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The four causes are elements of an influential principle in Aristotelian thought whereby explanations of change or movement are classified into four fundamental types of answer to the question "why?". Aristotle wrote that "we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause."[1][2] While there are cases in which classifying a "cause" is difficult, or in which "causes" might merge, Aristotle held that his four "causes" provided an analytical scheme of general applicability.[3]

Aitia (Greek: αἰτία), the word that Aristotle used to refer to the causal explanation, has, in philosophical traditional, been translated as "cause." This peculiar, specialized, technical, usage of the word "cause" is not that of everyday English language.[4] Rather, the translation of Aristotle's αἰτία that is nearest to current ordinary language is "explanation."[5][2][4]

In Physics II.3 and Metaphysics V.2, Aristotle holds that there are four kinds of answers to "why" questions:[2][5][6]

  • Matter (the material cause of a change or movement): The aspect of the change or movement that is determined by the material that composes the moving or changing things. For a table, such might be wood; for a statue, such might be bronze or marble.
  • Form (the formal cause of a change or movement): A change or movement caused by the arrangement, shape, or appearance of the thing changing or moving. Aristotle says, for example, that the ratio 2:1, and number in general, is the cause of the octave.
  • Agent (the efficient or moving cause of a change or movement): Consists of things apart from the thing being changed or moved, which interact so as to be an agency of the change or movement. For example, the efficient cause of a table is a carpenter, or a person working as one, and according to Aristotle the efficient cause of a boy is a father.
  • End or purpose (the final cause of a change or movement): A change or movement for the sake of a thing to be what it is. For a seed, it might be an adult plant; for a sailboat, it might be sailing; for a ball at the top of a ramp, it might be coming to rest at the bottom.

The four "causes" are not mutually exclusive. For Aristotle, several, preferably four, answers to the question "why" have to be given to explain a phenomenon and especially the actual configuration of an object.[7] For example, if asking why a table is such and such, a complete explanation, taking into account the four causes, would sound like this: This table is solid and brown because it is made of wood (matter), it does not collapse because it has four legs of equal length (form), it is as such because a carpenter made it starting from a tree (agent), it has these dimensions because it is to be used by men and women (end).

Definition of "cause"

In his philosophical writings, Aristotle used the Greek word αἴτιον (aition), a neuter singular form of an adjective. The Greek word had meant, perhaps originally in a "legal" context, what or who is "responsible," mostly but not always in a bad sense of "guilt" or "blame." Alternatively, it could mean "to the credit of" someone or something. The appropriation of this word by Aristo

Aitia (Greek: αἰτία), the word that Aristotle used to refer to the causal explanation, has, in philosophical traditional, been translated as "cause." This peculiar, specialized, technical, usage of the word "cause" is not that of everyday English language.[4] Rather, the translation of Aristotle's αἰτία that is nearest to current ordinary language is "explanation."[5][2][4]

In Physics II.3 and Metaphysics V.2, Aristotle holds that there are four kinds of answers to "why" questions:[2][5][6]

The four "causes" are not mutually exclusive. For Aristotle, several, preferably four, answers to the question "why" have to be given to explain a phenomenon and especially the actual configuration of an object.[7] For example, if asking why a table is such and such, a complete explanation, taking into account the four causes, would sound like this: This table is solid and brown because it is made of wood (matter), it does not collapse because it has four legs of equal length (form), it is as such because a carpenter made it starting from a tree (agent), it has these dimensions because it is to be used by men and women (end).