Saturday, February 19, 2022

542. Causality of social systems

 I have used Aristotle’s multiple causality of action in discussions of economics (Nooteboom,  2019) and virtue ethics (in an as yet unpublished article).The causality consists of:

The ‘efficient’cause’: the agent(s), say a carpenter

       ‘material’cause’: the wood the carpenter uses

       ‘formal cause’  : the craft he uses

       ‘final cause’     : his purpose; earning a living, remaining independent, being creative

       ‘conditional cause’: market, competition, institutions

       ‘exemplary cause: design, model

 Aristotle made the error of attributing this causality to nature. Nature, say a falling stone, does not have a final cause. This discredited his causality, which is a pity, since it admirably suits social sciences and economics. Causality came to be seen as mechanical push, or as a mere formal condition of a cause consistently preceding an effect. This yielded the ‘INUS condition’: causes have to be individually necessary and collectively sufficient. There is a prevailing intuition of a linear causal chain. In fact, causes can be, and often are, multiple and simultaneous (MacCumber, 2007). I found Aristotle’s causality very fruitful, and am inspired by it to see what a multiple causality of social systems would look like.

I maintain the efficient, material, formal and conditional causes, with a twist, instead of the final cause I adopt a ‘generative cause’, and I add an ‘institutional cause’, as follows’:

efficient cause: population, community, organisation

generative cause: ideals, ideology, taste, ethics, ambition, spirit, style, world view

material cause: minerals, money, national income, profitt

formal cause: knowledge, technology, method

conditional cause: geography, climate, neighbouring societies/communities, infrastructure

institutional cause: laws and regulations, markets, government

exemplary cause: heroes, myths

I have used this causality to reconstruct several cases of societal development, as narrated by Bardi (2017): the fall of the Roman empire, the Irish famine in 1845-1850, the fall of the Maya’s, transition of power from Spain to England in the 17th century, the Tokugawa/Edo rule of Japan under relative stability from1600 to 1850 (Meiji restoration), as follows:

Fall of the Roman empire:

efficient cause: a variety of heterogenious peoples

material cause: dessication and depletion of arable land, yielding shortages of food, depletion of silver and gold mines in Spain, and one-sided trade of silks with China, causing shortage of coins for trade

conditional cause: conquest by Goths and Vandals

generative cause: weakening of military spirit, rise of peace-oriented Christianity, urge to luxury

institutional cause: overextension of the empire to the north, with communication restricted to roads, delegation of defense of frontiers to local tribes, internal strife.

Irish famine:

efficient cause: proliferation of small scale farming

material cause: monoculture of mostly potatoes

conditional cause: steep, rocky coasts that precluded ports as a basis for fishing, no coal, as in England,dessication, contageous potato disease

institutional cause: monoculture of potato farming, with little industry, deforestation

generative cause: proclivity towards large families, enhanced rather than controlled during the famine, causing overpopulation and shortage.


The Maya’s:

Conditional cause: dessication, conquest by the Spanish, bringing diseases the population was not resistent to

Institutional cause: internal rivalry


Transition of sea power from Spain to England in the 17th century:

material cause: depletion of gold and silver mines in Spain, yielding a lack of currency

conditional cause: dessication of the land, deforestation robbing Spain of wood for building ships, and for smelting iron, while England had coal and could build iron ships.

Institutional cause: depletion of resources


Tocugawa/Edo rule, where the application of causality focuses on stability, not collapse:

material cause: currency, arable land

Institutional cause: no monoculture but a variety of produce and crafts, centralistic, military, hierarchical governance imposing obedience, no depletion of resources. It ended ended around 1850, with the Meiji restoration that imposed access for foreigners, and democratic governance, with a parliament.

generative cause: no primacy of profit making but orientation to hierarchy and family

conditional cause: coastline amenable to fishing, international trade but closure to foreign traders (except for the Dutch, in a limited way),


I am sure the analysis could be extended, and I have not checked the validity of Bardi’s account, but I wanted to show the fruitfulness of this multiple causality. I am curious what historians think of it. Is it valid, fruitful?


Bardi, U. 2017, The Seneca effect, Springer.

MacCumber, J. 2007, Reshaping Reason, Toward a new philosophy, Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press.

Nooteboom, B. 2019, Uprooting economics, A manifesto for change, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.




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