In Ch. 3 Aristotle continues his investigation of whether what is said
about “wisdom” makes sense, and what it means. He notes that “we say we
know each thing only when we think we recognize its first cause.” Note
that he does not say that “we know each thing when we recognize its
first cause,” but rather "we say
each thing when we think
we recognize its first cause." (What’s the difference? What difference
does it make?)
As part of his investigation of what it means, whether it makes sense,
to say that wisdom is knowledge of first causes and principles; and as
part of his investigation of whether it makes sense to seek first
causes and principles; Aristotle realizes he has to look into what people mean by
saying that something is a cause
(a “why,” a reason).
He notes in the first paragraph1
of Ch. 3
that causes are
spoken of (literally, “said”) in 4 ways
. In other words,
when someone asks the question "Why?," Aristotle thinks, the person
seems to be asking for one or more of four kinds of reply.
These are sometimes called “Aristotle’s 4 causes,” but be very aware of
Aristotle does not say
“There are only 4 causes”
(only 4 reasons why something
can happen or be as it is). He
does not say that there are only 4 kinds of
(4 kinds of reasons why something can happen or be
as it is). What he says
is that people speak of causes in 4 ways.
Whether there are
other kinds of reasons for things is another matter. Aristotle finds
that no one has coherently identified any other kinds, but he doesn’t
say that no one ever will. (See also the last paragraph of Ch. 7 and
the first sentence of Ch. 10. Aristotle mentions in Ch. 3 and Ch. 10
that he had already discussed the ways in which causes are spoken of,
with the same result, in the Physics
see e.g. Book Two Ch. 3 and 7 of
What then are the “4 causes,” 4 ways in which people try to explain why
things happen or are as they are?
Your translation gives them as follows:
- "substance or essence";
- "matter or substratum";
- "source of the change";
- "the purpose and good"
I will discuss them in a slightly different order than Aristotle, for
better clarity (I hope). Be
aware that first causes and principles will need to incorporate all of
a. “matter or substratum,”
sometimes called ‘material cause’ in the secondary literature: the constituent stuff of something
In the case of sensible objects, this can include what we would today
call “matter”: what takes up space and has mass. But be careful: For
not only sensible objects that have constituent stuff.
“matter” (in Aristotle’s sense) of geometric shapes is lines and points
(which he does not think are available to the senses).
(1) The matter of a wooden chair is wood; the chair is the way it it
partly because it is made of wood. And on another level, we could ask
why wood is as it is, and part of the answer to that would be that it’s
made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (among other things); these are
chemically the “matter” of wood. So if someone asked why a given chair
is the way it is, at least part of the answer is what it's made of.
(Why is the chair flammable? - Because it is made of wood.)
Be aware that we can seek even more primary material causes; we can
explain why wood is flammable, what the chemical composition of wood
is, and so on. Simply to say that the chair is made of wood is to give
a cause of why it is the way it is, but that is not to give a first
(2) A circle is the set of all points equidistant from a given point.
Thus some of why a circle is the way it is comes from the points it’s
made of. This is perhaps easier to see if we say that a given
circle is composed of a certain
set of specific points. Thus the matter of the circle is its points. Of
course, since a circle is an infinite set of points and a line is an
infinite set of points, in geometry, other causes must be involved if
we are to explain how a line and a circle are different; and how one
circle differs from another. For that, we must turn to the other kinds
of cause; see especially c. below.
(3) In Physics
Book Two Ch. 3 Aristotle gives some more examples that may be helpful.
One is that letters are that out of which syllables are composed.
(4) Another is that the premisses of an argument are the "matter" of
the argument, and are that from which the conclusion of the argument is
b. “source of change,”
sometimes called “moving cause” or “efficient cause” in the secondary
literature: What sets
off a change.
(Obviously things that are not the results
of changes or motions won’t have this kind of cause.)
(1) If something burned, catching on fire was the efficient cause of
(2) If a home was built, the actions of the builders were the source of
(3) An ideal circle may not have a moving cause, but a drawn circle has
the person who drew it, or his/her actions, as moving cause.
(4) In the Physics
Aristotle notes that if someone gave you advice and that advice
motivated you to do something, then one could see the advice-giver as a
source of your action. Or perhaps your understanding of the advice
(which may be different from the intent of the advice) was the cause of
your action. Again, one can seek causes of this kind on various levels:
perhaps the source of your action was the advice, and perhaps the
source of the giving of advice was that the advice-giver had been
motivated to be generous, etc.
c. “substance, essence,”2 to ti ēn einai
, what it is to be [something or
Aristotle sometimes uses the expressions logos
(account) or 'definition' or 'formula' or 'form'; the secondary
literature often refers to this as “formal cause.” ‘What it is to be’
is probably the most helpful way to think about this.
If something has
a particular form, part of what makes it the kind of thing it is, is
This "form" can be the characteristics that distinguish or define a
species, or the characteristics that distinguish one individual from
another. One example Aristotle often gives (e.g. at Physics
Ch. 3) is that of accounting for the difference between a lump of
bronze and a bronze statue. The same piece of bronze (the "matter," in
sense a. above) can take either form. For a given piece of bronze, part
of what explains what it is is its physical makeup, and part is the
form it is currently taking. That of course also has to do with what
forces acted on it (the second kind of cause), but Aristotle’s point is
that the question of what forces or actions were involved, and what
form the bronze wound up in, are two different questions. Each is part of the answer
to “Why is the bronze this way?”
