Aristotle distinguishes between four causes: material, efficient, formal and final. However, his use of 'cause' is different than our use. Our use of 'cause' is just the efficient cause, thing A that makes thing B happen directly.

However, I was wondering if it is possible for Aristotle's final cause to also be a 'cause' in our modern venacular?

For example, when I choose to do something, like whack a baseball, my choice is both directly causing the thing to happen, and it is orienting the present event towards a future eventuality. So, it seems like my will is an efficient cause that is also a final cause.

Conversely, if all causes are only of the efficient variety, it doesn't seem possible for final causes to really exist. If efficient causes are not oriented towards a future eventuality, it doesn't seem possible for events to become ordered towards specific future outcomes. Whatever does eventually happen is purely a random accident. Hence, it seems to me that if final causes are real, then at some point there must be an efficient cause that is also a final cause.

  • 2
    Per Aristotle since they're entirely different but non-exclusive types the two cannot be identical by his design. In your case the final cause is to aim for the ball's intended destiny and the efficient cause is you whack the ball at a certain moment and there might be other efficient causes for your same final cause... Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 2:19

4 Answers 4


The final cause is the cause of causes (causa causarum), so the final cause is the cause of the efficient cause.

Commentating on Aristotle's Metaphysics book 5 (Δ), 1013a24-1013b16,

  1. And there are things which are causes of each other. Pain, for example, is a cause of health, and health is a cause of pain, although not in the same way, but one as an end and the other as a source of motion.
    καὶ ἀλλήλων αἴτια (οἷον τὸ πονεῖν [10] τῆς εὐεξίας καὶ αὕτη τοῦ πονεῖν: ἀλλ᾽ οὐ τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον ἀλλὰ τὸ μὲν ὡς τέλος τὸ δ᾽ ὡς ἀρχὴ κινήσεως).

St. Thomas Aquinas explains how the final cause causes the efficient cause and vice versa (Sententia Metaphysicæ lib. 5 l. 2):

  1. […] The efficient cause is related to the final cause because the efficient cause is the starting point of motion and the final cause is its terminus. There is a similar relationship between matter and form. For form gives being, and matter receives it. Hence the efficient cause is the cause of the final cause, and the final cause is the cause of the efficient cause. The efficient cause is the cause of the final cause inasmuch as it makes the final cause be, because by causing motion the efficient cause brings about the final cause. But the final cause is the cause of the efficient cause, not in the sense that it makes it be, but inasmuch as it is the reason for the causality of the efficient cause. For an efficient cause is a cause inasmuch as it acts, and it acts only because of the final cause. Hence the efficient cause derives its causality from the final cause. […]

and Sententia Metaphysicæ lib. 5 l. 3:

  1. Moreover, it must be noted that, even though the end is the last thing to come into being in some cases, it is always prior in causality. Hence it is called the “cause of causes”, because it is the cause of the causality of all causes. For it is the cause of efficient causality […]

Can a final cause also be an efficient cause?

I would say no. Aristotle found four causes of change:

Material; that which is transformed; the state of affairs before the process of change begins.

Efficient; the technique or method which accomplishes the change; as noted, this is the modern meaning of the word “cause”.

Formal; that into which something is transformed; the state of affairs after the process is completed.

Final; the human purpose of the change.

If the final cause were identical to the efficient cause, or if sometimes the final cause included the efficient cause, then that would mean that the purpose of an action and the method of accomplishing that purpose were the same thing.

In reality, a purpose can often be accomplished by any of several methods, and one method can be undertaken to accomplish several purposes. So the two are not identical, and the final cause does not extend to include the efficient cause.

That is what I can offer. Thank you for raising this interesting question.


Final cause is the purpose for which the event occurs. Only voluntary actions by conscious beings are done for a purpose. Naturally occurring events that serve no purpose and are not decided or adjusted by anyone, are just like you said, random accidents.

Naturally final causes are real, there is no doubt or debate about it. We can make the distinction between a voluntary action (for a purpose) and an involuntary reaction (to a cause).

The final cause, the purpose of an action, is never the effective cause of that action. Willingness to achieve a certain result does not directly translate to actions required to achieve it. An action plan, a decision to act is needed.

However, it is questionable whether we can consider the decision to be the effective cause of the action. The decision does not provide the energy required for the action, that is provided by the bloodstream. The decision only controls the muscles, which ones move in which order.

We can say that voluntary actions are effectively self-caused, as they are not caused by any events prior to the decision to act. But I'm not aware of any philosophical consensus about whether the decision causes the action or only controls it.


The reduction of the term "cause" to efficient cause is largely within the context of mechanical materialism, the scientific dualism that, for formal reasons, rules out intentionality and free will in explanatory hypotheses. In the realm of the mind this would include a very strict behaviorism and denial of free will.

While scientists and analytical philosophers rightly strive to keep teleology out of their investigations, few of them, I believe, would deny some form of free will, volition, or purposiveness in human consciousness. This leads to a kind of dualism, in which Kant, for example, speaks of two kinds of causality--natural or mechanical causality and the causality of free will. Both operating upon your baseball.

Subsequent idealists would go further and argue that since the "natural laws" of science exist irreducibly and always in "consciousness" then we cannot fully eradicate some sort of teleology from the universe. In some sense, even the "laws of physics" arise from the purposive thoughts and actions of physicists. Thought is always purposeful or intentional and we cannot see things from "outside" of thought.

So, the elimination of "final cause" is more of a formal practice in limited applications, marking the distinction between Darwin and Lamarck, for example. Even in the natural sciences, I'm not sure that practitioners are quite as strict or confident about ruling out some versions of final cause as they once were. It's an ongoing question of definition. But causality is a huge topic in philosophy and science, and quickly spirals into all sorts of debates.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .