Concept: Efficient Causation



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OXFORD PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPTS
Concept: Efficient Causation

Volume Editor: Tad M. Schmaltz




  1. General Description

The main goal of OPC is to provide accounts of “central concepts in the history of philosophy.” Among these concepts would seem to be that of efficient causation. Causation is now commonly supposed to involve a succession that instantiates some law-like regularity, and the notion of efficiency adds to this a concern with what is required for the production of such a succession. The basic concept of efficient causation as the actual producing of an effect has a history that starts with Aristotle, and this concept played a crucial role in the so-called “Scientific Revolution,” a defining moment for modernity. The concept continues to be central to philosophical discussions in contemporary metaphysics.


Admittedly, there is some reason to question whether there is a single concept of efficient causation that one can trace through history from ancient Greek philosophy to the contemporary philosophical scene. One indication of a significant conceptual shift is that whereas in Aristotle the efficient cause is only one of four kinds of “cause” (aition), today the phrase ‘efficient cause’ is widely seen as being redundant insofar as all genuine causes are efficient. Moreover, Aristotle’s analysis of efficient causation does not appeal to the notion of a natural law, but as already indicated, such a notion is central to contemporary analyses of causation. One could perhaps object that the ancient and contemporary conceptions are simply incommensurable, and thus that there is no warrant for speaking of a history of a single concept of efficient causation.

This claim of incommensurability may well be too strong, but it seems difficult to deny that the concept of efficient causation that Aristotle bequeathed to posterity became transformed in ways that he could not have anticipated and incorporated into accounts of reality that he could not have recognized. However, this fact does not preclude the sort of historical investigation being proposed here. Indeed, we cannot understand how we arrived at our concept of efficient causation apart from such an investigation. It is the goal of this proposed addition to OPC is to provide what is needed for this sort of understanding.

Many of the contributors to this volume have published on historical or contemporary issues pertaining to the concept of (primarily efficient) causation. Following a general introduction, an initial section of the volume covers the introduction of the concept of efficient causation in ancient philosophy. This section begins naturally enough with Aristotle, who introduced efficient causes and distinguished them from material, formal and final causes. However, in a groundbreaking article, Michael Frede argued that it was the Stoics who first insisted on the view—familiar in a more contemporary context—that all causation is efficient causation. This section includes a consideration of this development in the Stoics as well as in the later Galenic medical tradition.


The second section of the volume concerns developments in medieval philosophy. There is an initial consideration of discussions of efficient causation in earlier medieval philosophy, in a period beginning with Augustine (354–430) and ending in the mid-twelfth century. During this period thought on efficient causality was conditioned both by the Platonic cosmology of the Timaeus, and by the sense that efficient causality was to be restricted primarily to free agents. Following the twelfth-century transmission of the Aristotelian corpus to the Latin West, philosophical discussion about efficient causality became broader and more intense. This section includes a consideration of debates in the later medieval period over a conception of efficient causality that includes natural, human and divine agents. These debates concern several issues, including the definition of the efficient cause, the division of labor between divine and mundane efficient causes, and the relation between the efficient and final cause.

On a traditional story, the great early modern philosophers broke sharply with pre-modern scholasticism in emphasizing efficient causes to the exclusion of the other Aristotelian causes. Though there certainly is something to this story, the discussion in the section on early modern philosophy indicates that it is much too simple. Thus, for instance, there is the claim that Descartes’s emphasis on the priority of efficient causality is anticipated in the work of the early modern scholastic Suárez, as well as the argument that the accounts of causation in Leibniz and Spinoza still include elements of formal and final causation. Moreover, there is the indication in this section that efficient causality received less emphasis in certain early modern thinkers, at least with respect to natural science. In particular, Malebranche’s occasionalism required the denial that ordinary objects are real efficient causes, and the influence of Malebranche on Berkeley is reflected in the claim of the latter that natural science tracks law-like regularity rather than real efficient causality.

The last section of the volume concerns later modern accounts of efficient causation in Hume and Kant as well as contemporary treatments of efficient causality. Whereas Berkeley distinguished efficient causes from law-like regularities, Hume argued that the two are intimately connected. And whereas Hume emphasized the psychology behind our understanding of efficient causation, Kant insisted on the possibility of a “transcendental” investigation of efficient causality and its connection to the determination of temporal relations among objects. Elements of Humean and Kantian accounts of efficient causation are relevant to more recent theories of the nature of the causal relation and of causal relata. However, there is also a significant revival of broadly Aristotelian accounts of efficient causation, particularly in the recent literature in philosophy of science.