(1) Aristotle says in Physics
Book Two Ch. 3 that the relation 2:1 is the form of the octave: it is
the form that any ratio of string lengths (on a lyre or similar
instrument) must have in order to produce notes one octave apart. Thus
the nature of number is a further cause of this type.
(2) The circle and the line are both forms of infinite sets of points;
what it is to be a circle (definition of a circle) is to be the set of
all points equidistant from a given point, and what it is to be a line
is to be the set of all points determined by two given points (the set
of all points connecting two given points and extending beyond those
points in such a way that a segment connecting any two points will also
be on the same line).
(3) If you make a chair and a table out of the same wood - say, for
purposes of argument, that you had a table and when part of it broke
you made the rest of it into a chair, so that the matter of the chair
was (part of) the exact same matter as the table. Why
chair exists and is as it is includes that it is made out of this
(matter); that you made it when the table broke (you were the moving
cause of the chair coming to be); and that it has the form
chair. Put another way, the difference between the table and the chair
is that they have different forms.
d. “that for the sake of
the end or goal or purpose or good; often the
secondary literature refers to this as “final cause.” (That term can be
confusing - do
not confuse final cause with first cause.
means ‘ultimate, most fundamental.’ ‘Final’ means ‘oriented toward a
goal or end.’ Don’t blame Aristotle for this confusing translation!)
“That for the sake of which” is a cause in the sense that it refers to
why something happened or was done. Perhaps some events and conditions
do not have causes of this type. (Aristotle doesn’t say that all events
and conditions have this kind of cause, and he doesn’t say that they
(1) This is the kind of cause that Socrates refers to at Phaedo
of the “real
cause” of his being in jail: he acted for the sake
of what he thought was right or best, and the plaintiffs acted for the
sake of what they thought was right of best. The actions, and the
people who performed them, would have been “moving causes,” but the
reasons why they were done (the sake of what one thinks is right or
best) would be “that for the sake of which”-type causes.
(2) Aristotle sometimes mentions this kind of cause in a way
that suggests that choice may not be at work; he uses the term “for the
sake of which” very broadly. He says that acorns are for the sake of
oaks, that oaks are the “final cause” of acorns. Thus he may be
suggesting that “for the sake of which” can connote directions or
The question arises, what does
this have to do with "first" causes, ultimate reasons and sources for
We might look at it thus: In each of these 4 ways, we can ask "why?" on
a deeper level or a shalllower level. First causes, if they exist,
would be at the deepest level.
So, take "matter"-type causes for example.
The question "Why is this piece of toast the way it is?" can be
answered at a surface level with something like "Because it is made of
But we can go deeper along the lines of the "matter"-type cause; we can
ask about the "matter" of bread, the constitution of bread (wheat,
water, eggs, etc.).
And we can go deeper than that: wheat is the way it is, in part,
because it is made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, etc. Carbon is the
way it is because of, say, its composition of subatomic particles, etc.
If there was a "bottom" or most fundamental level, and if we could we
could learn what is at that very "bottom" level, i.e. learn the
ultimate constituents of what is, then it seems we would have a "first
cause" of the "matter" type. We'd be able to say why everything is, in
terms of what it's made of.
But from what was said in Book One Chapter 2, it seems that all 4 kinds
of cause have to fit together, or unite, at the "first cause" level.
Otherwise, if we found what we thought were "first causes" of all four
types, we could still ask why
they went together. That is, we could still ask for a deeper cause that
incorporated all four types. We wouldn't have first causes (ultimate
reasons) until we knew that.
The question then arises,
what is the relevance of all this?
Aristotle uses this "4 ways causes are spoken of" schema to analyze
what he thinks his predecessors did in so far as they were seeking
causes. (He does not say that all they did was seek causes.) It helps
to bring out what he thinks will need to be done if we are to work out
the consequences of the hypothesis that the search for wisdom is or
involves the search for must fundamental causes and principles; and if
the hypothesis does seem sound, this will tell us something about where
we’ll need to look in order to seek wisdom.
But the “approximately 4 kinds of cause” framework is also useful
today. Recent work in the social sciences, and to a lesser extent in
the natural sciences, has suggested that the Humean model of causality,
which focuses on moving causes and to some extent material causes,
simply is not enough by itself.
1. In quoting and in referring to
Aristotle's text I am using the Ross translation, available here, among
other places: Metaphysics
. Thus when I mention specific paragraphs, these correspond to
paragraphs in that translation. (back)
2. The word
'substance' in your translation translates ousia, which is a
participle of the verb 'to be.' Thus it can be translated as 'being'
and can mean a distinct independent thing (a thing as something in its
own right and not as a part or aspect of another thing). Each distinct
thing is distinguished from other things by its characteristics; the
defining characteristics are what make it the distinct thing that it
is. That's what Aristotle is focusing on here, so "defining
characteristic" or "what it is to be [some particular thing]" seems to
be the clearest way of expressing what he's talking about. 'Essence' in
your translation translates to
ti ēn einai, literally "what it is to be." (back)
3. The numbers in the
reference to Plato are Stephanus numbers, not page numbers of a
particular translation. (back)
Contact me at rcherubi(at)gmu(dot)edu.