Work In Progress


Causation and Containment. An Essay in Early Modern Metaphysics

My focus in this book is on the idea that causes in some way contain their effects (call this the Containment Thesis). This idea that is very prominent in the early modern period, which is something that often goes unacknowledged. On a widespread narrative, early modern philosophers simply abandon Aristotelian causal powers and completely jettison Aristotle’s doctrine of four causes. Instead, they only accept one type of causation, namely, efficient causation—supposedly, this fits together well with their mechanistic picture of the world, according to which causation seems to be just a matter of pushing and pulling. This narrative, however, is flawed for a number of different reasons. To start with, it completely leaves out the important contributions of Renaissance and late scholastic philosophers. Many Renaissance philosophers (e.g., Ficino, Telesio, and Campanella) operate within a (Neo-)Platonic metaphysical framework and tend to see causal processes as processes of emanation, a framework which many early modern philosophers also adopted. Moreover, already late scholastic philosophers increasingly privilege efficient causation over the other three Aristotelian causes. Suárez, for example, holds that a cause ‘infuses’ being into the effect, and that strictly speaking only efficient causes do so. These two trends merge in the early modern period. Many early modern authors (among them Descartes, Spinoza, Cavendish, Conway, Malebranche, Leibniz, and Geulincx) hold that a cause ‘virtually’ or ‘eminently’ contains its effect and that it produces the effect out of itself—they are thus firmly committed to the Containment Thesis. Their causes are indeed efficient causes, but this does not mean that they regard causation as nothing but a matter of pushing and pulling. Instead, early modern philosophers oftentimes incorporate the Aristotelian formal cause into their efficient causes and many of them treat causation as a kind of emanation, just like their Renaissance predecessors did. Importantly, some early modern rationalists, especially Spinoza and Leibniz, also combine the Containment Thesis with the claim that the containment relation is what makes causation intelligible: for them, because causes contain their effects the former also explain the latter. The main aim of the book is to investigate the different conceptions of containment that feature in different early modern theories. The book pursues (among others) the following questions: In what sense do causes contain their effects according to different early modern philosophers? How are causation, explanation, and containment intertwined for (some of) the rationalists? How do early modern philosophers conceive of the relata of the causal relation? How do they characterize the causal relation itself? How do they conceptualize powers and abilities? In what sense does God contain the things he causes? How does divine creation differ from mundane causation? The book will also take a close 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. They disagree not only on whether or not causes necessitate their effects, as they are commonly taken to be, but they also disagree over the Containment Thesis.

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.


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.

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 '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.

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