Efficient vs Proximate Causes

Joe Sachs links the notion of proximate cause to what I have called the modern sense of “efficient cause”.

The brief passage in Aristotle’s Metaphysics that seems to have primarily driven scholastic discussions of efficient causes reads “In yet another [way], [cause] is that from which the first beginning of change or rest is, as the legislator is a cause, or the father of a child, or generally the maker of what is made, or whatever makes a changing thing change” (Book V chapter 2, 1013a30-33, Sachs translation, p. 78).

Sachs’ footnote to this passage says “This is sometimes mistakenly called the efficient cause. Aristotle never describes it in such a way, and we generally intend by the phrase [efficient cause] the proximate cause, the last event that issues in the effect. Aristotle always means instead the origin of the motion, when it happens to be outside the moving thing. It is only in a derivative sense that he will speak of a push or a bump as being a cause at all, since, as he says at 1013a16 above, all causes are sources” (p. 78n).

When he says “Aristotle never describes it this way”, I think he means that “efficient cause” is yet another Latin-derived standard translation that has quite different connotations from the original Greek.

The excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Aristotle on Causality” reconciles the brief reference in the Metaphysics with Aristotle’s much more detailed discussion in the Physics. This is worthy of an unusually long quotation:

“[A]n adequate explanation of the production of a [bronze] statue requires also a reference to the efficient cause or the principle that produces the statue. For Aristotle, this is the art of bronze-casting the statue….”

“This result is mildly surprising and requires a few words of elaboration. There is no doubt that the art of bronze-casting resides in an individual artisan who is responsible for the production of the statue. According to Aristotle, however, all the artisan does in the production of the statue is the manifestation of specific knowledge. This knowledge, not the artisan who has mastered it, is the salient explanatory factor that one should pick as the most accurate specification of the efficient cause (Phys. 195b21-25). By picking the art, not the artisan, Aristotle is not just trying to provide an explanation of the production of the statue that is not dependent upon the desires, beliefs and intentions of the individual artisan; he is trying to offer an entirely different type of explanation – namely, an explanation that does not make a reference (implicit or explicit) to these desires, beliefs and intentions. More directly, the art of bronze-casting the statue enters in the explanation as the efficient cause because it helps us to understand what it takes to produce the statue; that is to say, what steps are required to produce the statue. But can an explanation of this type be given without a reference to the final outcome of the production, the statue? The answer is emphatically “no”. A model is made for producing the statue. A mold is prepared for producing the statue. The bronze is melted and poured for producing the statue. Both the prior and the subsequent stage are for the sake of a certain end, the production of the statue. Clearly, the statue enters in the explanation of each step of the artistic production as the final cause or that for the sake of which everything in the production process is done.”

“In thinking about the four causes, we have come to understand that Aristotle offers a teleological explanation of the production of a bronze statue; that is to say, an explanation that makes a reference to the telos or end of the process. Moreover, a teleological explanation of the type sketched above does not crucially depend upon the application of psychological concepts such as desires, beliefs and intentions. This is important because artistic production provides Aristotle with a teleological model for the study of natural processes, whose explanation does not involve beliefs, desires, intentions or anything of this sort. Some have objected that Aristotle explains natural process on the basis of an inappropriately psychological teleological model; that is to say, a teleological model that involves a purposive agent who is somehow sensitive to the end. This objection can be met if the artistic model is understood in non-psychological terms. In other words, Aristotle does not psychologize nature because his study of the natural world is based on a teleological model that is consciously free from psychological factors….”

“One final clarification is in order. By insisting on the art of bronze-casting as the most accurate efficient cause of the production of the statue, Aristotle does not mean to preclude an appeal to the beliefs and desires of the individual artisan. On the contrary, there are cases where the individual realization of the art obviously enters in the explanation of the bronze statue. For example, one may be interested in a particular bronze statue because that statue is the great achievement of an artisan who has not only mastered the art but has also applied it with a distinctive style. In this case it is perfectly appropriate to make reference to the beliefs and desires of the artisan. Aristotle seems to make room for this case when he says that we should look “for general causes of general things and for particular causes of particular things” (Phys. 195b25-26). Note, however, that the idiosyncrasies that may be important in studying a particular bronze statue as the great achievement of an individual artisan may be extraneous to a more central (and more interesting) case. To understand why let us focus on the study of nature. When the student of nature is concerned with the explanation of a natural phenomenon like the formation of sharp teeth in the front and broad molars in the back of the mouth, the student of nature is concerned with what is typical about that phenomenon. In other words, the student of nature is expected to provide an explanation of why certain animals typically have a certain dental arrangement.”