Hume on Causes

The great British empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote that “There are no ideas which occur in metaphysics more obscure and uncertain than those of ‘power’, ‘force’, ‘energy’, or ‘necessary connection'” (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Library of Liberal Arts ed., p. 73).

Hume is most famous for his critique of naive or dogmatic assumptions about causality. “[T]here is not, in any particular instance of cause and effect, anything which can suggest the idea of power and necessary connection” (p. 75). To me, it seems to be the idea of an underlying power or force responsible for causality that he is mainly questioning. He has no doubt that we continually experience instances of cause and effect.

“[There is] no such thing as chance in the world” (p. 69). “[T]he conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature” (p. 98). Clearly, then, he did believe in the reality of cause and effect, but only wanted to reject naive claims about our knowledge of the world that purport to link experienced instances of cause and effect to explanations in terms of the operation of underlying powers. What we actually experience in these cases is just lawful regularity.

“It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse…. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present, but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed” (pp. 16-17). But on the other hand, “All polite letters are nothing but pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations…. An artist must be better qualified to succeed in this undertaking who, besides a delicate taste and a quick apprehension, possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions…. However painful soever this inward search or inquiry may appear, it becomes in some manner requisite to those who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners…. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain would we exalt the one by depreciating the other” (p. 19). Clearly, then, Hume’s polemic against scholastic modes of reasoning does not at all mean he simply rejects the values of “accurate and abstruse” philosophy.

Neoplatonizing tendencies in the Aristotelian commentary tradition led to the common Latin scholastic view of causes as metaphysical powers operating behind the scenes that Hume is mainly concerned to criticize. Aristotle himself identified causes more broadly and much less speculatively with every kind of “reasons why” things are as they are and behave as they do. He did so without making extravagant claims to certain knowledge. Whereas scholastic philosophers characteristically debated the pros and cons of accepting various abstract propositions, Aristotle himself was fundamentally concerned with the use of reason to help interpret concrete human experience (see Aristotelian Causes).

Hume is a great philosopher, and so far I have focused on a positive appropriation of his work, having some points in common with themes I have been pursuing about causality and the notion of power. Robert Brandom’s innovative reading of Kant’s response to Hume points out that there are distinct limits to Hume’s approach.

“Kant read Hume’s practical and theoretical philosophies as raising variants of a single question. On the side of practical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of how things are to prescriptions of how they ought to be. How can we rationally justify the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’? On the side of theoretical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of what in fact happens to characterizations of what must happen and what could not happen…. Hume’s predicament is that he finds that even his best understanding of facts doesn’t yield an understanding of either of the two sorts of rules governing and relating those facts, underwriting assessments of which of the things that actually happen (all he thought we can directly experience) ought to happen (are normatively necessary) or must happen (are naturally necessary).”

“Kant’s response to the proposed predicament is that we cannot be in the situation that Hume envisages: understanding matter-of-factual empirical claims perfectly well, but having no idea what is meant by modal or normative ones” (Brandom, Reason in Philosophy, p. 54).

Brandom continues, “To judge, claim, or believe that the cat is on the mat, one must have at least a minimal practical ability to sort material inferences in which that content is involved (as premise or conclusion) into good ones and bad ones, and to discriminate what is from what is not materially incompatible with it. Part of doing that is associating with those inferences ranges of counterfactual robustness…. So, for example, one must have such dispositions as to treat the cat’s being on the mat as compatible with a nearby tree being somewhat nearer, or the temperature a few degrees higher, but not with the sun being as close as the tree or the temperature being thousands of degrees higher. One must know such things as that the cat might chase a mouse or flee from a dog, but that the mat can do neither, and that the mat would remain essentially as it is if one jumped up and down on it or beat it with a stick, while the cat would not. It is not that there is any one of the counterfactual inferences I have mentioned that is necessary for understanding what it is for the cat to be on the mat. But if one makes no distinctions of this sort — treats the possibility of the cat’s jumping off the mat or yawning as on a par with is sprouting wings and starting to fly, or suddenly becoming microscopically small; does not at all distinguish between what can and cannot happen to the cat and what can and cannot happen to the mat — then one does not count as understanding the claim well enough to endorse it” (pp. 54-55).

Brandom concludes, “If that is right, then in being able to employ concepts such as cat and mat in ordinary empirical descriptive claims one already knows how to do everything one needs to know how to do in order to deploy concepts such as possible and necessary — albeit fallibly and imperfectly” (p. 55).

I am actually a little more sympathetic to Hume, in that I don’t read him as categorically rejecting the validity of concepts of necessity, only any possibility of certain knowledge of how they apply to the real world. I personally like the position of Leibnitz that necessity is real but always hypothetical, never categorical. But Brandom is right that Hume does not go on to emphasize how essential our fallible understanding of necessity is to our understanding of ordinary experience.

