Four causes  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Aristotle held that there were four kinds of causes:

  • A thing's material cause is the material it consists of. (For a table, that might be wood; for a statue, that might be bronze or marble.)
  • A thing's formal cause is its form, i.e. the arrangement of that matter.
  • A thing's efficient or moving cause is "the primary source of the change or rest." An efficient cause of x can be present even if x is never actually produced and so should not be confused with a sufficient cause. (Aristotle argues that, for a table, this would be the art of table-making, which is the principle guiding its creation.)
  • A thing's final cause is its aim or purpose. (For a seed, it might be an adult plant. For a sailboat, it might be sailing. For a ball on the top of a ramp, it might be the ball rolling down the ramp.)

Final cause

Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something. Aristotle, who defined the term, explicitly argued that a telos can be present without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence in general. For example (and according to Aristotle), a seed has the eventual adult plant as its final cause (i.e., as its telos) iff the seed would become the adult plant under normal circumstances. The Greek word Telos is still used in philosophical and theological discussion today in this specific Aristotelian way. In Physics II.9, Aristotle hazards a few arguments that a determination of the final cause of a phenomenon is more important than the others. He argues that the final cause is the cause of that which brings it about, so for example "if one defines the operation of sawing as being a certain kind of dividing, then this cannot come about unless the saw has teeth of a certain kind; and these cannot be unless it is of iron." According to Aristotle, once a final cause is in place the material, efficient and formal causes follow by necessity. However he recommends that the student of nature determine the other causes as well, and notes that not all phenomena have a final cause in the first place.

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