Does a material cause either depend on its effect or appear to be somehow self suffiient?

Aristotle considers the material "cause" (hyle) of an object as equivalent to the nature of the raw material out of which the object is composed

I'm asking for an obscure reason. I was wondering how cause and effect appeared in Hinduism, if in Hinduism the cause depends on the effect. Because it would make sense to me if a lot of Buddhism's denial of self subsisting things was so that, if the effect also doesn't depend on the cause, perhaps because the effect doesn't exist yet, there could be no causation.

Odd if that train of thought is useful, though, just cos I've never read anyone say so.

  • Great question. The answer is too long for me to attempt. I would highly recommend reading the discussion of this issue in a wonderful book 'The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on the Noble Nagarjuna's Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way'. On this topic it's the best I've ever come across. The impossibility of causation as a fundamental phenomenon is one of N's various arguments against the true reality of mental and physical phenomena.
    – user20253
    Nov 13, 2018 at 11:53

1 Answer 1


Confused and welcome to PSE.

Aristotelian aitiai and Hindu causes

It is traditional to refer to Aristotle's 'four causes' but 'cause' isn't the best translation of Aristotle's term, aition, except possibly in the case of the so-called efficient cause. Since Aristotle was not talking about causes, it might be supposed that any link with causes and effects in Hinduism fails to apply. If Hinduism talks of causes, Aristotle does not. I suggest, however, that the samavayi-karana, often called the 'material cause' in Hindu thought, functions similarly to hyle among the four Aristotelian aitiai.

What Aristotle did say - and it is not about 'causes'

It is usually assumed that when Aristotle distinguishes between the four causes a natural scientist should study, he is referring to (1) the matter [hyle], (2) the form of a thing [eidos], (3) that which brought it into existence [logos], and (4) its purpose [telos]. On this basis, it must remain obscure what the four items in this list have in common such that all and only the four of them should be called "causes." In what sense does the form or the purpose of a thing cause this thing? What is the effect of matter or form? (Boris Hennig, 'The Four Causes', The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 106, No. 3 (Mar., 2009), pp. 137-160; 137.)

Answer : none in any sense in which we normally use the concept of 'cause'.

The four causes (aitiai) are best seen as four explanatory factors that are required to account for something's being what it is or the kind of thing it is. In the time-honoured example, here is a statue of Pericles. The statue would not be a statue unless it had a material component (stone, say). Equally it would not be a statue, let alone a statue of Pericles, unless it had a certain structure or form. (Aristotle was not into conceptual art !) As well, to account for the statue's existence we need to consider the sculptor : the activities of the sculptor in chiselling, hammering, smoothing down, the original stone into the form it now has. And lastly, since (let's assume) the sculptor worked to a plan and intended to produce the statue, this purpose has to be taken into account in explain the statue's being what it is.

The 'efficient' aitia, here the sculptor's chiselling, hammering, and smoothing down the stone, is closest to a 'cause' in the (or 'a') present-day sense. It is hard to see the material and the formal aitiai as 'causes' in any way we would recognise today.

The material aitia does not have effects because matter (hyle) is not a cause in a modern sense and whether it is self-sufficient depends on whether the Aristotelian substance (ousia) of which it consists is self-sufficient.

Hyle and the samavayi-karana reconciled

Suppose we make a jug from clay. Aristotle would call the clay the hyle (material aitia) of the jug. In Hindu thought the clay of the jug would likewise be its samavayi. Hindu thought enters the causal realm at this point. We see how (material) cause and effect appear in Hinduism :

The material cause such as the clay is technically called the samavayi-karana of the jug. Samavaya means ... an intimate, inseparable relation of inherence. A karana is called samavayi when its materials are found inseparably connected with the materials of the effect. Asamavayi-karana is that which produces its effects through the medium of of the samavayi or material cause of the jug, e.g. the clay is not the cause of the colour of the jug but the colour of the clay is the cause of the colour of the jug. The colour of the clay which exists in the clay in inseparable relation is the cause of the colour of the jug. This colour of the clay is thus called the asamavayi cause of the jug. (Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, I, Cambridge : CUP, 1963 : 322.)

The interlock between Aristotle's material aitia (hyle) and the Hindu samavayi is fairly exact. The stone of Aristotle's statue is the clay of the Hindu jug.

Reading _______________________________________________________________________

Aristotle, Physics, II.3 & Metaphysics H.4.

  • thanks, useful addition. but, did you read the linked to article on hinduism!?
    – confused
    Nov 13, 2018 at 9:53
  • @confused. I have amended my answer to make the salient points more salient and to address the non-comparability of Aristotelian aitiai and Hindu causes directly.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 13, 2018 at 11:04
  • Thanks - hope it's of help. Look forward to other contributions from you. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 13, 2018 at 12:40
  • @confused. I have added specific points about Hindu thought. It is now my opinion that there is a distinction point of similarity between Aristotle and Hindu thought as regards the so-called 'material cause'.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 14, 2018 at 20:52

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