Efficient Cause, Again

Yesterday, I changed my thinking about Aristotle’s “efficient cause”, making a somewhat surprising connection to the modern notion of “structural causality”. Then I had to update my account of generalized unmoved movers to add a case for an unmoved efficient cause.

Aristotle’s whole framework of “causes” (answers to “why” questions) is often misunderstood, and it is especially bad with the so-called efficient cause. A quick web search on the latter turns up mostly accounts that are just wrong. (A wonderful exception is the outstanding article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

At Physics 195b22-25, referring back to an earlier example of a man building a house that was initially said (metonymically, it turns out) to be an efficient cause, Aristotle wrote (Complete Works, Barnes edition) “In investigating the cause of each thing it is always necessary to seek what is most precise (as also in other things): thus a man builds because he is a builder, and a builder builds in virtue of his art of building. This last cause then is prior; and so generally.” So it is the art of building — not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer’s blow — that primarily “builds” the house (i.e., governs the details of the process its construction), and is properly (not just metonymically) called its efficient cause. Once again, for Aristotle it is something at the level of adverbial detail — not the coarse level of agents or action — that is most important.

Having said the other day that Foucaultian discursive regularities are a kind of efficient cause like the art of building, it occurred to me they are also a good example of structural causality, and then that one might say the same about, e.g., the art of building.

Previously, I had been thinking about the efficient cause as functioning like a sort of catalyst. This relatively modest role had led me to privately think of the efficient cause as an “accidental” cause (i.e., one not really contributing to the essence of the thing).

This was at the opposite extreme from the tendency of late scholastics like the great Jesuit Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) to make efficient causes paradigmatic for causes in general, conceived in a proto-modern sense of being responsible for the fact of a thing’s being or existence rather than for the manner of its being, and as involving an “influence” from an agent rather than reasons. (In this context, ends or “final causes” were also reduced to mental intentions of a natural or supernatural agent, as al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) had done earlier, quite contrary to Aristotle’s own non-mental account. It was this mentalist reinterpretation that was the real target of Spinoza’s eloquent polemic against against teleology.) There is a nice article by Stephan Schmid on these issues in Suárez.

Anyway, an efficient cause as a point of application of structural causality clearly has a much bigger role to play in determining the detailed nature of a thing than the purely external one of a mere catalyst. (I am using the word “nature” here in a sense broader than Aristotle’s, similar to essence but particular to things that come to be, whereas Aristotle further limited it to nonartificial things, which he thought all contained at least a rudimentary internal principle of motion not shared by artificial things.) On my new account, the efficient cause also exemplifies the interweaving of Aristotelian essence with accident or contingency, due to the role of the semantic materiality as well as form of the means of realization of a nature that is its efficient cause.

This is also more conformant to the idea that all Aristotelian causes are supposed to contribute to explaining the natures of things. Ironically, my previous “catalyst” view made the efficient cause a kind of exception that looked more like the sort of cause of existence I have generally been arguing is un-Aristotelian. As a point of application of structural causality, an efficient cause now fits the general pattern of explaining natures, rather than the mere factual existence of things with natures more or less taken for granted.


The Paralogisms section of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason provides an excellent account of dubious metaphysical theses about the soul common to Descartes and others. They are that the soul is a substance in its own right; that it is simple; that it is a person; and that it is directly conscious of itself, but conscious of other things only as representations. Aristotle was a careful minimalist in his talk about the soul, and did not assert any of these. I have addressed theses of this sort myself numerous times (see, e.g., Mind Without Mentalism; Aristotelian Subjectivity; Subject; God and the Soul; Soul, Self; Parts of the Soul.)

Historiography, Inferentialism

Having laid out some preliminaries, I’ve begun to circle back to more questions of historical detail related to the development here, and it seems fitting to summarize the motivations driving these more historical notes. History is all about the details, but in any inquiry, what are actually higher-order questions about methodology ought to inform primary investigations. We never just have data; it always has to be interpreted, and this involves questions about methodology. With history, this often involves critical examination of the applicability of categories that may tend to be taken for granted. Thus, I am adding notes about the application of various categories or concepts in particular historical settings, and about historical details that seem to have larger methodological significance.

I’m looking back at the history of philosophy (and, to some extent, broader cultural developments) from a point of view inspired by the “inferentialism” of Brandom (taking this as a general name for his point of view), as well as by my own ideas for a revitalized Aristotelianism. In Tales of the Mighty Dead and elsewhere, Brandom himself has effectively placed the historical roots of his development in the broad tradition of early modern philosophical rationalism, including the work of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. I find standard connotations of the term “rationalism” rather problematic, and want to separate Descartes — of whom I am much more sharply critical than Brandom seems to be — from Spinoza and Leibniz, for whom I find additional reasons to be sympathetic. Brandom has contributed to a new understanding of Kant, and has developed a landmark reading of Hegel. I want to help support the broad thrust of these with historical considerations, while reconnecting them with fresh readings of Aristotle, Plato, and other historical philosophers. With some caveats and in spite of Brandom’s own brief comments, I also want to suggest a possible rapprochement with key insights of 20th century French “structuralism”.