Disambiguating “Power”

As Aristotle might remind us, “power” is said in many ways. Each of these is different.

There is the power that Plato suggests as a distinguishing mark of being in the Sophist. There is the greater power he attributes to the Good more ancient than being. There is Aristotelian potentiality, which I normally prefer to distinguish from “power” altogether, but is referred to by the same Greek word. There is the related notion of power as capacity, of the sort developed by Paul Ricoeur. There is efficient causality, itself said in many ways. There is physical force. There is legal or political authority. There are repressive apparatuses. There is the positive, distributed social power involved in the formation of selves, discussed by Michel Foucault. There is the artistic and inventive power with which Nietzsche was especially concerned. There are claims of supernatural power beyond possible human understanding.

I haven’t yet found where in her French text Gwenaëlle Aubry clarifies how her identification of Aristotle’s god with pure act — involving neither Aristotelian potentiality nor Platonic power — goes together with her identification of the efficacy of the pure act with a final causality realized through “potentiality as tendency toward the end”. I think this has to do with the pure act’s role as an end or attractor, so that the potentiality in question belongs to the things it attracts, rather than to Aristotle’s god. Aristotle’s god for Aubry is what might be called an “inspiring” or attracting cause rather than a ruler and a driving cause.

It seems to me that in order to even be intelligible, a power of any kind must be understood as having definite characteristics related to its efficacy. I therefore think “infinite power” is devoid of sense. Even the “omnipotent” God of Leibniz who selects the best of all possible worlds at the moment of creation only selects an inherent, coherently realizable possibility that is also in accordance with non-arbitrary criteria of goodness. He does not create arbitrarily.

Leibniz on Justice vs Power

In Meditation on the Common Concept of Justice (ca. 1703), Leibniz made points that deserve to be quoted at length. Editor Patrick Riley notes that “Leibniz’ radical formulation of this question follows Plato’s Euthyphro (9E-10E) almost literally, though Plato was dealing with ‘holiness’ rather than justice” (Leibniz, Political Writings, p. 45).

Leibniz says, “It is agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just: in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions” (ibid).

For present purposes, what is important is whether justice and goodness depend on an arbitrary will or have criteria of their own, not whether those criteria are necessary and eternal.

To say that justice and goodness depend upon an arbitrary will “would destroy the justice of God. For why praise him because he acts according to justice, if the notion of justice, in his case, adds nothing to that of action? And to say… my will takes the place of reason, is properly the motto of a tyrant” (pp. 45-46; brackets in original).

“This is why certain persons, too devoted to the absolute right of God, who have believed that he could justly condemn innocent people and even that this might actually happen, have done wrong to the attributes that make God lovable, and, having destroyed the love of God, they left only fear [behind]” (p. 46; brackets in original).

“Thus all [Lutheran] theologians and most of those of the Roman Church, and also most of the ancient Church Fathers and the wisest and most esteemed philosophers, have been for the second view, which holds that goodness and justice have their grounds… independent of will and of force.”

“Plato in his dialogues introduces and refutes a certain Thrasymachus, who, wishing to explain what justice is, [says] that is just… which is agreeable or pleasant to the most powerful. If that were true, there would never be a sentence of a sovereign court, nor of a supreme judge, which would be unjust, nor would an evil but powerful man ever be blameworthy. And what is more, the same action could be just or unjust, depending on the judges who decide, which is ridiculous. It is one thing to be just and another to pass for it, and to take the place of justice.”

“A celebrated English philosopher named Hobbes, who is noted for his paradoxes, had wished to uphold almost the same thing as Thrasymachus: for he wants God to have the right to do everything, because he is all-powerful. This is a failure to distinguish between right and fact. For what one can do is one thing, what one should do, another” (pp. 46-47; brackets added).

“[I]f power were the formal reason of justice, all powerful persons would be just, each in proportion to his power; which is contrary to experience.”

“It is thus a question of finding this formal reason, that is to say, the why of this attribute, or this concept which should teach us what justice is” (p. 48). By “formal” Leibniz here means something like “essential”.

Demonstration in Spinoza

Kant and Hegel both objected to Spinoza’s unusual presentation of his Ethics in something resembling the style of Euclid’s geometry. I think of philosophy mainly as interpretation rather than simple declaration, so I am broadly sympathetic to this point. On the other hand, I think Pierre Macherey is profoundly right when he emphasizes the non-foundationalist character of Spinoza’s thought.

The unique meaning Spinoza gives to “Substance” (not to be confused with its Aristotelian, Scholastic, Cartesian, or general early modern senses) is that of a complex relational whole that encompasses everything, rather than a separate starting point for deduction of the details of the world. Because of this, the apparent linearity of his development is just that — a mere appearance.

