Aristotle's Four Causes

Aristotle rejected Plato's dualist ideas about Forms and couldn't agree with the theory of materialism, that reality is only matter and energy. So came up with an idea with how and why things exist, something that is based on its form which has to be this-worldly. His concept of form ‘is that which causes something to be the thing it is.’ So Aristotle split form into four causes, as though of be-causes, of how something is what it is. The four causes are:

·     Material cause

·     Efficient cause

·     Formal cause

·     Final cause


Material Cause

The material cause of an object is what it is made of. It identifies what particular matter the thing is composed of, for example the material cause of a chair would be wood. This on its own for Aristotle is not enough, leaving the three causes to create the purpose of the object.

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Efficient Cause

The efficient cause of an object is the agent or initiator of the process, what causes the change and motion to start or stop. The efficient cause is what actually does or makes it? For example the efficient cause of a chair would be a furniture maker, the person who stuck the seat to the legs and the back rest to the seat.

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Formal Cause

The formal cause is the pattern or law that determines its development. It is describing the pattern or form which we recognise as being a particular type of that object. What gives it the shape by which it is identified? So the chair can’t be any random shape, but must look like the chair which it is supposed to look like.

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Final Cause

All of these causes are there to find its end result or purpose, this is the final cause, or telos meaning end. It is the ultimate reason for it all cause. This can be present without the need of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence. Aristotle argues that this is the most important cause as it is the cause that brings it about, and with final cause comes the other three causes.

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  • Aristotle's four causes can apply to things that exist in the world and explains them.
  • Tells us about the cause of the universe
  • More believable than Plato's theory of Forms
  • Doesn't overrule other theories such as big bang theory
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  • Does everything have a purpose?
  • Maybe not everything needs a purpose and is just wishful thinking (David Hume's idea)
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