  1. List of Contributors

Lisa Downing, Professor of Philosophy, The Ohio State University, Columbus

Author of articles concerning the philosophy of science of several early modern philosophers, including Malebranche and Berkeley.

Douglas Ehring, Professor of Philosophy, Southern Methodist University

Author of Causation and Persistence: A Theory of Causation (1997).
R. J. Hankinson, Professor of Philosophy, University of Texas, Austin

Author of Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought (1998).


Peter Kail, University Lecturer in the History of Modern Philosophy, University of Oxford

Author of Projection and Realism in Hume’s Philosophy (2007).

Martin Lin, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University

Author of articles on Spinoza’s metaphysics and philosophy of mind.

Stephen Mumford, Professor of Metaphysics, University of Nottingham

Author of Laws in Nature (2004).


Kara Richardson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University

Specializes in the medieval Aristotelians, especially Avicenna, Thomas Aquinas and Suárez.


Tad M. Schmaltz, Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Author of Descartes on Causation (2008).


Thomas Tuozzo, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Kansas

Author of articles on Plato and Aristotle.


Eric Watkins, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, San Diego

Author of Kant and the Metaphysics of Causality (2005).


Ian Wilks, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Acadia University

Specializes in medieval philosophy, with emphasis on 12th-century logical theory.





  1. Chapter Synopses

Introduction (Tad M. Schmaltz)

I. ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY

Chapter 1: Aristotle (Thomas Tuozzo)

Aristotle, discoverer of the efficient cause, is proud of the discovery: he tells us that among his predecessors, some did not sufficiently distinguish it from the material cause (e.g., the Milesians), and others – in particular, Plato – did not adequately distinguish it from the formal cause (GC 335b7-17). While Aristotle is clear that this third cause –which he typically refers to as the “principle/origin of change” – is distinct from the other two, nonetheless in some cases this cause is more closely associated with the material cause, in others with the formal cause. I will explore the connection between this duality in Aristotle’s use of the efficient cause with another such duality: that between cases where an efficient cause is itself reciprocally affected by that upon which it acts, and cases where it is not. I shall explore a number of cases, including elemental interaction and the motions of living organisms. I end up with an assessment of whether or not Aristotle holds that the First Unmoved Mover is an efficient cause of the motion of the first celestial sphere.

Chapter 2: Stoics (R. J. Hankinson)

The term ‘efficient causation’ derives of course from the Aristotelian tradition. But in Aristotle’s own philosophy, an efficient cause is paradigmatically an agent, the individual whose activity is responsible for some outcome, rather than the activity itself. Moreover, the efficient is only one of four ‘causes’, which Aristotle treats as being (more or less) on all four fours with one another. In an influential article originally published in 1980 (‘The original notion of cause’), Michael Frede argued that it was in fact the Stoics who first insisted that causes, properly speaking, should be wholly active, things that are actually doing things. One of way of characterizing this demarche would be to say that, for the Stoics, all causation is efficient causation. So far as it goes, this is I think largely right. But it needs a good deal of nuancing. Although the Stoics are concerned with events and processes (as indeed Aristotle had been), in their canonical definition, a cause is a body, which brings about in another a body an incorporeal predicate.  In this paper I intend to investigate exactly how the Stoics conceptualized causal activity and interaction, and in particular how it related both to their materialism and their providentialism; and how their contribution was taken up and adapted by the subsequent medical (Galenic) tradition, an investigation complicated by the fact that our remains of Stoicism itself are fragmentary, and usually mediated through unfriendly, and sometimes actively hostile, sources.

II. MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHY


Chapter 3: Earlier Medieval (Ian Wilks)

This chapter focuses on the understanding of efficient causality at work in the period beginning with Augustine (354-430) and ending in the mid-twelfth century. This extended phase of Western intellectual history incorporates both late Antiquity and the early medieval era. It begins with a massive infusion of Christian into pagan thought, and ends at a time of accelerating reclamation of Greek and Arab source materials – a massive infusion of pagan back into Christian thought. During this period thought concerning efficient causation is conditioned both by the Platonic cosmology of the Timaeus, and by the sense that efficient causality is restricted primarily to free agents. In general, this is a period when the concept of efficient causation mainly plays a diminished role in philosophical speculation, with some reversal in this status only toward the end. Understanding the conditions leading to its relative neglect, and then resurgence, provides a suggestive backdrop for understanding later stages in that notion’s history.