Hegel does not seem to recognize that Spinoza’s Substance resembles the relational whole of Force that Hegel himself developed in the Phenomenology. This is inseparable from an implicit notion of process in which relations of force are exhibited.

Macherey says Spinoza sees the world in terms of an infinite process, i.e., one without beginning or end or teleological structure (Hegel or Spinoza, p. 75).

(I would argue that neither Aristotle nor Hegel actually endows the world with teleological structure, though they each give ends a significance that Spinoza would deny. For Aristotle, it is particular beings in themselves that have ends. For Hegel, teleological development is a retrospectively meaningful interpretation, not an explanatory theory that could yield truth in advance. But for Spinoza, ends are either merely subjective, or involve an external providence that he explicitly rejects.)

It seems to me that the “point of view of eternity” that Spinoza associates with truth is actually intended to be appropriate to this infinite process. Spinoza points out that eternity does not properly mean a persistence in time that lasts forever, but rather a manner of subsistence that is entirely outside of — or independent of — the linear progression and falling away that characterizes time.

(Kant’s famous assertion of the “ideality of space and time”, which means that space and time are only necessary features of our empirical experience, is not inconsistent with Spinoza’s commendation of the point of view of eternity. Though it has other features Spinoza would be unlikely to accept, Kant’s “transcendental” as distinct from the empirical is thus to be viewed from a perspective not unlike Spinoza’s “point of view of eternity”.)

Spinoza wants to maintain that the order of causes and the order of reasons are the same. Whereas Aristotle deconstructs “cause” into a rich variety of kinds of “reasons why” (none of which resembles the early modern model of an impulse between billiard balls), Spinoza narrows the scope of “cause” to “efficient causes” in a sense that seems close to that of Suárez with inflections from Galilean physics, and suggests that true reasons are causes in this narrower sense. It seems to me that Spinoza’s “order of causes” resembles the infinite field of purely relational “force” that Hegel discusses in the Force and Understanding chapter.

Spinoza wants us to focus on efficient causes of things, but to do so mainly from the “point of view of eternity”. This takes us away from the event-oriented perspective of linear time, toward a consideration of general patterns of the interrelation of different kinds of means by which things end up as they concretely tend to do. In speaking of means rather than forces, I am tacitly substituting what I think is a properly Aristotelian notion of “efficient” cause for the meaning it historically seems to have had for Spinoza.

In pursuit of this, he takes up a stance toward demonstration that is actually like the one I see in Aristotle, in that it is more about improvement of our understanding through its practical exercise in inference than about proof of some truth assumed to be already understood (see also Demonstrative “Science”?). As Macherey puts it, for Spinoza “knowledge is not simply the unfolding of some established truth but the effective genesis of an understanding that nowhere precedes its realization” (p. 50). (Unlike Macherey, though, I think this is true for Aristotle and Hegel as well.)

Demonstration in both Aristotle’s and Spinoza’s sense is intended to improve our normative understanding of concepts by “showing” their inferential uses and points of application. It is only through their inferential use in the demonstrations that Spinoza’s nominal definitions and axioms acquire a meaning Spinoza would call “adequate”.

Force and Understanding

After Perception, Hegel discusses what is basically the attitude of mathematical physics. Harris in his commentary notes that Hegel is much more sympathetic to natural science than some of his supporters have seemed to recognize. Hegel accepts mathematical physics as an authoritative account of the physical world, and is impressed by the concept of mathematical natural law.

More generally, this is where Hegel introduces what he calls Understanding, which seeks to give a fully univocal (thus also formalizable) account of things. Understanding will have permanent value in securing definiteness and discipline of thought. Hegel often makes sharp remarks about its limitations, so it is important to recognize that he also respected its strengths.

Perception already took a relational approach to the properties of things, but still held fast to the idea that its objects were independent things. Newton’s concept of force as characterized by mathematical law effectively takes a relational approach to determination in the physical world as a whole. Mechanics treats force subject to mathematical laws as the objective reality underlying the world of Perception and “things”, which it treats as Appearance rather than an immanent truth.

Force for Hegel is a supersensible rational construct. For the Newtonian physicist, it is a supersensible reality. Hegel approves of the physicist’s recognition that sensible reality is not all there is, and applauds what he sees as the physicist’s thoroughgoing relational approach. His main caveat is just that what the physicist sees as an independent physical necessity that is only described by mathematics, Hegel see entirely in terms of the formal necessity of the mathematics and logic used in the physicist’s theory.

This concludes the “Consciousness” section of the Phenomenology, where “consciousness” for Hegel is the attitude that treats objects and objectivity in a “pre-Kantian” way, as just being out there. The physicist’s thoroughly relational approach to the external world takes this to its highest sophistication. What remains is to examine the ways in which there is actually continuity and reciprocity between “us” and the world we inhabit, and the role that we play in its development.