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Understanding Psychology Book Cover Image
Understanding Psychology, 6/e
Robert S. Feldman, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Introduction to Psychology

Around the Globe

Ancient Greek Ideas of Causation

We spend much of our time mulling over what causes events to happen: what makes the thief steal the diamonds? What makes an animal a skunk, and not a raccoon? Psychologists often look for common ways of classifying animals or human motives that are universal, and can be found in all cultures. Records from Ancient Greece, though, show that some civilizations have very different ways of thinking about causation from the modern West (Lloyd, 1995). Greek writers from the time of Aristotle (born 384 B.C.) onwards distinguished between the matter a thing is made of, the form it takes, the final cause, the function or purpose something serves, and the efficient cause, or "excuse" that brings an event about. A wooden cylinder will roll if pushed (the efficient cause), in part because it is the nature of cylinders to roll (the final cause). The Greeks applied their ideas to medicine, especially the causes of illness, as well as legal disputes. Yet only the efficient cause-the push-looks like a "cause" to most English speakers.