Talk: “The Occasionalist Theory of Causation in Early Modern Britain: From Agent-Causation to Mere Regularities,” Ville Paukkonen (University of Helsinki), G-160, 11AM February 10 (EN)

By Ville Paukkonen (University of Helsinki)

Date: Friday, February 10

Time: 11:00-12:30

Place: G-160

Abstract: Malebranche’s influence on the British philosophy was significant both when one considers how the intellectual landscape appeared to the philosophers and to the learned audience of the time and also from the point of view of contemporary understanding of the development of British philosophy at early modern period. A clear sign of his influence on his contemporaries and successors on the other side of canal, besides the enormous popularity of now widely forgotten John Norris, the English popularize of Malebranche, is the fact that Research was translated into English twice in the late 17th century almost simultaneously, by Richard Sault and by Thomas Taylor. This might seem surprising if we are to believe the standard textbook version of occasionalism, namely that God is the only genuine causally active agent in the world and all instances within sensible world which appear to us to be instances of genuine causation – be it body-body, mind-body, on mental causation – are merely occasions for God to exhibit his causal powers in the world: why would such wildly implausible theory appear tempting to anyone, no matter how long ago they lived?

I will try to show, first, that the occasionalist theory of causation, as it was formulated by Malebranche, makes much more sense when we understand it in it’s own philosophical and scientific context. First, occasionalism was an attempt to interpret Descartes’ philosophical thought on causation and laws of nature, something that was perceived to be the most important and promising systematic presentation of the new scientific understanding of the world in terms of mechanisms. Second occasionalism aimed to provide an alternative theory of causation against the scholastic analysis of causation in terms of powers, an analysis which despite being heavily criticized, even ridiculed, in early modern period, still provided a formidable explanatory attempt of causation. The seriousness of this attempt was, so I shall argue, recognized clearly by early modern British authors, most importantly by Locke and Berkeley, and shaped their own thinking on causation into a certain direction.