The Four Causes of Aristotle

I stumbled on the principle of the 4 causes of Aristotle some years ago when I did some reading about cause and effect, leadership and management. The question is: How do we get things done? When do we get things done? And also very important: How do we get things done in the right way? I cannot tell in what context I came to the final insight or in what book I found it, but it got stuck and it leads me since then.

The Four Causes

Everything what happens has four causes. There are no more and no less. Exactly four. Only if all four causes are present, something can come into existence. That is what Aristotle formulated a lot of centuries before. (Have also a look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_causes)

In the next subsections I describe the four causes. To give an accessible example, I use the picture of building a house. You will see how the four causes apply there. The order of presentation is already the order in which they appear in nature.

Causa Finalis: The Seed

The causa finalis or final cause is the basic reason for anything to happen. You can also translate it as need, requirement or wish. Only with something like that a trigger is present to start some development. The final cause is the seed for any development.

For our house building example, we can think of it like the need to move into a new place because of a lack of space. For instance, a couple lives in a small flat and they are happy, but a child is to be born. They found out, that with a small child the place is too small, there is not a good chance to have a children room, the bath room is to narrow… They find that the current situation is changing and a need for more space is coming up. This is the cause finalis. A need or requirement which is not detailed, yet. There is just an issue to be solved, but there is not a detailed plan, yet.

Causa Formalis: The Form

After the cause finalis is met, the second cause happens: The cause formalis or form. The final cause showed an issue and now it is thought about it and a plan or form is built. The cause formalis brings the vision for how the cause finalis can be solved.

In the house building example, our couple may have thought about renting the flat next to them and re-modelling a wall (what is maybe not allowed by the owner), moving into a bigger flat (which might be too expensive), or to build a house. After deciding to build a house they go to an architect and plan how large the house will be, what it will look like, and so forth. At the end of this process a clear vision exists how the situation is solved.

Causa Materialis: The Material

After a vision exists due to the causa formalis, it needs to come to the final solution. For that the last two causes are needed. The next is the causa materialis or the material. For anything to happen, the material needs to be present.

In the house building example, the material is the material to build the house likes stones, concrete, wood and so forth, but also the knowledge on how to build it. The physical material is needed, but also the knowledge. Without these, there is no chance that a house can be build.

Causa Efficiense: The Execution

After the needs started the process, the vision was formed and the material was organized, the last cause is the execution or causa efficiense. A trainer of mine told me once: A vision without execution is just hallucination. He is right. One can dream of the best stuff, to have everything in place and so forth, but without execution nothing happens. That’s what the last cause is about. In this meaning, it also links to the block post I wrote some years before about The Trinity of Action.

In the house building example, this is the actual building of the house. We have everything in place now to perform the actual solution. We have the need to give as drive and energy, we have a vision and plan, we have the material and knowledge, and the last step is to put the material together with the knowledge we have.

The Dependencies of the Four Causes

The four causes are sorted in another order in most cases, but in my opinion this is not optimal. There is a strict order of appearance in the order I described it above.

The first cause in my opinion is the causa finalis. It is a natures principle that without energy nothing takes place. Without the need, requirement or issue, there is no energy to change a current status quo. There is always a causa finalis needed as a seed for any change. I cannot think of a situation where it is different.

The second cause after the seeding by the causa finalis is always a kind of plan. A lot of actions in our world seem to be performed without plan, but the closer look reveals, that even there is a plan, but maybe not a well thought through one or just based on a pattern or experience, but there is one.

The cause materialis may be also the second reason, because the material might be already there for the solution, but it is not seen as such without a kind of plan. On the other side a plan also reveals what material might be missing which is needed to be organized or waited for.

At the very end the action, the cause efficiense can take place, but without a plan or material nothing can be done.

Final Words

The principle of the Four Causes helps me a lot during my daily private and professional life, because it helps me to understand what happens on one site, but it also provides me a guideline on how to work in certain situation, because it gives me an order for what to work on.

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About rickrainerludwig
Rick-Rainer Ludwig is software craftsman and coding enthusiast. He is the founder of PureSol Technologies. PureSol Technologies is a company for software development consulting with a strong focus on clean code and automated tool chains.

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