This is part of an assignment, but I find myself stumped on how to even approach the question. Perhaps someone could steer me in the right direction.

In regard to the Four Causes, Aristotle's aition can be translated as either "explanation" or "cause". The question I need to write about is asking me: which of the two terms does a better job at capturing what Aristotle's division of four kinds of aition is a division of?


Since the question is asking which term is more suited in describing the four causes I'm leaning toward "explanation". The term "cause" in most everyday use implies some sort of triggering or motivating force as it were (efficient cause). It feels sort of lacking but I can't quite pin it down. If we were to use the two terms in a final causation example about good health and walking, we could say "Health caused him to start walking," or "Health explains why he started walking," I tend to favor "explanation" since it seems like a broader term whereas "cause" feels too active (for want of a better term), and sort of one-dimensional given how complicated 'why' questions can be (esp final causes)? What about a material cause example, "Q:Why is the statue green? A:The nature of copper, such that it is, caused it to be green." Doesn't explanation seem more suitable?

I'm just a laymen, and I'm not asking for someone to do my homework. I'm just lost and would appreciate some guidance.

  • Okay... and can you demonstrate some effort as to which you think might be better and why before asking us to do your homework?
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 9:27
  • 1
    You could read this question and its answers in order to get an idea.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 9:32

2 Answers 2


The Greek word "aition" translates to cause, not to explanation.

But apparently only one of the four different types of aition, which Aristotle considers, corresponds to what we today understand by cause.


There are places where aition can be rendered by 'cause' but 'explanation' is on the whole more accurate, because while 'explanation' is never contextually plainly wrong, the translation of aition by 'cause' sometimes produces absurdity :

It has long been recognized that there is something wrong with translating the term aition by the term 'cause', but it is only recently that anyone has pointed out exactly what is wrong with it. In a well-known paper on Plato, Professor Gregory Vlastos argues that aition should be translated 'because', and points out that Aristotle speaks of the four aitia as 'all the ways of stating to dia ti (the because)'. As Vlastos shows, to translate the term as 'cause' is to make nonsense of Aristotle's talk about any but efficient aitia, since the English word 'cause' means productive agent or event, and nothing else. Thus, Aristotle has been made to say (a) that the material 'cause' of the statue's weight is its bronze, (b) that the formal 'cause' of the angle at a semi-circle being a right angle is its equality to the half of two right angles, and (c) that the final 'cause' of walking after dinner is health. As Vlastos points out, these statements have the grotesque implications (a') that the bronze produces the statue's weight as the sculptor produces the statue, (b') that the abstract entity 'equality to half of two right angles' produces the rectangularity of the right angle, and thus produces itself, and (c') that the health which does not yet exist produces the walking which does exist in order that the health eventually will. These are the very sorts of absurdities for which Aristotle chastizes his predecessors. (Max Hucutt, 'Aristotle's Fiur Becauses', Philosophy, Vol. 49, No. 190 (Oct., 1974), pp. 385-399: 385-6.


G. Vlastos, 'Reasons and Causes in the Phaedo', The Philosophical Review, LXXVIII (3), I969, p. 294. Reprinted in Vlastos, Platonic Studies, published by Princeton University Press (1981). ISBN 10: 0691100217 ISBN 13: 9780691100210.

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