Some Key Moments in the History of the Concept of Causation

  • Menno Hulswit
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 90)


Philosophical theories, obviously, are always answers to questions that are raised within certain historical contexts, which involve the common presuppositions of an era. A thorough insight into a particular philosophical problem therefore requires a historical perspective. In order to better understand the contemporary approaches to causation, and the problems they raise, some important historical moments in the evolution of the concept of causation will be briefly considered in this chapter.


Causal Relation Seventeenth Century Substantial Form Natural Thing Efficient Causality 
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  1. 1.
    Aristotle’s critique concerns Plato’s Phaedo 95e-107b. See Aristotle, Metaphysics, A 9, 991 b3-9, and De Generatione et Corruptione 335b7-16, 18-24.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    &quote;We think we know a particular (thing) unqualifiedly [...] whenever we think we know the cause (aitia) through which the thing (pragma) is, because that is its cause, and that it does not happen that it is otherwise.&quote; Posterior Analytics, I 2, 71b9-12; Loeb edition, H. Tredennich and E.S. Forster.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Aristotle gave quite different examples of material causes, such as: the letters of syllables, the premises of a conclusion, and the parts of a whole (Physics II.3, 195al5-18). These make clear that Aristotle had an altogether different conception of matter than our modern notion of matter.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    See for example, Physics II.9; Analytica Posterior II.11, 95a3-5. For a thorough discussion, see Sorabji, 1980, 51-56.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Cicero, for example, reproduced Carneades argument as follows: &quote;If everything takes place with antecedent causes, all events take place in a closely knit web of natural interconnection; if this is so, all things are caused by necessity; if this is true, nothing is in our power. But something is in our power. Yet if all events take place by fate, there are antecedent causes of all events. Therefore it is not the case that whatever events take place take place by fate&quote; (Cicero, De Fato, 31).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    De Fato 22, 192 22.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    See Dunphy, 1966, and Lauer, 1974.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    In fact, there are three levels of causation: (i) the First cause or God, (ii) a cosmic universal causality assigned to the sun or to the first heaven (the sphere of fixed stars), and (iii) the activities of particular causes. In order to explain the order of the world, that is to say, the harmony of particular causes, Aquinas referred to a general causal influence on the cosmic process. This universal causality (which produces the specific essences of things) in direct subordination to God, directs the activities of the particular causes (see: Elders 1974, 101-2).Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Other important characteristics of the efficient cause are: (a) secondary efficient causes either precede their effects or are simultaneous with them (SCG II 38.9); (b) the secondary causes are modeled after the primary cause inasmuch as &quote;the agent is distinct from the patient and superior to it&quote; (SCG II 45.4); (c) there is a proportional correspondence of effects to their causes: &quote;we attribute actual effects to actual causes, potential effects to potential causes, and, similarly, particular effects to particular causes and universal effects to universal causes, as Aristotle teaches in Physics II&quote; (SCG II 21.4).Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    It must be noted that, according to Descartes, human beings are in some sense the efficient causes of their actions. Descartes tried to reconcile his idea that &quote;it is certain that all things are pre-ordained by God&quote; (Princ. I: 40) with the &quote;self-evident&quote; idea of freedom of the will (Princ. I: 39). Descartes' solution was that the mind could not change the quantity of motion but that it could change the direction of motion.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    This entails that there cannot be an unmoved mover. However, Hobbes does not discuss whether God himself was caused.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    Also IV, iii, 12, 14, 16.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    In his Enquiry Hume gives parallel definitions. Here, however, he held that causation only involved priority and necessary connection; there is no reference to contiguity, which according to the Treatise was the third constituent. According to his parallel regularity definition, a cause is &quote;an object, followed by another, and where all the objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second.&quote; On the view of necessity as a connection in the mind, a cause is &quote;an object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other&quote; (Hume [1748] 1975, 76-77).Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    Eventually, despite his alleged empiricism, Mill appears to be some kind of a Laplacean determinist, according to whom the whole future course of nature is completely determined by antecedent causes: &quote;The state of the whole universe at any instant we believe to be the consequence of its state at the previous moment; insomuch that one who knew all the agents which exist at the present moment, their collocation in space, and all their properties, in other words, the laws of their agency, could predict the whole subsequent history of the universe...&quote; (Mill 1874, 250). It is obvious that such a conclusion about the future course of the universe cannot be based on empirical data alone.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    See note 5.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Menno Hulswit
    • 1
  1. 1.Heyendaal InstituteUniversity of NijmegenThe Netherlands

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