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Journal of the History of Philosophy 43.1 (2005) 37-54

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Cordemoy and Occasionalism

What a popular club occasionalism has become. To judge from some recent scholarship, it seems that nearly everyone who was anyone in the seventeenth century was a member in some standing.1 As a matter of fact, seventeenth-century occasionalism was almost exclusively a Cartesian phenomenon. To be sure, there is no necessary connection between being a Cartesian and being an occasionalist. Many orthodox Cartesians (such as Rohault and Régis) were not occasionalists, and in principle one could certainly be an occasionalist without being a Cartesian.2 But Cartesian metaphysics, and especially the mind-body dualism at its core, seems to stand in a particularly intimate relationship with occasionalism. Indeed, Cartesian occasionalists argued that their metaphysics requires an occasionalist account of causal relations. This is so not because of some special problem about mind-body interaction generated by dualism, as was long claimed. We are now well past the point where occasionalism can be seen merely as an ad hoc solution [End Page 37] to the mind-body problem, at least in the scholarly literature if not in textbooks.3 Rather, Cartesian dualism, with its theses that matter is nothing but pure extension and that the modes of one substance cannot be communicated to another substance, was deemed to raise certain insuperable problems for positing causal powers in bodies. Moreover, Cartesians accepted a number of premises about the nature of causality and the deep and abiding ontological relationship between God and creatures that, they insisted, render finite causation impossible.

The question I would like to address in this paper is whether or not the Cartesian philosopher Géraud de Cordemoy (1626-84) properly belongs to the ranks of thoroughgoing occasionalists. On the face of it, this might seem like a silly question. Scholars are practically unanimous in according him pride of place in the movement, and he is usually credited with being one of its founders.4 Right from the start he was seen as a major occasionalist player. Leibniz, for one, cites him (along with Louis de la Forge) as a prominent representative of "the theory of occasional causes," although Leibniz also insists that it was Malebranche who brought occasionalism to its most systematic and complete form and who "embellished it in luminous phrases."5 Malebranche himself indicates that Cordemoy influenced his thinking on metaphysical matters.6 With his atomistic physics, Cordemoy may not have been a thoroughly orthodox Cartesian, but can there really be any question of his commitment to occasionalism?

I shall argue that the traditional view is substantially correct. Thus, I am not going to offer any radically new reading of Cordemoy's philosophy or bold revision of his place in the occasionalist pantheon. However, I want to show that those who have identified Cordemoy as a charter member of the club, however right they may be, have usually done so on insufficient grounds and without fully taking account of the complexity and nuances of his occasionalism. Moreover, I will show that an important element of Cordemoy's (and any) occasionalism—the causal inefficacy of finite minds—is something for which he fails to provide systematic and independent argument.

These two points, while distinct, are not unrelated. For it is only when the question of Cordemoy's identity as an occasionalist is taken seriously (rather than for granted) and a search undertaken for a thorough justification of the claim that he is a full occasionalist that one finds just this lacuna in his system. In particular, it is only when one really examines whether and how Cordemoy denies all causality to the soul that one discovers a great asymmetry between the careful argumentation that he provides with respect to the case of the motion of bodies [End Page 38] and the near total lack of argumentation with respect to the case of the soul and its own modifications.

The result of my investigation, then, while limited, should be a deeper and more complete understanding of Cordemoy's occasionalism and of the...


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