Work In Progress

Books

Causation and Containment. An Essay in Early Modern Metaphysics

My focus in this book is on the transformation that the notion of cause underwent when the scholastic Aristotelian metaphysical framework was challenged by early modern mechanist philosophers. On a widespread narrative, early modern philosophers entirely abandon Aristotle’s doctrine of four causes and only accept one type of causation, namely, efficient causation. I think that this narrative is seriously flawed, which becomes particularly clear in the case of formal causation. Many early modern authors (among them Descartes, Spinoza, Cavendish, Conway, Malebranche, and Leibniz) hold that a cause must ‘virtually’ or ‘eminently’ contain and thereby explain its effect. This shows, I will argue, that the notion of formal causation is not given up entirely but integrated into the new mechanistic worldview in a transformed manner. I am especially interested in the notions of containment and explanation that are at work here. In what sense do causes contain and explain their effects according to many early modern philosophers? And how are causation, explanation, and containment interrelated for them? I will also take a look at those who criticize the containment model of causation, most prominently Hume. Eventually, I will turn to Kant’s attempt to safeguard a version of the containment model from Hume’s criticism. This will shed new light on how exactly Kant reacts to the Humean conception of causation.

Powers and Abilities in Early Modern Philosophy (edited volume, under contract w/ Routledge; together w/ Dominik Perler)

In this edited volume, my colleague Dominik Perler (also from HU Berlin) and I plan to collect papers on the topics of powers and abilities in early modern philosophy (we start with Suárez and end with Kant). In the end, we hope to know how different early modern authors answer the following questions: What kind of entities are powers and abilities? Are they reducible to something else or are they entities in their own right? Do powers and abilities need to be exercised at least sometimes in order to exist? Is there a strict and categorical metaphysical difference between powers and abilities or are they metaphysically similar? Is there anything special about human abilities? How do we know what powers and abilities an object or agent has, especially when they are not realized or exercised? We plan to have chapters on the following authors: Francisco Suárez, René Descartes, Louis de la Forge, Géraud de Cordemoy, Nicolas Malebranche, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch de Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Margaret Cavendish, John Locke, Isaac Newton, John Sergeant, Antoine Le Grand, Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Isaac Watts, David Hume, Emily du Châtelet, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottfried Herder, Thomas Reid, and Immanuel Kant.


Papers

Was Anne Conway a Monist?

Is Anne Conway a substance monist or a substance pluralist? That is, does Conway assume that there is just one single created substance (setting the uncreated substances of God and Christ aside) or is there a multitude of created substances on her view? In recent years, a lively debate about this question has emerged. Most scholars argue that Conway is a substance monist. On such a reading, Conway holds that there is only one created substance and that the created world is in some sense one. According to this interpretation, Conway classifies individual creatures as modes, not as substances. This paper argues against the recent trend of interpreting Conway as a monist. It claims that even though Conway sees all things in the created universe as closely related to one another, she should not be read as substance monist, but as a substance pluralist. Conway does not, the paper argues, see individual creatures as modes, as many have argued. The passages from Conway’s Principles which allegedly show that Conway takes creatures to be modes are in fact compatible with a substance pluralist reading. Moreover, the paper shows that Conwayian creatures have at least three features that are traditionally associated with substances (and not with modes): (i) they are subjects of predication; (ii) they are persisting subjects of change; (iii) they are causally active. To be sure, Conway thinks that created individuals are mutually dependent on one another in a rather strong sense, which may explain why she sometimes (though not always!) hesitates to classify them as substances. This mutual dependence, however, does not turn creatures into mere modes. Overall, it is thus much more plausible to read Conway as a substance pluralist.

Kant's Possibility Proof and the Principle of Complete Determination

In his pre-critical ‘Possibility Proof,’ Kant aims to prove the existence of God just from the fact that something is possible. Possibilities require an actual ground, he argues, and this ground he identifies with God. Though generally well-received, Kant’s argument is often thought to fall victim to the so-called ‘plurality objection,’ according to which Kant is unable to rule out that the ground of possibility is an aggregate of beings. If successful, this objection would show that Kant fails to prove that all possibilities are grounded in a single being. This paper argues that Kant’s own ways of countering the plurality objection are much more promising than is commonly assumed. More specifically, it argues that in order to rebut the plurality objection, Kant utilizes the Principle of Complete Determination, which is something that has gone unnoticed by commentators so far.

Is Kant's Ground of All Possibility the God of Spinoza?

In recent years, many scholars have argued that Kant's pre-critical 'Possibility Proof' for the existence of God in the Beweisgrund for some reason or other entails Spinozism. Kant argues that for something to be possible at all, there must be a ground of all possibility. He goes on to argue that this ground of all possibility is a necessary being: God. Many commentators maintain that this argument commits Kant to a spatially extended God and to Spinozist substance monism, even though these are of course not conclusions Kant would endorse. In this paper, my goal is three-fold. First, I argue that the Beweisgrund argument in and of itself does not entail Spinozism. Kant can avoid the Spinozistic implications largely because he distinguishes between predicates which are primitive for us and predicates which are primitive in themselves (an important distinction which is often overlooked). Second, I argue that once Kant's interpretation of cases of 'incongruent counterparts' in the Inaugural Dissertation is combined with the Beweisgrund argument, Spinozism does in fact loom. Finally, I show that this reading of the pre-critical Kant also sheds some new light on Kant's conception of the ens realissimum in the 'Transcendental Ideal' section in the Transcendental Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason.

