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The Occasionalist Theory of Causation in Early Modern Britain: From Agent-Causation to Mere Regularities

malebrancheDate: Friday 10 February, 2017

Time: 1100-1230

Place: G-160

Abstract: Malebranche’s influence on the British philosophy was significant both when one considers how the intellectual landscape appeared to the philosophers and to the learned audience of the time and also from the point of view of the contemporary understanding of the development of British philosophy during the early modern period. A clear sign of his influence on his contemporaries and successors on the other side of channel, besides the enormous popularity of the now widely forgotten John Norris, the English popularizer of Malebranche, is the fact that Research was translated into English twice in the late 17th century almost simultaneously, by Richard Sault and by Thomas Taylor. This might seem surprising if we are to believe the standard textbook version of occasionalism, namely that God is the only genuine causally active agent in the world and all instances within the sensible world which appear to us to be instances of genuine causation – be it body-body, mind-body, on mental causation – are merely occasions for God to exhibit his causal powers in the world: why would such a wildly implausible theory appear tempting to anyone, no matter how long ago they lived?

I will try to show, first, that the occasionalist theory of causation, as it was formulated by Malebranche, makes much more sense when we understand it in it’s own philosophical and scientific context. First, occasionalism was an attempt to interpret Descartes’ philosophical thought on causation and laws of nature, something that was perceived to be the most important and promising systematic presentation of the new scientific understanding of the world in terms of mechanisms. Second occasionalism aimed to provide an alternative theory of causation against the scholastic analysis of causation in terms of powers, an analysis which despite being heavily criticized, even ridiculed, in the early modern period, still provided a formidable attempt to explain causation. The seriousness of this attempt was, so I shall argue, recognized clearly by early modern British authors, most importantly by Locke and Berkeley, and shaped their own thinking on causation in a certain direction.

The influence that some of Malebranche’s negative arguments against the existence and even the possibility of real causal powers (or the knowability of real causal powers, depending on one’s favorite Hume-interpretation) had on Hume is well known and documented, but it is not equally well understood how the occasionalist theory of causation shaped the views that Hume was arguing against, most notably Locke’s and Berkeley’s. I hope to make this more apparent by showing how Malebranche’s arguments for the occasionalist theory of causation had a strong influence on British thought, leading both Locke and Berkeley to take agent causation as the paradigm case of causation, and how this new emphasis on agent causation in turn influenced Hume and helps to explain who in fact were the targets of his famous “no-necessary connections” argument. This story about the influence of the occasionalist theory of causation in early modern Britain will, I hope, be not merely of interest from a history of ideas point of view. If correct, it will help us to understand that a certain theory of causation, which is nowadays often regarded as the standard theory, namely the Humean regularity theory, is in fact an articulation of a reaction against a wide array of alternative theories, some of which possess at least as much prima facie plausibility as the Humean theory, if not more.


Written by Sandrine Berges

February 7, 2017 at 4:00 pm

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