The Origins of a Modern View of Causation: Descartes and His Predecessors on Efficient Causes

Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania (1998)

Helen Hattab
University of Houston
This dissertation presents a new interpretation of Rene Descartes' views on body/body causation by examining them within their historical context. Although Descartes gives the impression that his views constitute a complete break with those of his predecessors, he draws on both Scholastic Aristotelian concepts of the efficient cause and existing anti-Aristotelian views. ;The combination of Aristotelian and anti-Aristotelian elements in Descartes' theory of causation creates a tension in his claims about the relationship between the first cause, God, and the secondary causes, created things. To make sense of Descartes' position on secondary causation I study the 16th and 17th century debates on secondary causation, God's concurrence, and the action of efficient causes. I examine the Aristotelian commentaries of the Jesuit philosophers Francisco Suarez, Francisco Toledo, Antonio Rubio and the Coimbran Commentators. I also analyze the anti-Aristotelian views on nature and causation found in Sebastian Basson's textbook on natural philosophy. ;The Jesuit philosophers, like Descartes, deny that the extendedness and impenetrability of matter requires the existence of occult forces to penetrate the matter and exercise causality. Rather they argue that causality is exercised by a thing's form and that causal interaction requires only contiguity not penetration. They also downplay the importance of the final cause, making the efficient cause prior in the study of nature. While Descartes rejects their hylomorphism, he agrees with the Jesuits that there are secondary efficient causes which determine God's action, causing a specific kind of effect. However, for Descartes the secondary causes are the laws of nature, not individual substances. ;Descartes' reduction of all natural change to the local motion of material particles is reminiscent of Basson's anti-Aristotelian natural philosophy. Basson reacts against the Jesuit view of secondary causation, arguing that it commits them to attributing cognition to physical causes. His own account of natural causation contains both mechanistic elements, which we find in a more developed form in Descartes' philosophy, and Neoplatonic and Stoic elements which Descartes rejects
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