Catharine Trotter Cockburn on the Moral Sense

Early modern metaethics is dominated by two camps. On the one hand, there are the so-called rationalists, who hold that morality consists of necessary, eternal, and immutable laws (Cudworth and Clarke are prominent proponents). On this view, we need to use our reason and understanding to gain moral insight. Once we know what is morally right and wrong, we are automatically motivated to act accordingly. On the other hand, there are so-called sentimentalists, who postulate a ‘moral sense’ and hold that it is our sentiments and feelings which serve as the ground of morality (Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith are prominent proponents). On this view, reason and understanding alone do not suffice to motivate us to act morally. Catharine Trotter Cockburn places herself in the rationalist camp, and she does in fact hold, like Clarke, that morality is grounded in so-called ‘fitness’ relation that arise from the immutable natures of things. Surprisingly, however, she also assigns an important role to the moral sense. This raises at least two question: (i) What exactly is the moral sense according to Trotter Cockburn? (ii) Why does she see the need to include such a capacity into her otherwise rationalist metaethics? This paper argues, first, that Trotter Cockburn’s moral sense is fundamentally different from the Hutchesonian and Humean moral sense in that it includes, in addition to the affective component, an intellectual component. It argues, second, that Trotter Cockburn sees the need to introduce the moral sense because she thinks that a purely rationalist moral epistemology cannot account for how human beings are in fact motivated to act.

Descartes's Argument for Modal Voluntarism

Descartes famously espouses modal voluntarism, the doctrine that God freely creates the eternal truths. God has chosen to make it true that two plus two equals four, for instance, but he could have chosen otherwise. Why, though, does Descartes endorse modal voluntarism? Many commentators have noted that he regularly appeals to divine omnipotence to justify his doctrine. This strategy is usually thought to be unsuccessful, however, because it seems to presuppose—question-beggingly—that the eternal truths are in the scope of God’s power. This paper argues that Descartes’s appeal to divine omnipotence has more going for it than meets the eye. Like many other medieval and early modern philosophers, Descartes assumes that God has the power to control everything that remains unfixed by his own essence. At the same time, though, he denies that the eternal truths are fixed by, or grounded in, the divine essence. The combination of these two commitments leads to modal voluntarism. The paper also argues that the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) may play an important role in the reasoning that leads Descartes to endorse modal voluntarism. This is surprising, given that the PSR appears to be deeply at odds with modal voluntarism.

From Moral to Modal Voluntarism: Descartes on the Status of Eternal Truths (commissioned for Varieties of Voluntarism, ed. by Sonja Schierbaum and Jörn Müller, Routledge)

Descartes (in)famously endorses modal voluntarism, the doctrine that God freely creates the eternal truths. The scope of this doctrine is remarkably wide: the eternal truths include, for example, mathematical truths. Descartes thus goes a lot further than a 'mere' moral voluntarists, who 'only' include the laws of morality in their voluntarist claim. Why does Descartes endorse such a strong claim? In this paper, I argue that, on Descartes's view, the (seemingly weaker) doctrine of moral voluntarism in fact entails the (seemingly stronger) doctrine of modal voluntarism. Because Descartes thinks that there are good reasons for endorsing moral voluntarism, this leads him to endorse modal voluntarism as well. Why, though, does Descartes think that moral voluntarism entails modal voluntarism? I argue that he holds that there cannot be any difference in modal status between moral truths on the one hand and, say, mathematical truths on the other; moral truths need to hold necessarily in exactly the same sense as mathematical ones. As a result, subscribing to moral voluntarism requires one to subscribe to modal voluntarism as well.

Localizing Violations of the Principle of Sufficient Reason - Leibniz on the Modal Status of the PSR

The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR)—the principle that everything has a reason—plays a central role in Leibniz’s philosophical system. It is rather difficult, however, to determine what Leibniz’s attitude towards the modal status of the PSR is. The prevailing view is that Leibniz takes the PSR to be true necessarily. This paper develops a novel interpretation and argues that Leibniz’s PSR is a contingent principle. It also discusses whether a merely contingent PSR can do the metaphysical heavy lifting that Leibniz aims for. The paper shows that, despite appearance to the contrary, this is possible. In a nutshell, the argument is that the only possible PSR-violation Leibniz allows for is God’s creation of a suboptimal world; there is no Leibnizian possible world, though, which intrinsically violates the PSR. Despite its contingency, then, Leibniz’s PSR is modally robust enough to serve as a foundational principle of his metaphysics.

Hume und der Liberalismus (Hume and Liberalism)

Is Hume a liberal or a conservative? Hume scholars are divided over this question. This (German) paper argues that Hume is a liberal, even though his version of liberalism is fundamentally different from Lockean liberalism. Hume's liberalism is deeply rooted in his skeptical epistemology as well as in his sentimentalist ethics. Hume attempts to justify a liberal political order without having recourse to natural rights or a social contract. The result is a version of liberalism which is less individualistic and less idealizing than Lockean liberalism.


For most of these papers, drafts are available upon request. Just send me an email!