Causality through a cognitive linguistics lens
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Presented at The Developing Group 1 Apr 2006

From a constructivist, systemic perspective, nature doesn’t have causes — people punctuate the continuity of natural processes into ‘cause’ and ‘effect’. Aristotle identified four basic causes. They can be viewed as four different ways to perceive a situation.  Our premise is that four perspectives are better than one, two, or three.


The philosophical concept of causality, the principles of causes, or causation, the working of causes, refers to the set of all particular “causal” or “cause-and-effect” relations. A neutral definition is notoriously hard to provide since every aspect of causation has received substantial debate. Most generally, causation is a relationship that holds between events, objects, variables, or states of affairs. It is usually presumed that the cause chronologically precedes the effect. Finally, the existence of a causal relationship generally suggests that – all other things being equal – if the cause occurs the effect will as well (or at least the probability of the effect occurring will increase).

In natural languages, causal relationships can be expressed by the following causative expressions:

i) causative verbs

cause, make, create, do, effect, produce, occasion, perform, determine, influence; construct, compose, constitute; provoke, motivate, force, facilitate, induce, get, stimulate; begin, commence, initiate, institute, originate, start; prevent, keep, restrain, preclude, forbid, stop, cease

ii) causative names

actor, agent, author, creator, designer, former, originator; antecedent, causality, causation, condition, fountain, occasion, origin, power, precedent, reason, source, spring; reason, grounds, motive, need, impulse

iii) effective names

consequence, creation, development, effect, end, event, fruit, impact, influence, issue, outcome, outgrowth, product, result, upshot.

iv) conjunctions

because, therefore, until, as, so, since

For more on ‘Causality’ see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causality

Exercise 1

Which  words in the following sentences infer a causal relationship?

  1. Tom had big biceps because his father had big biceps.
  2. Since its summer I came out of my depression.
  3. He couldn’t stand it any more so he went crazy.
  4. She fell in love at first sight.
  5. If we’re this deep in, we’re in trouble.
  6. I’m leaning towards leaving, that’s why I am happy.
  7. My inner voice made me do it.
  8. You have to knock at the door of opportunity before it will open.

Aristotle’s Four Causes

The most well-known theory of causes is derived from the work of Greek philosopher
Aristotle (384-322 BC).  Although ’cause’ is the traditional translation of Aristotle’s word ‘aition’, many suggest that a closer translation is ‘factor responsible’, or perhaps
‘explanation’. It amounts to the ways the question ‘why’ may be answered.  Artistotle’s
four causes can be viewed as four different ways to perceive a situation.  Aristotle thought that you needed to grasp all four types of cause to understand the nature of something.

These ‘four causes’ provide answers to four questions one might ask about something, for example, a man:

‘What is it made from?’ ‘Flesh and so on’ (material cause);

‘What is its form or essence?’ ‘A two-legged creature capable of reason (say)’,
(formal cause);

‘What produced it?’ ‘The father (in Aristotle’s biology)’ (efficient cause);

‘For what purpose?’ ‘To fulfil the function of a man’ (roughly meaning ‘to live a life in accordance with reason’) (final cause).

There are many ways to interpret these four causes and the one we like is drawn from Wikipedia’s:

The Material Cause is that from which a thing comes into existence as from its parts, constituents, substratum or materials. This reduces the explanation of causes to the parts (factors, elements, constituents, ingredients) forming the whole (system, structure, compound, complex, composite, or combination) (the part- whole causation).

The Formal Cause tells us what a thing is, that any thing is determined by the definition, form, pattern, essence, whole, synthesis, or archetype. It embraces the account of causes in terms of fundamental principles or general laws, as the whole (macrostructure) is the cause of its parts (the whole-part causation).

The Efficient Cause is that from which the change or the ending of the change first starts. It identifies ‘what makes of what is made and what causes change of what is changed’ and so suggests all sorts of agents, nonliving or living, acting as the sources of change or movement or rest. Representing the current understanding of causality as the relation of cause and effect, this covers the modern definitions of “cause” as either the agent or agency or particular events or states of affairs.

