Four Causes

In the discussion of causation, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), the tutor to Alexander the Great, and arguably one of the most influential philosophers of the ancient philosophers, has a number of things to say about this topic. “Men,” he says, “do not think that they know a thing till they have grasped the why of it.” In his analysis of ‘why’ he states that one should consider the “coming to be and passing away and every kind of physical change, in order that, knowing their principles, we may try to refer to these principles each of our problems.”1

The principles that he suggests gives us four manner of causes:

I. The material cause: “In one sense … that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists, is called ’cause’, e.g. the bronze of the statue, the silver of the bowl.”
II. The form(al) cause: “In another sense the form or archetype.” Think of the form of the shoe that the cobbler is bringing about on his workbench. Or consider the gardener that attempts to bring out a desired form in a bonsai tree.
III. The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or coming to rest.” The shoemaker’s acts are brought to bear on the leather to transform the hide into the completed product.
IV. The final cause: “‘that for the sake of which’ a thing is done.” In this sense the work of the cobbler brings about the shoe for the protection of the foot.2

“This then,” Aristotle says, “perhaps exhausts the number of ways in which the term ’cause’ is used.”3

These ideas on causes have not gone without their challengers — as is the case with just about any issue in philosophy.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the eminent scientist, philosopher, and statesman, and the man who has contributed to science a form of scientific method known as eliminative induction, has some reservations about final causes. His complaint isn’t so much that there are not final causes, but that in science final causes have hindered further inquiry. This particular notion of cause has “intercepted the severe and diligent inquiry of all real and physical causes . . . to the great arrest and prejudice of further discovery.” This attitude is in response to comments made by philosophers in earlier generations. “The leaves of trees are for protecting of the fruit,” and “the hairs of the eyelids are for a quickset and fence about the sight,” are deemed, in Bacon’s opinion, “impertinent” in the quest of discovery. (Link). (Screenshot)

Holding a view similar to Bacon, René Descartes (1596-1650), although he believes that there are final causes, nonetheless, has a bit more of an agnostic view of them. He says that when we see “the uses of the various parts in plants and animals,” we may be led to admire “the God who brings these into existence,” but that “does not imply that we can divine the purpose for which He made each thing.” God knows the variety of uses for animal and plant parts, but we may not know these purposes. He continues on by saying that in “Physics, where everything should rest upon the securest arguments, it is futile to do so.” That is, per René, it is futile to determine the final cause of God’s purposes in physics. (Link). (Screenshot)

It was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) who, in contrast to Bacon, said that “all final causes are nothing but human fictions;” that Nature “has set no end before herself” (Link). (Screenshot) with, perhaps, the climax of his rhetoric summed up in his denouncement of those who “will not cease from asking the causes of causes, until at last you fly to the will of God, the refuge of ignorance.” (Link). (Screenshot)

I hope to say some more on this topic in the near future.


Published 5/26/22


  1. Physics, Book II, Part 3
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.