Aristotelian Analysis (a.k.a. “Aristotelian Causality”)


“It was, of course, Aristotle who associated the notion of entailment between phenomena with the question ‘why?’ and answered it with a ‘because’.”

  – Robert Rosen, Life Itself

Rosen uses Aristotelian analysis throughout Life Itself and Essays on Life Itself for understanding entailment structures in modeling relations. Unfortunately, the usual terminology of Aristotelian analysis creates a great deal of confusion, creating an unnecessary obstacle to those striving to understand Rosen’s work and insights. What follows is my own view of Aristotelian ‘causality’ and my opinions on how to avoid terminological and conceptual confusion.

Of course, once you’ve been exposed to enough Aristotelian analysis, you will eventually “get it”, in spite of the terminology. And so, you might be inclined to say “what’s the fuss?” What I wanted to do here is hopefully provide some clarifications for newcomers to Rosen so that they need not grapple with added confusion, and also provide background information for those others who eventually “got it”, but may have wondered about some of the reasoning behind this analytical tool they have been using.

To put it directly: I think that the greatest gift you can give yourself is to drop the words “causality”, “cause”, “causation”, etc. altogether when thinking in terms of Aristotelian analysis. Although in conversation with others the necessity of using phrases like ‘formal cause’ will still exist, I suggest that in your own mind you will be better served by not using ’cause/causal/causation’ when thinking about Aristotelian analysis. As you will see below, the modern notion of ’cause’ and Aristotle’s notion of (what is translated as) ’cause’ differ considerably. 

Aristotle saw the world as comprised of matter and form. And for him, it is the form imposed on matter that is what gives things their nature, and what makes them intelligible. Without form, matter is just a “heap”. 

Aristotle says that to grasp something is know “the why of it” (“to dia ti“). However, for Aristotle, “the why” of a thing is not simply any answers to the question “why?”, but rather it signifies an inquiry into the form of a thing. And since, for Aristotle, this form is an objective part of the world, to ask “the why” of a thing is to ask for specific types of objective information. For him, to understand the form of a thing – to have this information – was to understand the objective nature of a thing.

He divided this information up into four categories, called the four fashions or modes (“tropoi“). To Aristotle, they represent not only informational categories (ways in which the nature of a thing can be grasped), but further, he considers them to characterize how the world actually works. These four fashions are today translated as: material, formal, efficient and final. 

In the original Greek, the word that is commonly translated as “cause” today is aition (singular of the adjective aitios – used as a noun),  aitia (plural noun). Aition means “that on which the legal responsibility for a given state of affairs can be laid”. Aitia means “credit” for the good or bad, or the legal “responsibility”. So what Aristotle delineates with the four fashions are the factors that are “responsible for” or “credited with” a thing having the form, the nature, it has. These phrases must be understood not as referring to antecedents, but rather to active agents. So, to be “responsible for” or be “credited with” refers to agents actively involved in a process, not to ones that had some prior involvement. 

I personally thus prefer to use the untranslated word “aition“, instead of “cause” when thinking of these four fashions to avoid connotations of antecedence . Some people have suggested the label “because” since it is in response to a “why?” question, but “because” generally conveys (at least to me) a sense of antecedence that is inappropriate, so I avoid that term. “Explanation” or “basis” might be more suitable translations than “cause”, although neither conveys the full sense of aition.

The four fashions:

1) The material aition is the raw material, the “heap” of matter without form.

2) The formal aition is the “logos of the essence”. It is the order (logos) which is in the process of being conveyed to the matter so as to give the matter form.

3) The efficient aition is the “primary source of change”.  It is that which “brings about” a change in a thing (that is why it is called “primary”), “introducing” form to the matter.  (The word ‘efficient’ is really a very poor label, but we are stuck with it, I’m afraid.)

4) The final aition is the form that is the striving toward the realization of an end form or “that for the sake of which” or telos. The aition is not the end itself, but, rather, the form in the present – that is what is “credited with” the eventual achievement of the end (barring unforeseen impediments to that achievement).

Now, add to this picture Aristotle’s view of an event. Take, for example, building a house. For Aristotle, that process is an event. The “builder building” (the efficient aition) is part of the single event “building a house”; “builder building” is not one event antecedent to another event of the completion of the house. The blueprint is also not antecedent, as a formal aition, but becomes an aition only by virtue of its imparting its order (it’s logos) during the single event of construction. Likewise for the final aition: it gives form to the house during the process of construction so that eventually someone can live there. Only the material aition could be said to be antecedent, but since for Aristotle matter was in and of itself unintelligible without form, it is the confluence of forms in the event which is for him most important.

This is, of course, a much different concept than our modern concept of ’cause’ as referring to an event temporally antecedent to it’s corresponding effect. Thus it is that ’cause’ is a very poor translation for Aristotle’s ideas. However, it should be clear now that the reason for this is that Aristotle’s mindset and intentions were far different than the modern framework of “cause-effect”. What he wanted to grasp were the various facets of a single event, and he did so according to his understanding of the world as being comprised of matter and form.



