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Aristotle's Four Causes

Updated on November 2, 2009

To fully understand an object or an event, we need to be able to answer some basic questions concerning its nature. Aristotle argues we can only know a thing fully when all the causes of its existence are known. Furthermore, Aristotle believes each thing, whatever it may be, will have four causes, or types of explanatory factors by which that thing can be explained. The four types are material, formal, efficient, and final. Hence, if we are able to give these four causes of a things existence, we can claim to fully and completely understand the thing in question. However, some argue “chance” is a fifth cause or explanatory factor. In this essay I will argue that Aristotle is correct in his view that chance is not a fifth cause.

To begin, we must first determine what Aristotle means by each of the four causes. First, the material cause of something has to do with what a thing is made of. For example, oak is the material cause of the particular chair in front of me now. In other words, this chair is the chair it is in virtue of the fact that it is made of oak; if it were made of pine it would not be the chair it is. Second, the formal cause of a thing has to do with shape, arrangement, configuration, and so on. Therefore, this particular chair is the chair it is because of the shapes, curves, and dimensions that are unique to it. Third, the efficient cause of a thing is the source from which the thing becomes what it is. The efficient cause of this chair is the craftsman who has made it. Thus, the chair is the chair it is because of the particular craftsman who made it. Fourth, the final cause of a thing is its purpose, or end for which it exists. Thus, the final cause of this chair is to provide me with something to sit on because I had this particular chair made for me to sit on. There we have the four causes of things.

One might wonder whether there can be more than just four causes, or four ways in which a thing may be explained; for Aristotle, however, there are only four. Aristotle defends this position simply by saying that when we seek to understand a thing, we are really asking, “on account of what is this thing the thing it is?” to which there need only be four types of answers because these four answers fully and completely satisfy the question (198a15). In other words, why look for a fifth explanatory factor when there is nothing left to explain? Furthermore, it is worth noting, for Aristotle, every object or event will admit of all four explanatory factors (198a20-25).

Some have objected to the notion that there can only be four types of explanatory factors. Critics argue sometimes it seems things happen by chance, or on account of luck. For example, Tom and Robin are romantically interested in one another, but neither has dared to initiate anything beyond the friendship they have. Each separately plans a vacation to Cuba during the same week in August. They each arrive separately in Cuba at the same hotel on the same night. During their stay they fall in love. This situation appears to be an example of an event that occurred through luck or by chance: it is lucky because both had wanted the outcome, but neither was previously willing to initiate, however, due to the circumstances, a romantic relationship was made possible. The event occurred by chance, because both had gone to the same country, during the same week, and stayed at the same resort without prior knowledge of the others plans. It would seem this event could be explained only through luck or chance because there was no intention on the part of either agent to produce the outcome at that time. It was a meeting of chance.

Aristotle does accept that events occur out of luck (196a12). However, the fact that Tom met Robin in the same country, at the same resort, at the same time, etc, can be explained by efficient cause. The fact that Tom left for a vacation at the same time Robin left for a vacation, and they both intended to go to the same country, and they both intended to stay at the resort they stayed at for whatever reason, would have to, of necessity, cause this meeting. This sequence of events can be explained by reference to efficient causes: given the actions of the agents, event X had to occur. The final cause of this event is the love that developed between the two. By describing an event as occurring by luck or chance, we are not explaining what caused some event to occur, we are merely giving an assessment of the unlikelihood of such an outcome. In other words, the outcome was lucky, but the cause of the outcome itself was not luck. To say that a thing occurred by chance or luck goes no distance in identifying the cause of the thing. Chance and luck do not cause or produce events, they simply happen concurrently with the other four causes of the event. In other words, chance did not cause the meeting in Cuba, the meeting was coincidental, because two efficient causes (i.e., the actions of Tom and the actions of Robin) coincided with one another. Perhaps a different example will help explain what is meant here by the term concurrence.

Concurrence is the simultaneous occurrence of events or circumstances. So for example, when a man builds a house, he is the cause of the house. But, let us say the man is also a musician (Aristotle uses this example: 196b25). We can make no sense of the statement, “that which knows music was the cause of the house.” It is more sensible to admit that which knows music is a concurrent cause of the house, because the man is a musician, and being a musician happens simultaneously with the building of the house. Chance is no more the cause of anything than knowing music is the cause of the existence of the house: both are concurrent causes. To say that which knows music was the cause of the house lacks explanatory power; that is, it does not help explain how the house came to be the house that it is by explaining it was built by that which knows music. Likewise, chance does not help explain how anything comes to be. Chance is not an explanatory factor.

Thus, for Aristotle, chance is a concurrent cause of things. From what has been stated above, an argument might be formulated as follows: 1) when an event happens out of chance, there is no intention on the part of the agent to achieve that outcome at that time; 2) events are caused only by intentional acts, anything else occurring at the time of the cause of the event is merely concurrent with the event, and not the cause of the event; 3) chance is sometimes concurrent with the four causes; therefore, 4) chance is a cause only by virtue of concurrence.

While Aristotle does not explicitly make this argument, he does arrive at the same conclusion (197a5). Furthermore, I believe he would agree with each of the premises. For instance, Aristotle gives an example where a man coincidentally meets someone who owes him money (196b33). The man did not go to that place at that time for that reason (i.e. to collect the money). Thus, the man did not go to that place with the intention of collecting money. It happened by chance that he was able to fulfill that end. Therefore, I believe Aristotle would agree that events occurring by chance are unintentional acts. Furthermore, I believe Aristotle would agree that objects and events are caused only by intentional acts, because each of the four causes identified by Aristotle are intentional. For example, when a sculptor creates a statue, she intends to use the material used; she intends for the statue to take the form it takes; she intends to be the creator, or source of the existence of the statue; and she intends the statue to be created for a specific purpose. Therefore, the four causes must be intentional causes, and if the four causes are the only causes, all causes are intentional. Thus, events are caused only by intentional acts.

In light of the arguments presented, I believe it is fair to say chance and luck do exist, however, they are not the cause of events or phenomena. It is difficult to see how chance could be a cause of anything. Rather, it seems more reasonable to admit chance occurs simultaneously with the true causes of objects and events. For this reason, I believe Aristotle is correct in claiming the causes to be four in number.


Aristotle, A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J.L. Ackrill (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).


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      5 years ago

      very very understandable......and very intresting

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      6 years ago

      Chance is one thing, luck is another, so is fate and destiny. If you believe chance does not exist, then you believe in fate or destiny. In philosophy one should learn that you are never right until you have empirical proof that you are. As it is not possible to prove for or against chance, you cannot say that he is blind, or anyone who believes in chance.

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      7 years ago

      Thank you,so much this is very very well written and easily understood. Thank you, very helpful.

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      7 years ago

      There is nothing as chance to cause anything, lack of understing why events have occurred so is what you call chance, in other word chance is your blindness

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      8 years ago

      Your post is very interesting. I have had trouble understanding metaphysics, and mostly the distinctions between being and essence, and nature.

      As far chance is concerned, how does that explain how atoms come to form molecules? For example,how a hydrogen atom forms a molecule with a chlorine atom, packing in a crystal lattice.

      These processes occur by chance or by the laws of nature?


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