A Short History of ‘Causation’[1]


Menno Hulswit
University of Nijmegen
P.O. Box 9102
6500 HC, Nijmegen, The Netherlands


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Philosophical theories are always answers to questions 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. Thus, in order to better understand the contemporary approaches to the complex issue of causation, and the problems they raise, it is necessary to have a clear insight into the historical evolution of the concept of cause.

In this article, I will show that the development of the history of the concept of cause reveals a remarkable discrepancy between the constancy in the use of terminology and the gradual shift in the meaning of the terms used. This development - which has largely remained unnoticed - requires analysis, if only because most contemporary discus­sions on the subject, which almost invariably stand in the tradition of Hume, seem to have been victim­ized by it. For, contrary to what is generally supposed, causation is not a univocal conception (which either can or cannot be further analyzed). It is an ambiguous conception, with at least two (or three) different meanings, each of which requires a critical analysis on its own. Hume's celebrated criticism concerns only one of these senses of cause, which is notably just a derivative sense.

The objective of this article is to discuss some impor­tant historical moments in the evolution of the concept of cause, and, more specifically, to discuss the conceptu­al tensions that are inherent to this historical develop­ment. I will focus my attention upon the conception of cause in, successive­ly, Ancient Greek Philosophy (Aristotle and the Stoics), the Middle Ages (Aquinas), and the Modern period (Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, Locke, Newton, Hume, Kant, and Mill).

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