Aristotle got there first

4 causes and 4 modelling processes
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I was running on Hampstead Heath this morning when into my consciousness popped two familiar ideas placed side by side. It was one of those times when something that had never occurred to me before suddenly became laughably obvious – affectionately known as ‘a duh! moment’.

I instantly realised that Penny Tompkins’ and my notion of 4 Fundamental Modelling Processes and Aristotle’s 4 Causes were complementary, if not equivalent.

Aristotle proposed that everything came into being by one of four means: material causes; formal causes; efficient causes; and final causes. There have been many interpretations of Aristotle’s causes but my take is very simple, causes originate from the internal workings; external circumstances; past events; and imagined futures.

When you think of the 4 causes like that it is very easy to map them on to three of the four modelling processes:


Aristotle’s 4 CausesFundamental Modelling Processes
Material (internal)Develop form
Formal (external)Relate across space
Antecedent (past)Relate over time (before)
Final (future)Relate over time (after)

Interestingly, the one left out, identify is the most fundamental of all of the modelling process in that all the others require something to be identified prior to its form being developed or related to across time or space. Similarly, causes have to be identified before they can be known.

Although we highlight four modelling processes, there is a fifth that is equally important: relating across levels of organisation, i.e. relating up or down a hierarchy. At each level a different kind of something can be identified: e.g. an attribute, a symbol, a relationship, a pattern, a context. And these will have influence upwards and downwards.

Funny enough, I think Aristotle’s 4 Causes implicitly include levels. Material causes mean a thing comes into existence as a result of its parts, constituents, substratum or materials (i.e. bottom-up). Formal causes result from the definition, form, pattern, essence, synthesis, or archetype of a thing in other words how the whole influences its parts (i.e. top-down).

If you have read Metaphors in Mind, you may by now have realised that the 5 modelling process also map on to the first four of what we called Six Approaches (pp. 192-200):

4 of the Six ApproachesFundamental Modelling Processes
a. Concentrating attentionIdentify and Develop form at a level below
b. Attending to wholesIdentify and Develop form at a level above
c. Broadening attentionRelate over space
d. Lengthening attentionRelate across time (before and after)

‘So what?’ you might be thinking.

Well, I find these kind of links between different domains of knowledge exciting and (to some extent) mutually validating. It also reminds me that causes are always relationships. Modelling relationships from a systemic perspective requires considering the three parts – the two ‘ends’ and what ‘links’ them – as a package, mutually sustaining.

That helps me to not take sides and to wonder what else those symbols might be able to do and what role they might be able to play, if they related in a different way.


For more on 4 Fundamental Modelling Processes see our article, REPROCEss and the First Principle.

For more on Aristotle’s 4 Causes and how we language and think of causation see our article, Becausation.

For more on how me make use of levels of organisation and hierarchy see our article, Levels: All the way up and all the way down.

For more on the six approaches see our article, Iteration, Iteration, Iteration

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