Chapter 4: Later Medieval (Kara Richardson)

Following the 12th-century transmission of the Aristotelian corpus to the Latin West, philosophical discussion about efficient causality becomes broader and more intense.  Later Medieval philosophers recognize natural, human and divine agents. This generous view of the scope of efficient causality invites several debates about its nature.  Some of these have to do with the differences between divine and mundane efficient causes.  Others focus on the differences between natural and rational efficient causes.  The collective result of these debates includes several influential ideas, including the definition of the efficient cause as a giver of being, the distinction between causes of being and causes of coming to be, and the view that the efficient cause depends on the final cause for its causality. This chapter focuses on these ideas in the work of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Aquinas and Scotus.

III. EARLY MODERN PHILOSOPHY

 

Chapter 5: Suárez and Descartes (Tad M. Schmaltz)


According to a standard narrative concerning the history of philosophy, Descartes set out on a new path by replacing the four Aristotelian causes prominent in scholastic natural philosophy with the efficient causes required for his new mechanistic physics. Drawing on the scholastic views of Suárez, this chapter attempts to show that Descartes’s break with the scholastic past was less clean than this narrative suggests. An initial point is that Descartes’s emphasis on efficient causality did not emerge from history ex nihilo, but was anticipated in the scholastic reconceptualization of causation that culminated in the work of Suárez. Moreover, in some respects scholasticism provided the basic framework for Descartes’s account of efficient causation. This is most evident in the case of two “axioms” that condition this account, namely, that the cause must contain the reality of its effect “formally or eminently,” and that conservation differs from creation only by a “distinction of reason.” But though Descartes’s axiom concerning conservation clearly draws on Suárez’s account of the relation between conservation and creation, his containment axiom is informed by notions of formal and eminent containment that differ significantly from what can be found in Suárez.

Chapter 6: Spinoza and Leibniz (Martin Lin)

The seventeenth century witnessed a dramatic shift in the way that many philosophers thought about causation. The Aristotelian picture of the four causes (final, formal, efficient, and material) that had long dominated was subjected to strenuous criticism. Formal and final causation according to the Aristotelians presupposes the existence of substantial forms or internal principles of motion and rest. The mechanical philosophers, for example, questioned the existence of substantial forms and the formal and final causation associated with them and tried to explain everything in nature in terms of the motions of bodies and their impacts on one another. When Spinoza and Leibniz arrive on the scene, this transformation is well on its way. Both of them were sympathetic to the new science that was emerging from the ruins of Aristotelianism but both of them also attempted a rehabilitation of substantial forms. Spinoza never explicitly attempts such a rehabilitation, but one could construe his conatus doctrine, which states that everything strives for self-preservation, as such because the striving for self-preservation is both an internal principle of motion and rest and is arguably goal directed. Leibniz is quite explicit about his desire to rehabilitate the notion of a substantial form and he develops his theory of monads with an eye towards it. Monads are the simple substances that provide the fundamental building blocks of reality. Monads are mind-like entities, the only features of which are perceptions and appetites. The appetites provide the monads with an internal principle of change and the perceptions allow that these changes are guided by a perception of the good, thus making them goal directed. This chapter examines the accounts of causation in both Spinoza and Leibniz with an eye toward understanding why they thought such a rehabilitation of substantial forms was necessary and the arguments that they marshal to accomplish it.

Chapter 7: Malebranche and Berkeley (Lisa Downing)

Both Nicolas Malebranche and George Berkeley hold that appearances to the contrary, ordinary objects are not efficient causes.  In order to defend this counter-intuitive claim, they must reflect (more than many of their contemporaries) on what efficient causation requires.  Of course, they come to different conclusions.  Malebranche famously maintains that God is the only true cause.  Berkeley, while clearly influenced by Malebranche, defends the view that spirits/minds generally can be causes.  He comes to this view after a very interesting struggle evident in his notebooks, which has lead to considerable disagreement in the literature over how to understand his position on causation.  Both Malebranche and Berkeley must also give some account, in effect, of what natural science does if it doesn't track efficient causes.  It is here that each stresses regularity in a way that prefigures Hume's radical reconfiguration of causation itself. 