The Final Cause is that for the sake of which a thing exists or is done, including both purposeful and instrumental actions and activities. The final cause or telos is the purpose or end that something is supposed to serve, or it is that from which and that to which the change is. This also covers modern ideas of mental causation involving such psychological causes as volition, need, motivation, or motives, rational, irrational, ethical, all that gives purpose to behavior.

Note: ontological causality does not suggest the temporal relation of before and after
between the cause and the effect. Additionally, things can be causes of one another,
causing each other reciprocally, as hard work causes fitness and vice versa, although not
in the same way or function, the one is as the beginning of change, the other as the goal.
Thus Aristotle first suggested a reciprocal or circular causality as a relation of mutual
dependence or action or influence of cause and effect. Also, Aristotle indicated that the
same thing can be the cause of contrary effects, its presence and absent may result in
different outcomes.

For more on The Four Causes see:

For an academic yet digestible review see: faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/4causes.htm.

Robert Dilts’ model of Aristotle’s Four Causes in Strategies of Genius Volume I, (1994) pp 22-28. [Note, I think Robert uses Aristotle’s terminology in a way that does not easily map on to the traditionally accepted titles for the fours causes-JL]

Cognitive Linguistics View

For a comprehensive review of causation from a Cognitive Linguistic (and Experiential
Constructivist) viewpoint see Chapter 11 of Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999) pp. 170-234. Below are some quotes from that chapter.

Events and Causes (pp. 170-172):

Because we have purposes and act in the world to achieve those purposes, we are very much concerned with causation and its negative counterpart, prevention. … In the usual interpretation of such questions, causation is assumed to be something in the world, an objective matter in which human conceptualisation tells us nothing about whether a cause — a real cause — exists or not: causes are causes, no matter how we conceptualize them. Conversely, conceptualising something as a cause doesn’t make it one.
We [Lakoff and Johnson] will argue that all of these statements are incorrect.  … In short, what we shall be claiming about causes and events is very much like what we said about time.  The concepts of cause and event are not just reflections of a mind-independent reality.  They are fundamentally human concepts.  They arise from human biology.  Their meanings have rather impoverished literal aspect; instead, they are metaphorical in significant ineliminable ways.  …

We will also be denying that there are no causes at all as well as denying that all notions of causation are purely subjective, historically contingent, and radically relative.  Thus, we will not be making a subjectivist claim.  Instead, the evidence will lead us along a third path: an experientialist approach to causes and events.

The Causal Theory Puzzle (pp. 173-175):

Over the course of history, philosophers have formulated a wide variety of theories of causation, each substantively different from the others and therefore each with its own distinct logic.  The puzzle is: What makes them all theories of causation? 
Among the widespread views are:

Causes are material substance.
Causes are forms.
Causes are purposes.
Causes are applications of force or “power”.
Causes are necessary conditions.
Causes are temporally prior to effects.
Causes are laws of nature.
Causes are uniformities of nature.
Causes are correlation, or “constant conjunctions”. 

Prototypical Causation (p. 177):

At the heart of causation is the most fundamental case: the manipulation of objects by force, the volitional use of bodily force to change something physically by direct contact in one’s immediate environment.  It is conscious volitional human agency acting via direct physical force that is at the center of our concept of causation.  Prototypical causation is the direct application of force resulting in motion or some other physical change.

The category of forms of causation is radial: less prototypical literal causes are variations, say, in the degree of directness or in whether the effect is positive or negative. Other noncentral forms of causation are metaphorical, mostly using Causes Are Forces.

All members of the category of causation share the literal condition that a cause is a
determining factor for a situation, but that concept in itself is so weak that we hardly ever use it alone in our causal reasoning.

Causation (pp. 184-185):

Since changes of state are understood as movements from one bounded region to another, caused changes of state are understood as forced movements from one state to another. 
Forces -> Causes
Forced movement -> Causation

Here are some examples of verbs of forced movement being used to express abstract causation: 

FDR brought the country out of the depression.
The home run threw the crowd into a frenzy.
He drove her crazy.
Their negotiations pulled both sides from the brink of war.
That experience pushed him over the edge.
Her speech moved the crowd to rage.
The news propelled the stock market to record heights.
The trial thrust O.J.’s attorneys into the limelight.

