Varieties of Explanation & Cause
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D.

edited 4/14/12

We must be careful to distinguish different kinds of explanation, because they make substantial difference in what we would count as evidence in establishing or disconfirming them as explanations.

A useful set of distinctions was proposed by Aristotle. These distinctions are still somewhat useful today because much explanation is normally done in a colloquial, rather than a constrained "scientific" style.

The chart below presents these distinctions.

Aristotelean Type
Which means?
Colloquial Example
Modern Versions
Final Cause of X. Purpose, or end of X. Why is a nail sharp? To penetrate wood which it is designed to hold together. Teleological: Why do wasps build round nests? To conserve heat.
Formal Cause of X. Essence or nature of X. Traits:Why doesn't Harry share? He's stingy.

Dispositions: Why is Mary crying? She's sad.

Systemic: Why are organizations resistant to change? They are systems which tend to equlibrium.
Material Cause if X That of which X is made. Why does a ball bounce? It's made of rubber, which is elastic. Why is the pan slippery? It's coated with Teflon.
Efficient Cause of X. That by which X comes into being How did the floor get wet? Harry spilled his drink. Manipulation of variable X is followed by correlative changes in variable Y.

Note that the same situation might invoke several types of explanation. For example,

Why is the floor wet?

Harry dropped an ice cube on it.

Harry's action is (part of) an efficient cause.

The material cause is mentioned, i.e. the cube is made of ice.

So what?

The room is 70 degrees.

Another factor contributing to efficient cause.
So what?

Ice melts above 32 degrees.

Formal cause, i.e. it is the nature of ice to behave in certain ways under certain conditions.

Try to identify and separate out the varieties of explanation embedded in the following quote
from Frederick Ruldolph's The American College and University , 49¶1:

In the founding of colleges, reason could not combat the romantic belief in endless progress.
Now try to identify and separate out the varieties of explanation embedded in the following common responses.
Take care not to confuse correlation with cause.
a.Why didn't Sam fight back when bullied? Violence breeds violence.

b. Why are the students so jumpy? It's a full moon.