IV. LATER MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY PHILOSOPHY


Chapter 8: Hume (Peter Kail)

This chapter explores some of the key themes of Hume’s account of efficient causation, and its relation to earlier authors. It considers, among other things; the connection of power with absolute necessity; Hume’s genetic approach; the place of contiguity; realism and projection; regularity; Hume's two ‘definitions’ of cause; causation as a natural relation and causation as a philosophical relation; “distinct existence” and conceivability.

Chapter 9: Kant (Eric Watkins)

This chapter considers Kant’s model of efficient causation in some detail, emphasizing his accounts of the (differing) roles of causality in the determination of the temporal relations of succession and simultaneity. In particular, there is some attention to relatively neglected passages in the Second and Third Analogies of Experience that are directly relevant to a proper understanding of efficient causality. For example, Kant somewhat mysteriously remarks that “actions are always the primary ground of all change of appearances and therefore cannot lie in a subject that itself changes” (A205/B250) and that “in the instant in which the effect first arises, it is always simultaneous with the causality of its cause, since if the cause had ceased to be an instant before then the effect would never have arisen” (A203/B248). Kant’s reliance on and departures from Leibniz and Hume will emerge from an analysis of these passages.

Chapter 10: Contemporary (Humean Themes) (Douglas Ehring)

This chapter covers the main contemporary theories of the causal relation and the main contemporary accounts of the nature of the causal relata.  With respect to the former, there is a discussion of regularity theories, counterfactual theories, probabilistic theories and “process” theories (and perhaps manipulability theories).  With respect to the latter, there is a discussion of various accounts of causal relata as events, facts, property instances (including trope views), and objects.

Chapter 11: Contemporary (Aristotelian Themes) (Stephen Mumford)

Recent decades have seen a revival in theories of efficient causation with an Aristotelian origin. Such theories come from two different directions. First, there has been work in philosophy of science in which it is claimed that science invokes notions of nature, essence and power. This work has been mainly Anglo-American with the key figures being Rom Harré, Roy Bhaskar and Nancy Cartwright. Second, there has been a trend in metaphysics, coming mainly from Australia, in which real dispositions or causal powers are invoked on metaphysical grounds, the key figures being C. B. Martin, Brian Ellis and George Molnar. These two strands are now being brought together by a number of contemporary philosophers who are familiar with both. What unites such theories is that they offer an anti-Humean alternative to some of the main ways of thinking about causation. As developed by David Lewis, the Humean world is one in which all the elements are loose and separate, “just one little thing and then another”, and in which any causal and lawful relations are to be discovered as patterns of regularity. In contrast, theories that hark back to Aristotle emphasize a more connected world. Things can have powers or dispositions towards certain outcomes as an essential part of their natures. Indeed, things can be classified as what they are according to the powerful natures they have. Such accounts are not quite yet as developed as Humean theories but they are starting to flourish. The details of the main ideas will be outlined.


  1. Interdisciplinary Reflections

OPC volumes include several Interdisciplinary Reflections that connect target concepts to extra-philosophical material. For my volume, I am considering contributions to this section on efficient causation in medieval sacramental theology (included in the section on medieval philosophy), in work on machines in the Renaissance and early modern period (included in the section on early modern philosophy), and in contemporary speculations concerning the possibility of time travel (included in the section on later modern and contemporary philosophy). I will work with the OPC General Editor, Christia Mercer, to refine this proposal and to find appropriate authors for the Interdisciplinary Reflections contributions.




  1. Length and Time-line

The total length of the volume is estimated to be around 100,000 words: an introduction of 5,000 words, 11 chapters of 8,500 words each, 3 Interdisciplinary Reflections of 1,000 words each, with the remainder for a lexicon, indices and a bibliography.


The proposed time-line for the volume is as follows:

Initial chapter drafts and workshop (given adequate funding): spring 2011

Completed manuscript, including Interdisciplinary Reflections and Lexicon: fall 2011

Corrected page proofs with indices: spring 2012



Publication: fall 2012





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