose presence was the cause of her previous safety. And here both the presence and its negation are causes in the sense of sources of motion.

All the senses of cause which have now been enumerated fall into four most obvious classes. Letters of the alphabet are causes of syllables, raw materials are causes of manufactured products, fire, earth, and the like of bodies, the parts of the whole, the premises of the conclusion, in the sense that they are the factors from which they are formed. Of such factors, some are of the character of the substrate, e.g., the parts, others of that of the essential nature,184 e.g., the totality, the synthesis of parts, the form.185 The seed, the physician, the giver of advice, and universally the agent, are all instances of the source of change or quiescence. Other examples are instances of the end or good to which something else is relative. For that for the sake of which something takes place claims to be the best state and the end of something else. (We need not raise the question whether it ought to be called the real good or the apparent good.)186

Taylor's Notes

(Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes)


[182]. παράδειγμα

[183]. τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

[184]. τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

[185]. The structure of the Greek sentence is awkward, since it opens at "letters of the alphabet," as if reference were going to be made to the material "factor," or substrate, only, and is then unexpectedly enlarged so as to include the "form" and "essential nature" under the general rubric of "factors from which things are formed."

[186]. Aristotle's account of the Four Causes may be most readily understood by bearing in mind the etymological connection of the word αἲτιον αἰτία, "cause," with the adjective αἴτιος, "responsible for," "accountable for." The αἴτιον of any state of things is that to which, in the English vernacular idiom, the state of things in question can be "blamed." Now, when we ask, "what is responsible for the fact that such and such a state of things now exists, there are four obvious partial answers to be given, corresponding to the four Aristotelian senses of "cause." We may mention (1) the factors out of which the thing has been constructed--the matter or material cause of the thing; (2) the law according to which those factors have been combined--the form or formal cause; (3) the agent with whose initiating impulse the process of combination or development began--the source of motion or efficient cause, (4) the conscious and deliberate, or instinctive and subconscious purpose which the process of development has realized--the end or final cause. Had any one of these four been different, the resultant state of things would also have been in some degree different. Hence they all are "responsible for" the result, that is, are its causes. The most obvious illustrations, given as such by Aristotle, are to be found in the case of artificial products of human skill, such as, e.g., a statue. The statue would not be what it is if (a) its matter had been different, e.g., if the sculptor had used bronze or wood instead of marble; (b) if its form had been different, e.g., if he had hewed the marble into the lineaments of Hercules instead of Apollo; (c) or if the material had been subjected to a different series of movements on the part of the artificer, e.g., if he had cut it into blocks for pediments, or (4) if he had not aimed at producing this result but some other; e.g., if he or his patron had wanted an obelisk, and not a statue. It seems clear, however, that the analysis was originally suggested rather by Aristotle's interest as a biologist in the facts of organic development. Suppose we ask, e.g., what was requisite in order that there should now be an oak on this particular spot. We may say (1) there must previously have been a germ from which the oak has grown, and this germ must have had certain actual physical and chemical properties characteristic of the germs from which oaks in particular grow, or there would have been no oak. This is the material cause. (2) This germ, though in many respects perhaps not distinguishable from those of other species, must have followed certain special laws in its development; it must have had an initial tendency to grow in the way characteristic of oaks, not that of elms or planes, etc. This is the form or formal cause. (3) There must have been an initial movement by which the germ was brought into contact with the external surroundings requisite in order that the process of development may begin--an efficient cause. (4) And there must be an ultimate or final stage in the process, a stage in which the germ is no longer developing into something that one day will be an oak, but actually has grown into an adult oak. This is the end or final cause, in the perfectly literal sense of "end," as the last stage of the process. Aristotle's biological interest leads him to conceive of this final stage of the development as in all cases a conscious or subconscious purpose immanent throughout all the previous stages. (Thus in organic development the formal and final causes regularly tend to coalesce in a single conception of an immanent law of growth, which is at the same time a teleological law of a thing's purposive activity.) It will be seen that individual agency is an indispensable element in his notion of causation, and that he has no sense of "cause" exactly corresponding to the familiar modern notion of a mere uniform law of the sequence of events. For an excellent brief exposition of the subject, see Siebeck, Aristoteles (Frohmann's Classiker der Philosophie, Vol. 8, pp. 32-42).

Created for Peithô's Web from Aristotle on his predecessors; being the first book of his Metaphysics; tr. from the text edition of W. Christ, with introd. and notes by A. E. Taylor. Chicago, Open Court, 1907.Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Greek unicode text entered with Peithô's Younicoder.
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