I have noticed for a long time that, to ask 'why', can often prompt answers of different types, that either describe the events, or attribute meaning. An example would be:

Why are the pliers on this table rusty?

  • Answer 1: Because they are made out of iron, and it started to rain.
  • Answer 2: Because someone didn't put them away.

The first answer seems to describe the process, or mechanism ('how'), while the second the purpose ('why').**

The background to this question is that, I am trying to give whether the 'purpose' or 'aim' of a particular computer programme, is either to: 'iteratively look-up a search term and then the second entity in its definition, to exhaustion' *; or, to be a 'Chinese character search engine'.

What term would you use to describe the 'purpose' of an entity, in the second sense given? (Semantics? The Teleological? Ontological? Epistemiology?)

If you know any resources which discuss this (although it does stray over into the field of language/linguistics), I would be grateful.

Thank you.

*In the actual discussion had, the 'purpose' of the programme was actually given to me as being fully described by... text=table[c][2]+text[1:]

**I know that there is an overlap in these terms ('why' and 'how') in linguistics.

  • 1
    Aristotle famously proposed four causes theory to answer the question of "why". So according to this theory, your above answer 1 is the material cause, and answer 2 is the (agent) efficient cause. A computer program is usually focused on its purpose as its final cause from the point of view of its end users... Jan 14 at 0:47
  • 1
    In product marketing there is a distinction between selling features versus benefits. Focusing on features speaks of the product while focusing on benefits speaks of the user. I may have heard there is a trend where more extroverted people prefer focusing on benefits while more introverted people prefer focusing on features. Psychology has a concept that relates to purpose called affordance, which is the perceived utility or action enabled by a thing or circumstance.
    – Michael
    Jan 14 at 4:20
  • see salmon on different "why" questions southalabama.edu/philosophy/poston/courses/documents/… help
    – user57343
    Jan 14 at 21:40
  • 1
    To clarify on my previous comment, product features describe how a product is. Benefits describe why a product is. As a reference, how is to thing as why is to intent.
    – Michael
    Jan 15 at 0:16
  • that's a neat comment @Michael so you think 'how' tells us something about being rather than reasons. I like that
    – user57343
    Jan 15 at 1:30

3 Answers 3


"Why" seeks for a causal argument.

If an individual did an action X, the "why" question demands information for the cause W, such that cause-W --then--> consequence-X. For example, he opened the door. Why? Because he needed fresh air to enter. Expressed as a cause-consequence: if (cause) the door is opened, (then, in consequence) air enters.

"How" seeks for an analytic argument.

That is, the action is divided in parts and each part can be assessed. We demand "how" when a problem cannot be solved, so, we can divide it in solvable parts, and then, solve all small problems. For example, 1) he removed the secret lock, 2) unlocked the door, 3) pulled it in and 4) he blocked it so it doesn't move anymore.


If you examine the 'why-questions' and 'how-questions' carefully, you will find that the answer to 'why-questions' requires more explanation than the answer to 'how-questions' in many cases. If you select some statements from the reply to a 'why-question', only a few will show purpose / cause. The remaining explanations will be about the process only. You can check your own example.

To confirm overlapping, the other word also must have the same effect; i.e., the implication of 'how-question' must also bifurcate as process and purpose. But this does not happen.

Another thing is that (because only reproduction is needed), usually it is easier to explain the process than the real purpose or cause.

To eliminate this confusion you can avoid the usage of 'why' or you can add one more sentence to ask about the process or purpose.


We are sometimes, but not always, said to know why when we can say it had to happen.

Wesley Salmon famously contrasted the ‘modal conception’ of scientific explanation, according to which ‘scientific explanations do their jobs by show- ing that what did happen had to happen’ (Salmon [1985], p. 293), with the ‘ontic conception’ that he favored, ‘according to which causality is intimately involved in explanation’ (Salmon [1985], p. 296). He rejected the modal con- ception on the grounds that it is inapplicable to statistical explanation (Salmon [1985], pp. 295–6). But Salmon’s objection shows only that some scientific explanations fall outside the modal conception, not that all do.

But either way, 'why' can also ask for justification (why did they murder Socrates) or consolation (why did they murder God).

Clearly, not all explanations depend on strict necessity or statistics, at least in the everyday. So perhaps 'how' asks for the same thing, but is willing to accept weaker answers. Why did the car crash? The brakes failed. How did the car crash? I was driving too fast. But that claim isn't grounded in literature: I don't know of any philosophers who ask about "how" questions.

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