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Reviewed by:
  • Efficient Causation: A History ed. by Tad M. Schmaltz
  • Andrea Falcon
Tad M. Schmaltz, editor. Efficient Causation: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014Pp. xiv + 372. Paper, $35.00.

This volume is a history of the concept of efficient causation in three parts. The natural starting point of this history is Aristotle, who claims to be the first to introduce the concept of the efficient cause. According to Aristotle, his predecessors had at most a confused and inadequate notion of this cause. By contrast, he has a theory of the four causes, and his treatment of the efficient cause is a part of that theory. Note, however, that Aristotle does not speak of the efficient cause but rather of the first source of change. A careful analysis of what he says shows that his conception of this cause is only at first sight simple and familiar to us. On reflection, it turns out to be a rather complex philosophical construct. After Aristotle, this history continues with chapters on the Stoics, who are often considered the originators of this conception of causation, and the Platonists of late antiquity. The latter criticize Aristotle for not having grasped the true nature of the efficient cause. Their disagreement with Aristotle lies in the fact that they do not think of the efficient cause as a moving cause; rather, they conceive of it as a productive or creative cause. The first part of this history ends with Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), who is singled out as an especially important thinker for the subsequent debates around the topic of causation. Two ideas are at the heart of his conception of the efficient cause. The first idea is that the efficient cause is productive of existence. The second is that this cause necessitates the existence of the effect.

The second part of this history is a survey of the developments of the concept of efficient causation in early modern philosophy. The origin of the Cartesian conception of the efficient cause is traced back to the scholastic tradition, and in particular to Suarez. The latter has left an extended discussion of the efficient cause in his Metaphysical Disputations. Descartes adopts, and in part adapts, this theoretical framework to pursue his philosophical project. The exploration of the early modern concept of efficient causation continues with a chapter on Spinoza and Leibniz. The focus of this chapter is on the link between efficient cause and necessity. The claim that God is the only genuine efficient cause is discussed in connection with Malebranche and Berkeley. At this point, this history turns to Hume, who is famously responsible for challenging the idea of a necessary connection between cause and effect. Hume is also responsible for making efficient causation identical with causation. The second part of this history ends with a chapter on Kant, who gives a transcendental justification of causal principles. According to this justification, such principles are required to account for the very possibility of our experience of the objective world.

The third and final part of this history offers a brief review of contemporary theories of causation. Two fundamentally different approaches to causation are distinguished. The first one sees the world as consisting of unconnected events in which we find patterns of regularity. This is a, broadly speaking, Humean approach to causation. It gives rise to competing accounts. Among them, we single out the counterfactual and the probabilistic accounts of causation. The second one, inspired by the Aristotelian concept of dunamis, insists on the existence of natures or powers in the physical world. Since powers and natures are often understood in terms of disposition, this approach is labeled ‘causal dispositionalism.’ [End Page 541]

The reader who gets to the end of the book may wonder whether there is at least one conceptual element that persists throughout the history of the concept of efficient causation. The answer seems to be “no.” As the editor himself recognizes, “there is no straightforward connection between Aristotle’s conception of an efficient aitia and our conception of a cause” (5).

This volume contributes to the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series. The series promises to offer a historical exploration of key concepts in the...


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