In the article "Aristotle on Causality" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy we read:

Here Aristotle recognizes four types of things that can be given in answer to a why-question:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.

Now, bronze is an alloy consisting of copper and tin. So why isn't the material cause of the statue simply copper and tin?

At least copper and tin are chemical elements and so far more fitting as a fundamental material. Of course Aristotle didn't know that, but he knew that bronze was just a "mixture".

Or one could even ask why the material cause of the statue isn't just "many protons, neutrons and electrons"?

How does Aristotle decide how 'deep' we should go to find our material cause?

2 Answers 2


1) How does Aristotle decide how 'deep' we should go to find our material cause?

Aristotle always started from the daily experience of his time and from the knowledge of his time.

2) How far shall we go today in finding what counts as causa materialis?

The whole theory of the four causes shall explain the phenomena. Hence the goal determines how far one has to go to find a sufficient explanation.

E.g., chemistry in 19th century did not need to argue with the components of atoms. Most time they did not even know about atoms. But in the 20th century chemistry needed to argue with electrons in order to explain chemical bonds. And to distinguish isotopes it was also necessary to know about protons and neutrons as components of the atomic nucleus. On the other hand knowledge about quarks was not necessary for chemistry.

3) A further question is whether the whole theory has still any value for today's science. Are there scientist at all, who benefit from the theory of the four causes concerning their acientific work?

Science has shown that the method of further and further decomposing matter into smaller components looses its validity. On a fundamental level matter can be understood as excitation of field. Much energy is needed to isolate or create smaller and smaller particles. In the end, the resulting component particle owes its existence to a high degree the additional energy spent to its creation.

  • Still, Aristotle must have known that bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. But he "stopped" at saying "the bronze is the material cause".
    – viuser
    Mar 18, 2016 at 14:54

The example of the statues is an example of material cause, and he's not there examining in depth the notion of material cause; otherwise he would have written much more.

In Aristototles day, statues were painted; so one could ask does the material cause of a statue include pigments; but of course he doesn't as - at least here - he's more interested in examining the different types of cause - material cause is quite different from formal cause.

Thus, if you're is interested in purely material cause, then you can and perhaps should go as deep as you can; if you're interested to see how the different causes: the formal, the final, the initial and the material all hang together - then one need not.

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