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  • Causation & Laws of Nature in Early Modern Philosophy
  • Eric Stencil
Walter Ott. Causation & Laws of Nature in Early Modern Philosophy. Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xii + 260. Cloth, $74.00.

In Causation & Laws of Nature in Early Modern Philosophy, Walter Ott offers us a fascinating account of the development of theories of causation and laws of nature in the early modern period. The central theme of the book traces the development of two approaches to causation in the period: the “top-down analysis” and the “bottom-up analysis.” According to the former approach, the laws of nature are not “fixed by the natures of the objects they [End Page 524] govern.” Rather, the content of the laws of nature depends solely on God and the contents of God’s will (5–6). The latter approach, on the other hand, holds that the “course of nature is fixed by the properties of created beings” (6). On this approach, a fire’s burning, for example, is a function of the powers of the fire and the wood, not the will of God. Ott treats Descartes and Malebranche as paradigm cases of the top-down approach, and Locke and Pierre-Sylvain Regis as examples of the bottom-up approach, with Boyle displaying hints of both approaches.

Central to Ott’s treatment is situating the early modern debate in the context of the dominant Aristotelian Scholastic position on causation (to the extent that a dominant view can be identified). Ott argues that the Scholastic position was, among other things, a bottom-up view that treated true causal statements as analytic in such a way that denial entails a contradiction (32). Ott argues that both approaches to causation in the early modern period retain fundamental assumptions from the Scholastics, which are modified to be consistent with the developing mechanist account of the natural world.

With the background in place, Ott divides the book into four parts. In the first part of the book, he considers the “Cartesian Predicament.” This includes a helpful account of Descartes’ rejection of Aristotelianism (chapter 5), before developing an interpretation of Descartes as a top-down theorist. This part of the book includes an excellent account of Descartes’ ontology, including an account of a substance-mode distinction in terms of a determinate-determinable relationship (chapter 6).

Part 2 of Ott’s text is an examination of Malebranche and Regis. Ott offers an intriguing discussion of Malebranche’s arguments for occasionalism, having argued that Malebranche held the “cognitive model of causation,” which entails both that a “cause must logically necessitate its effect” and that “it must be directed at that effect by in some sense ‘including’ it” (14). In Malebranche’s hands, the latter requirement becomes one such that “the requisite tie between cause and effect involves intentionality” (81). Ott’s account, if correct, not only gives us a better understanding of Malebranche’s arguments, but also helps explain “why Malebranche would think they could be at all persuasive” (81).

In one of the highlights of the book, Ott goes on to discuss Regis’ account of causation, giving this less well-studied Cartesian some much-deserved scholarly attention. Ott argues that Regis develops a Cartesian bottom-up approach that incorporates a reductive account of powers (126–27), and offers an interesting discussion of Regis’ treatment of motion as a substance (116).

Part 3 of Ott’s book focuses on the development of the bottom-up analysis of causation through Boyle and culminating in Locke. Locke and Boyle, much like Regis, aim to make powers amiable to a mechanist ontology by defending reductive analyses of powers. Boyle’s account of powers is joined by his “emphasis on God’s free establishment of the laws of motion,” making his view fall short of a full-blown bottom-up approach (152). Ott continues to argue that a full bottom-up view is realized in Locke, who holds the ‘geometrical model’ of causation (170) such that “the necessary connection between cause and effect is analyzed in terms of the truths of geometry,” and that Locke “demotes God to the originator of motion” (185).

Finally, the book concludes with a discussion of...


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pp. 524-526
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