The Causation Debate in Modern Philosophy: 1637-1739 (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 38 (4):600-601 (2000)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:The Causation Debate in Modern Philosophy: 1637–1739J. A. CoverKenneth Clatterbaugh. The Causation Debate in Modern Philosophy: 1637–1739. New York and London: Routledge, 1999. Pp. xi + 239. Cloth, $75.00. Paper, $21.00.Over the scholastics and earliest moderns, Hume had an advantage of hindsight in declaring that "There is no question, which on account of its importance, as well as difficulty, has caus'd more disputes both among ancients and modern philosophers, than this concerning the efficacy of causes, or that quality which made them be followed by their effects" (Treatise I.iii.14). Between the scholastics and Hume fell (i) Descartes, (ii) classical mechanists such as Hobbes and Gassendi, (iii) the Cartesians Le Grand and Malebranche, (iv) the explanatory rationalists Spinoza and Leibniz, (v) later experimental mechanists such as Boyle, Rohault and Newton, and (vi) the so-called empiricists Locke and Berkeley. This book presents an accessible and admirably broad overview of the modern debate about causation, without sacrificing serious attention to textual details. With two chapters on (i) and one apiece on (ii) - (vi), Clatterbaugh earns for himself and his reader a helpfully synoptic picture of philosophical shifts in the causation debate in the hundred years separating Descartes' Discourse and Hume's Treatise. By the end of the (modern) day, (1) the four-fold causes of Aristotelian-Scholasticism have given way to efficient causation alone; (2) no pre-existing forms in efficient causes are to be found, nor indeed any substantial active powers whatever; (3) there is no deep sense in which causes communicate reality to effects; (4) necessary connection has gone by the board; (5) divine causation has no place in a natural philosophy of causation. No surprises there, but Clatterbaugh's effort reminds us afresh of the varied and torturous routes to such shifts, helping advanced students better (or newly) appreciate them in the comfortable space of 200 pages.Of those pages, a third are devoted to Descartes and the Cartesians. That's not inappropriate, given the importance and difficulty of Descartes's response to Aristotelian-Scholastic accounts of causation, and its influence on occasionalist sentiments on the Continent. The tenor and value of this book may be illustrated by reflecting on the first of these—a rich and frustrating business, both in Descartes's texts and in Clatterbaugh's book. Suppose we grant Descartes the back of his hand to substantial forms and active formal causes as at best "unexplanatory" (counseling Regius): his "at-least-as-much-reality-in-the-cause-as-in-the-effect" principle might be treated as the basis of "an alternative" metaphysical account of causation (19-32). Well, it might be so-treated: but three versions of the principle later, the reader will be excused for judging it little more than a necessary condition for some event-pair x,y counting as a cause-effect pair. If the scholastic appeal to active forms is unexplanatory, then Descartes's [End Page 600] principle—which isn't Descartes's principle at all but a scholastic commonplace—can scarcely fill the explanatory gap. Glossed as a predictable consequence of some strong form of influxus physicus, it is embarrassed by Foucher's objection (that mind bears no likeness to body) and by the weight of texts urging that accidents are individual to their bearers. Having offered us no deep metaphysical story about what in the world answers to 'vis,' Descartes is at best a bungling "interactionist" (here appropriating Clatterbaugh's word for someone whose apparent talk of secondary causes we are asked to respect as expressing a strict and considered philosophical commitment). One can only side with Voetius in reckoning Descartes's replacement of forms by purely quantitative, mechanical principles of motion as expressing a mere "disposition of the movable to move... not an activity of an efficient cause, but merely a necessary condition and a causa sine qua non" (my emphasis: Selectarum Disputationum I [1648-59], 873). Descartes has no deep theory about the nature of causation.Is that too harsh? Had this book a different target, one could fairly complain that the author too infrequently steps away from the texts and commentators to offer and defend a...



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Jan A. Cover
Purdue University

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