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 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 claim that "the art of bronze-casting the statue" is the efficient cause of the bronze statue sounds pretty strange.

  1. Does Aristotle mean the art of bronze-casting in general? Or does he really mean the art of bronze-casting this, and only this, statue?

  2. Who can believe that "the art of bronze-casting the statue" is more than an abstract term? Just a word for people doing something? I see it far more problematic than the usual examples for universals like 'red'.

  3. Even if we accept that the art of bronze-casting the statue belongs to the "furniture of the universe" (as we say), how can it be causally effective?

How can we make sense of all that? Or do I misunderstand Aristotle?


2 Answers 2


The efficient cause is always a form, not a substance, that's why it's the art of sculpting in the mind of the sculptor that is the efficient cause of the bronze statue. In this sense the "art" isn't an abstract object--it's the real, concrete feature of the sculptor in virtue of which he knows how to make the sculpture. It's an individual feature of an individual artist. That's the solution to your three questions--the art is particular, not a universal, and hence there's no problem about how it's going to play a causal role.

The harder thing to explain is the relation between the sculptor's art and the sculptor. Presumably Aristotle has in mind something like: the art is the efficient cause, but it operates through a whole bunch of intermediate causes, which are changes that the art produces in the body of the sculptor. So, for instance, knowing how to build the sculpture is what moves my hand here and there, etc.

  • You say that "the efficient cause is always a form, not a substance". Could you expand on this point? After all, Aristotle says that the father is the efficient cause of the child and the artisan of the artifact, and they are both substances.
    – Adrian
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 18:27
  • @Nicol Aristotle does sometimes give examples of substances as efficient causes, but I think he really shouldn't. The form should be the efficient cause because the "causal powers" of the substance arise from its form. i.e. your ability to think or sense comes from your having a form which endows you with those powers. For A, causation is the exercise of some active powers of one substance on the passive powers of another. So it's understandable that sometimes Aristotle isn't super strict and just says the carpenter is the cause of the bed, but strictly speaking it's the carpenter's knowledge.
    – user5172
    Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 13:14

See Book Delta [W.D.Ross's translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (1924), from The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes (1984)]

[1013a24] We call a cause (1) that from which (as immanent material) a thing comes into being, e.g. the bronze of the statue [...]. (2) The form or pattern, i.e. the formula of the essence [...]. (3) That from which the change or the freedom from change first begins, [...] and in general the maker a cause of the thing made and the change-producing of the changing.

We have here in play the concepts of an agent and of power, i.e. a capability to produce an effect [see Actuality and Potentiality for the key Aristotelian distinction, between potentiality (dunamis) and actuality (energeia)].

[1013b4] These, then, are practically all the senses in which causes are spoken of, and as they are spoken of in several senses it follows that there are several causes of the same thing, [...] e.g. both the art of sculpture and the bronze are causes of the statue not in virtue of anything else but qua statue; not, however, in the same way, but the one as matter and the other as source of the movement.

"Movement" must be understood here in a general sense, as synonim of "change".

[1013b17] All the causes now mentioned fall under four senses which are the most obvious. [...] The semen, the physician, the man who has deliberated, and in general the agent, are all sources of change or of rest.

[1013b29] [...] But besides all these varieties of causes, [...] some are called causes as being able to act, others as acting, e.g. the cause of the house’s being built is the builder, or the builder when building.

Thus, the agent is an individual: "the sculptor causes the statue, in another sense Polyclitus causes it, because the sculptor happens to be Polyclitus" and, more specifically, a human being (we assume that no other animals are able to produce sculptures).

But not a "plain" man, but "Polyclitus the sculptor", i.e. a man endowed with a specific power : the power to produce a sculpture.

[1014a16] all [the causes] may be taken as acting or as having a capacity.

  • I think this is what answers should look like. Thank you for this beautiful example and +1
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 21:36

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