Aristotle's Metaphysics: The Four Causes

Aristotle's Metaphysics: The Four Causes
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  • 0:53 Material
  • 1:22 Formal
  • 1:58 Efficient
  • 2:25 Final
  • 2:51 Review
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will define metaphysics. It will also discuss Aristotle's theory of four causes, specifically the material, formal, efficient, and final causes of being.


Although I'm not really into antiques or memorabilia, two of my favorite possessions are our family's old farm table and my grandma's chocolate chip cookie recipe (actually written by her, not a copy!).

Today I'm going to use these two rather old things to teach you about Aristotle's very ancient metaphysics. However, before we get to them, let's define metaphysics. Metaphysics is the part of philosophy that deals with concepts like being, substance, cause and identity. To really oversimplify, we could say it's the study of how things came to be and what caused them.

When speaking of Aristotle's metaphysics, lots of sources center on his idea of cause. According to his ancient work, there are four causes behind all the change in the world. They are the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause. To explain each of these, we'll first use my family's table.


Let's start with the material cause. According to our famous Greek philosopher, the material cause is the actual physical properties or makeup of a thing that is. It's the stuff we can see, touch, taste, and so on. Using my table, the wood is the material cause of the table. The table is made of wood, and therefore, the wood is the material cause. It's a rather simple one to grasp.


Next is the formal cause. Stated a bit academically, the formal cause is the structure or design of a being. In layman's terms, we can call it the blueprints, or the plan. The formal cause is what makes it one thing rather than another.

Going back to my table, we already know its material cause is wood. That's what it's made of. However, the original carpenter could have chosen to make the very same wood into a chair, but he didn't. Instead, his plan, or design, called for putting the wood together as a table. According to Aristotle, our carpenter's design is the formal cause.


Aristotle's next cause is known as the efficient cause. Stated very simply, this is the thing or agent which actually brings something about. It's not what it's made of or the plan for how to make it. It's the actual force that brings something into being. Again using our table, Aristotle would tell us the carpenter is the efficient cause. It's his swinging of a hammer and sawing that actually brought the table into being.


Our last cause is aptly named the final cause. Being a bit more abstract, the final cause is the ultimate purpose for being. Turning one last time to my table, its final cause is to give me and my family something to eat on, to do homework on, and play cards around, making it a very, very special family heirloom. It has been fulfilling this final cause since even before I was born!

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