Answering the Causal Concept Puzzle (pp. 222-223):

The answers to the puzzles given above fall out of the cognitive analysis of our normal, everyday complex concept of causation, with all of its internal structure, both literal and metaphorical.  It is that complex radial structure that unites the various concepts of causation into a single category.  What hold that structure together are 


(1) The literal necessary condition, namely, being a determining factor for a situation;
(2) The literal central prototype, direct human agency, that forms the basis for all extensions.

Note that direct human agency has the following properties:

Application of force precedes change.
Application of force is contiguous to change.
Change wouldn’t have happened without the application of force.

The Causes Are Forces metaphor maps these into properties of central (but not all) form of causation:

Causes precede changes.
Causes are contiguous to changes.
The change wouldn’t have happened without the cause.

Such central cases are good for describing changes:

that do not depend on other changes,
that occur simultaneously with the action of the cause,
that are gradual, that is, that unfold with the occurrence of the cause, and
that are controllable.

Noncentral conceptions of causes as forces are good for describing other kinds of changes, namely, changes

that depend on other changes,
that lag after the action of the cause,
that are sudden, and
that, once started, perpetuate themselves and are no longer controllable.

Each different kind of forced movement has a different logic, which is mapped on to
causation by Causes Are Forces.  It is the metaphor of Causation Is Forced Movement that unifies all of these very different kinds of phenomena as kinds of causation. 

Other metaphors for causes

While most metaphors of becausation are to do with causes are forces, there are others, for example these, suggested by Zoltan Kovecses, in Metaphor: A Practical Introduction(2002):

Causation Is Transfer (Of An Object) p. 102

She gave him a headache.
She gave him a kiss.

Causation Of A Situation Is Cause Of Heat (Fire) p. 115

Many commentators believe that his resignation speech ignited the leadership battle.
Books can ignite the imagination in a way that films can’t.
She had failed to ignite what could have been a lively debate.
The strike was sparked by a demand for higher pay.
An interesting detail might spark off an idea. 

Exercise 2

Each of the verbs in the eight examples above have a different kind of forced movement, can you distinguish them ?


[See Embodied Schema for more on metaphors of FORCE.] 

Modelling Because’s - A General Framework

From a constructivist, systemic perspective, nature doesn’t have causes — people punctuate the continuity of their perceptions into ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ .

We are fascinated by what people will accept as ‘a reason’ for why their life is the way it is.  While the explanation that satisfies an individual may be idiosyncratic, what is near universal is the need for a satisfying answer to the question “Why?”.  And we have amazingly creative ways to reject the whys we don’t like!

When modelling we are looking for some near universal or fundamental way to make sense of a client’s verbal and nonverbal behaviour so that we can infer the organisation of their perception.  Below we present a framework for modelling people’s descriptions of causality, in other words, their explanation or reason why things do or don’t happen.

Because causation is a relationship between a cause and an effect,  we need some modelling tools which address the three parts:  the Cause, the ->, and the Effect. Luckily there are some ready-made structures in the form of the event metaphor, the container metaphor, and the hierarchy/levels metaphor.  Using these we can consider a persons description of an effect having come from: 

 EVENT Before During After
 CONTAINER Inside Boundary Outside
 LEVEL Upwards
 Sideways  Downward

Or any combination thereof:

The classic “billiard ball” causation is a Before, External and Sideways cause-effect

The “there must be a reason for it” school of thought is probably an After, External,
Downwards cause-effect relationship.

Darwin’s explanation of evolution was primarily a Before, External, Downwards
cause-effect relationship.

Whereas Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ philosophy is more a Before, Inside, Upwards
cause-effect relationship.

Exercise 3

Can you identify any others?

We’ll leave the last words to Gregory Bateson:

Explanation must always grow out of description, but the description from which it grows will always necessarily contain arbitrary characteristics … an explanation is a mapping of the pieces of a description onto a tautology, and an explanation becomes acceptable to the degree that you are willing and able to accept the links of the tautology. (Mind and Nature, p 41 & p. 89)
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