So, how does any of this help with regard to Rosen?

First of all, it should be clear now why I suggested dropping words like “causality” or “cause” when speaking about Aristotelian analysis. All those words do is generate broad confusion with the modern meaning of “cause”. Understanding the insights of Rosen can be hard enough without adding in sources of confusion.

Secondly, remember that the whole point of doing Aristotelian analysis is to probe the entailment structures of both sides of a modeling relation: the formal (inferential) and natural (causal) sides. Therefore, the words “cause/causality/causation” should properly be reserved for describing the entailment structures of the natural system side of the modeling relation.

Thirdly, using words like “cause/causality” mask what the analysis is about, which is: asking “why?” questions. In our modern inquiry, “why?” is no longer necessarily restricted to thinking metaphysically of form and matter as the two aspects of the world. However, the four fashions are still applicable and useful to us, as they were to Aristotle.

Finally, by considering the aitias as all being part of one event (rather than some temporal sequence of Humean events) we are better-positioned to accept notions like “closed to efficient causation”, and indeed, Rashevsky-Rosen atemporal relational biology in general.

For example, consider the equation from Essays on Life Itself (p.165): “Av=w”, where A is an operator, v is an argument, w is a value. To ask for the “causes” of ‘w’ is linguistically just plain unnatural. For one thing, this is an inferential system, not a causal one – speaking of ’cause’ in this way is metaphorical. For another, this equation is standing alone – it has no antecedent statement(s), no sequential events or ‘temporality’ (except in the sense that of ‘=’ as indicating that ‘w’ “follows from” ‘Av’). Finally, ’cause’ in the modern sense is not what we are after anyway, instead we are looking for answers to a “why?” question. Thus I find the use of the word ’cause’ in such cases to only generate confusion. We can say explicitly that we mean only ’cause’ in the Aristotelian sense, but this still means sorting out in one’s mind those various connotations of ’cause’.

Conversely, if we ask for the aitia of ‘w’ in “Av=w” we immediately know that we are thinking in terms of the four fashions. Here, ‘v’, the argument of A, is the raw material – the material aition of w. The operator ‘A’ imparts a form (it’s “operationality”, if you will), thereby making it a formal aition of w. In addition, ‘A’ is also the “primary source of change” or “doer” – so ‘A’ also acts as efficient aition of w. 

Regarding final aition, this is the category that Rosen reminds us has been expunged from modern science. Not only is entailment of final aition inexpressible in Newtonian mechanics,  but it’s historical association with some kind of conscious design is philosophically abhorrent for modern science. In addition, Aristotle and Rosen both point out that in the case of final aition there is no certainty that the outcome that the aition is striving toward will be realized. Since what will happen in the future may by altered by unforeseeable impediments, the realization of the outcome is only a possibility, not a certainty. This is another reason final aition has been shunned by modern science: the prospect of possibility does not fit in well in a Newtonian world of necessity. 

For Aristotle, it was not actually the case that God and Nature directly imposed conscious design. Instead, for him it was more a fact of nature that forms not only existed as realized states, but that they strived toward realization of end states. So, to ask for the final aition is, for Aristotle, to ask about something quite natural. We might say  “a form strives toward an end state” is just as natural as “an object strives to remain in motion once in motion”. It is a feature of Nature, not some kind of vitalism or conscious direction from above.

If we ask for the aitias of ‘v’ in the “Av=w” example, we can answer far less, as Rosen points out. We cannot give any answers for material, formal or efficient aition, since ‘v’ is simply given as-is to us in the equation. The only entailment with regard to v in that equation is the entailment relationship between v and w. Here, in the final aition of ‘v’, we can see Aristotle’s original “striving toward” (‘v “striving toward” w’) conveys that the final aition of ‘v’ is not simply v or w, but rather the “form” described by the phrase ‘v entails w’.

However, Rosen tells us that answers like ‘v entails w’ cannot be arrived at in a purely syntactic world. Part of Rosen’s task is to envision a system beyond the limitations of syntactic Newtonian mechanics, one where richer entailment structures allow final aition to be expressed, where entailments can themselves be entailed. In addition, Rosen wants to avoid the historical baggage of association of final aition with modern notions of telos or conscious design. By thinking along Aristotle’s lines, we can help ourselves avoid reverting to thinking in teleological terms. We can consider finality as a natural feature of the world, one that will be displayed most vividly by a complex (in Rosen’s sense) system such as a living organism.



Aristotle. Physics (primarily Book II)Lear, J. (1998).

Aristotle: the desire to understand. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521347629

Rosen, R. (2000). Essays on Life Itself. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231105118

Rosen, R. (1991). Life Itself. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231075642

Taylor, A.E. (1955). Aristotle. Dover. ISBN 0486202801

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