I know that in order to know something, in some cases we don't necessarily need to know its final cause, because sometimes the efficient cause might be enough to give a full explanation. But I wonder if you can help me understand if all substances, perceptible or non perceptible, have final causes. I would also be grateful if you could direct me to some source that discusses precisely this issue. References from the original texts of Aristotle would also be appreciated.

  • Cause in ancient phil is both cause in the modern sense: something producing an effect, and this is mainly A's efficient cause, but also the "reason why" (Plato's Forms) and this are mainly A's formal and final causes. Feb 15 at 11:34
  • See A on Causality: The Explanatory Priority of Final Causes. For A a "full explanation" needs final causes in order to reply to the question: “What is its good?”, i.e. in order to understand for the sake of which something is done or takes place. Feb 15 at 13:23
  • Aristotle does suggest that one has to ascribe final causes to substances in nature to explain the regularities of natural processes, see SEP. However, generally, his "causes" are devices of explanation and not necessarily something inherent in things. So he can be interpreted as saying not that substances themselves "have" final causes, but rather that our explanations are incomplete without including the ultimate outcomes. He is more definitive only on parts of living beings really "having" final causes.
    – Conifold
    Feb 15 at 21:11

1 Answer 1


The two main passages where Aristotle deals with his doctrine of four causes are in his work Metaphysics and in his work Physics.

  1. Metaphysics: Greek, English

ἐπεὶ δὲ φανερὸν ὅτι τῶν ἐξ ἀρχῆς αἰτίων δεῖ λαβεῖν [25] ἐπιστήμην (τότε γὰρ εἰδέναι φαμὲν ἕκαστον, ὅταν τὴν πρώτην αἰτίαν οἰώμεθα γνωρίζειν), τὰ δ᾽ αἴτια λέγεται τετραχῶς, ὧν μίαν μὲν αἰτίαν φαμὲν εἶναι τὴν οὐσίαν καὶ τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι (ἀνάγεται γὰρ τὸ διὰ τί εἰς τὸν λόγον ἔσχατον, αἴτιον δὲ καὶ ἀρχὴ τὸ διὰ τί πρῶτον), ἑτέραν δὲ τὴν ὕλην [30] καὶ τὸ ὑποκείμενον, τρίτην δὲ ὅθεν ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κινήσεως, τετάρτην δὲ τὴν ἀντικειμένην αἰτίαν ταύτῃ, τὸ οὗ ἕνεκα καὶ τἀγαθόν (τέλος γὰρ γενέσεως καὶ κινήσεως πάσης τοῦτ᾽ ἐστίν), (Met. Book I, Chap. 3, 983a)

It is clear that we must obtain knowledge of the primary causes, because it is when we think that we understand its primary cause that we claim to know each particular thing. Now there are four recognized kinds of cause. Of these we hold that one is the essence or essential nature of the thing (since the "reason why" of a thing is ultimately reducible to its formula, and the ultimate "reason why" is a cause and principle); another is the matter or substrate; the third is the source of motion; and the fourth is the cause which is opposite to this, namely the purpose or "good";for this is the end of every generative or motive process.

  1. Physics Greek English

ἕνα μὲν οὖν τρόπον αἴτιον λέγεται τὸ ἐξ οὗ γίγνεταί τι ἐνυπάρχοντος, οἷον ὁ χαλκὸς τοῦ ἀνδριάντος καὶ ὁ ἄργυρος τῆς φιάλης καὶ τὰ τούτων γένη· ἄλλον δὲ τὸ εἶδος καὶ τὸ παράδειγμα, τοῦτο δʼ ἐστὶν ὁ λόγος ὁ τοῦ τί ἦν εἶναι καὶ τὰ τούτου γένη (οἷον τοῦ διὰ πασῶν τὰ δύο πρὸς ἕν, καὶ ὅλως ὁ ἀριθμός) καὶ τὰ μέρη τὰ ἐν τῷ λόγῳ. ἔτι ὅθεν ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς μεταβολῆς ἡ πρώτη ἢ τῆς ἠρεμήσεως, οἷον ὁ βουλεύσας αἴτιος, καὶ ὁ πατὴρ τοῦ τέκνου, καὶ ὅλως τὸ ποιοῦν τοῦ ποιουμένου καὶ τὸ μεταβάλλον τοῦ μεταβαλλομένου. ἔτι ὡς τὸ τέλος· τοῦτο δʼ ἐστὶν τὸ οὗ ἕνεκα, οἶον τοῦ περιπατεῖν ἡ ὑγίεια· διὰ τί γὰρ περιπατεῖ; φαμέν “ἵνα ὑγιαίνῃ”, καὶ εἰπόντες οὕτως οἰόμεθα ἀποδεδωκέναι τὸ αἶτιον. καὶ ὅσα δὴ κινήσαντος ἄλλου μεταξὺ γίγνεται τοῦ τέλους, οἷον τῆς ὑγιείας ἡ ἰσχνασία ἢ ἡ κάθαρσις [*]ἢ τὰ φάρμακα ἢ τὰ ὄργανα· πάντα γὰρ ταῦτα τοῦ τέλους ἕνεκά ἐστιν, διαφέρει δὲ ἀλλήλων ὡς ὄντα τὰ μὲν ἔργα τὰ δʼ ὄργανα. (Book II, Chap. 3, 194b)

In one sense, then, (1) that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists, is called ‘cause’, e.g. the bronze of the statue, the silver of the bowl, and the genera of which the bronze and the silver are species. In another sense (2) the form or the archetype, i.e. the statement of the essence, and its genera, are called ‘causes’ (e.g. of the octave the relation of 2:1, and generally number), and the parts in the definition. Again (3) the primary source of the change or coming to rest; e.g. the man who gave advice is a cause, the father is cause of the child, and generally what makes of what is made and what causes change of what is changed. Again (4) in the sense of end or ‘that for the sake of which’ a thing is done, e.g. health is the cause of walking about. (‘Why is he walking about?’ we say. ‘To be healthy’, and, having said that, we think we have assigned the cause.) The same is true also of all the intermediate steps which are brought about through the action of something else as means towards the end, e.g. reduction of flesh, purging, drugs, or surgical instruments are means towards health. All these things are ‘for the sake of’ the end, though they differ from one another in that some are activities, others instruments.

  1. Aristotle gives several examples how and when to ask for these different types of causes. He does not apply these causes to substances. Instead he investigates the causes for different kind of observed changes. This shows up in particular when dealing with the four causes in the context of his work on physics.

    In his later work "Metaphysics" Aristotle takes the term “cause” in a more general abstract sense.

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