Value Unit 02


In order to know what something is, it is necessary to know (a) where it comes from, (b) who or what made it; (c) what it's made of; and (d) what it's for.  The ancient Greeks called these identifiers the "Four Causes" and they have have a very important function to play in Academic writing too.


The "Four Causes"

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, each thing is caused in four ways: material, formal, efficient, and final.  It is only when we know what these four causes are can we say that we know what something is.  This applies to everything, including abstract concepts, such as Justice and Love.  Aristotle uses the example of a statue of the Greek god Zeus as an example, explained in the key terms below.

Formal Cause

If you consider a lump of clay, or bronze, not yet made into anything, you could imagine that raw material (the material cause) being made into many different kinds of things. For example, I could use a lump of clay to make a pot, or a cup, or a statue, etc. In other words, the matter (clay) is formed into a particular object or thing: into a statue of Zeus for example. The “form” of something is that which the matter is made into: when the material bronze is fashioned into a statue of Zeus, the formal cause of the object is Zeus. Etymology of "Form" >

Efficient Cause

Everything is brought into existence by some agent or other. Who made the statue? Mr Statue-Maker! Who or what made the snow storm? Cold winds from the north. What caused the landslide? Too much rain. The efficient cause is what most of us think of when we ask, “what is the cause of this thing?” In other words, “who or what is responsible?” The agent that brings the matter and form together is called the efficient cause. Etymology of "Efficient" >

Final Cause

When you look at a new object for the first time, you will probably ask right away, “what is it for?” In terms of man-made objects and human actions, the final cause of things and actions are what purpose do they function. However, it gets a little more subtle when we consider something natural, like a lion. We can’t really ask, “what is a lion for? What purpose does it fulfil?” The final cause of a lion is to be a lion, and to do what lions do (hunt, eat, sleep on the plains etc.). The best way to think about final cause in general is to consider how a thing functions properly: when the features of the thing are healthy, functioning, and doing what they are supposed to be doing. Etymology of "Final' >

Material Cause

When we want to know what something is, one of the first things we determine is what it is made of: what is its parts. The statue of Zeus is made of Bronze, and so the material cause of the statue is bronze. Don’t confuse the concept of material cause however with a purely physical composition. Obviously, “Justice” is not made of bronze or wood or stone. But even “Justice” is “made up” of something: certain kinds of acts which constitute just acts. We all recognize when someone does something just, brave, kind or loving; or conversely when someone does something cowardly or selfish. The “actions” of justice, etc., are the material cause of justice. Etymology of "Matter" >



A key concept in Greek thought is that of “Aporia”.


Aporia is the sense of being unsettled in your preconceptions when you are suddenly confronted with facts and good reasons that force you to start changing your world view, and to start thinking about things in a totally different way.

This sense of having to rethink your world-view can be unsettling, but it is an essential part of learning.  In fact, learning is not possible without aporia.