University of Cambridge

Cause-Effect Argument According to Aristotle

Hasan A. Yahya, professor of philosophy

 Aristotle describes four causes of being, they are: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause and the purpose of being as the final cause. The material cause describes the material out of which something is composed. Thus the material cause of a table is wood, and the material cause of a car is rubber and steel. It is not about action. It does not mean one domino knocks over another domino.

 The formal cause is its form, i.e. the arrangement of that matter. It tells us what a thing is, that any thing is determined by the definition, form, pattern, essence, whole, synthesis or archetype. It embraces the account of causes in terms of fundamental principles or general laws, as the whole (i.e., macrostructure) is the cause of its parts, a relationship known as the whole-part causation. Plainly put the formal cause is the idea existing in the first place as exemplar in the mind of the sculptor, and in the second place as intrinsic, determining cause, embodied in the matter. Formal cause could only refer to the essential quality of causation. A more simple example of the formal cause is the blueprint or plan that one has before making or causing a human made object to exist.

 The efficient cause is “the primary source”, or that from which the change or the ending of the change first starts. It identifies ‘what makes of what is made and what causes change of what is changed’ and so suggests all sorts of agents, nonliving or living, acting as the sources of change or movement or rest. Representing the current understanding of causality as the relation of cause and effect, this covers the modern definitions of “cause” as either the agent or agency or particular events or states of affairs. More simply again that which immediately sets the thing in motion. So take the two dominos this time of equal weighting, the first is knocked over causing the second also to fall over. This is effectively efficient cause.

 The final cause is its purpose, or that for the sake of which a thing exists or is done, including both purposeful and instrumental actions and activities. The final cause or telos is the purpose or end that something is supposed to serve, or it is that from which and that to which the change is. This also covers modern ideas of mental causation involving such psychological causes as volition, need, motivation or motives, rational, irrational, ethical, and all that gives purpose to behavior.

Additionally, things can be causes of one another, causing each other reciprocally, as hard work causes fitness and vice versa, although not in the same way or function, the one is as the beginning of change, the other as the goal. (Thus Aristotle first suggested a reciprocal or circular causality as a relation of mutual dependence or influence of cause upon effect). Moreover, Aristotle indicated that the same thing can be the cause of contrary effects; its presence and absence may result in different outcomes. Simply it is the goal or purpose that brings about an event (not necessarily a mental goal). Taking our two dominos, it requires someone to intentionally knock the dominos over as they cannot fall themselves.

 Aristotle marked two modes of causation: proper (prior) causation and accidental (chance) causation. All causes, proper and incidental, can be spoken as potential or as actual, particular or generic. The same language refers to the effects of causes, so that generic effects assigned to generic causes, particular effects to particular causes, operating causes to actual effects. Essentially, causality does not suggest a temporal relation between the cause and the effect. (756 words) www.askdryahya.com

 References:

  • Aristotle,  Nicomachean EthicsBook I. See for example chapter 7  
  • Ebenstein, Alan; William Ebenstein (2002). Introduction to Political Thinkers. Wadsworth Group
  • Barnes,  Jonathan, “Life and Work” in The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (1995),
  • Polanyi, K. (1957) “Aristotle Discovers the Economy” in Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi ed. G. Dalton, Boston 1971.
  • Lord, Carnes (1984). Introduction to the Politics, by Aristotle. Chicago: Chicago University Press 
  • Russell,  Bertrand, “A History of Western Philosophy”, Simon & Schuster, 1972
  • W. K. C. Guthrie (1990). ” A History of Greek philosophy: Aristotle : an encounter“.  Cambridge University Press
  • “Aristotle (Greek philosopher) Britannica Online Encyclopedia. www.britannica.com  
  • Durant, Will, (1926 (2006)).  The Story of Philosophy. United States: Simon & Schuster, Inc..

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