A key point common to most of the tendencies mentioned above is an emphasis on the role of difference in making things intelligible. In the context of philosophical arguments, this means that critical distinctions are as important as positive assertions. Contrasts not only greatly facilitate but largely shape understanding. Brandom himself has developed the contrast between inferentialism and the representationalism of Descartes and Locke. He has made large use of Wilfrid Sellars’ critique of a “Myth of the Given” associated with most varieties of empiricism, and has also referenced the critique of psychologism developed by Frege and others in a logical context.

I have been using the term “mentalism” for a privileging of contents that are supposed to be immediately present to a personal “mind” that is itself conceived mainly in terms of immediate awareness. It seems to me that Descartes and Locke’s version of this was a historically specific combination of all the above notions from which an inferentialism would seek to distinguish itself — representationalism, the Myth of the Given, and psychologism. I have been concerned to point out not only that Cartesian-Lockean mentalism has historically specific antecedents that long predate modernity (going back to Augustine, with some foreshadowing in Plotinus), but also that a proto-inferentialist countertrend is actually even older, going back to Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on the primacy of reason and reasoned development.

In A Spirit of Trust, Brandom has among many other things expanded on Hegel’s critique of Mastery. I find this to be of tremendous importance for ethics, and consonant with my structuralist sympathies. I have been concerned to point out how extreme claims of mastery are implicit in the various historical kinds of voluntarism, which all want to put some notion of arbitrary will — or authority attributed one-sidedly to such a will — ahead of consideration of what is reasonable and good.

Usual generalization caveats apply to statements about “isms”. In any particular case where the terms seem to apply, we need to look at relevant details, and be alert to the possibility that all aspects of a generalized argument may not apply straightforwardly. (See also Historiography; History of Philosophy.)

Nominalist Controversies

Especially in the 14th century, controversies associated with the opposition between nominalism and realism greatly exercised philosophers and theologians in the Latin West. These terms have been been variously understood, but as a first approximation, nominalism wants to deny claims about the real basis of abstractions that the realism of this context wants to affirm.

In this case, a polar opposition is concealed behind a pair of concrete terms (nominalism, realism), where in context one is understood as the simple negation of the other. As usual with debates around distinctions based on polar opposition rather than more limited and definite determinate negation, the greatest interest often lies in the way each side tries to recover something like the strong points of the other side, but in its own terms.

These controversies are worth lingering over for several reasons. For one thing, they help illustrate the great diversity, subtlety, and liveliness of medieval thought. For another, they develop many fine distinctions that are of lasting value in talking about human knowledge and understanding. We would all like to rightly apprehend things, whatever that means. The waters are commonly muddied not only by insufficient distinctions among things, but also by fundamental unclarity or ambiguity on the meaning of “existence” or “reality”, which gets worse where abstract things are involved. Who we might think was right in the debates is of secondary importance compared to clarifications of this kind. Finally, these debates involved much discussion of mental representation, its origins, and its role in thought.

Speaking with very broad brush, nominalism begins as a critique of a sort of “platonism”. Such platonism wants to say the universal is more real than the particular. It may go on to claim that abstract entities are as real as — or more real than — concrete ones. It may extend to further claims that universals simply “exist” in some pure way, independent of space and time. Nominalism in general wants to say the opposite, that universals are actually not real at all.

Aristotle already criticized platonist views of the sort just mentioned, while still maintaining that the development of universals is essential to knowledge. I think that in the big picture, he wanted to recommend an essentially even-handed approach, recognizing both universals and particulars as necessary to any developed view of experience, while pointing out their very different and complementary roles. Whatever we may think about the reality or unreality or existence or nonexistence of given things or of various kinds of things, we need universals to support the implicit reasoning standing behind any developed knowledge. We also need particulars as practical starting points, and as cross-checks to keep us honest. This does not yet make any claim about reality or existence that might support such needs. Aristotle often practiced a careful minimalism, sticking to essentials and leaving other questions open, and this is a good case in point.

Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas wanted to develop Aristotle’s position into a firmer doctrine, classically called moderate realism. Most people agree that Aristotle thought universals do not “exist” independently of particular things and thought. Albert and Thomas argued that implicitly, what Aristotle said committed him to 1) a claim that universals are real and 2) a claim that universals exist, but only in concrete things and in thought.

Nominalists especially disputed the claim that universals exist in concrete things. They most commonly advocated a mental origin of universals, while differing on the precise status attributed to them. Already in the 12th century, Roscellinus had argued that universals are mere names (root of the word “nominalism”). Whether or not the great Peter Abelard should be interpreted as a nominalist or a middle-of-the road “conceptualist” is contested among scholars.

The theologian William of Occam (1285 – 1347) was the most famous medieval nominalist. Early in his career, he argued that universals were ficta (“fictions”) of the mind. Later, he worried that this still tacitly presupposed they were representations, which would seem to still imply something corresponding to them in external objects. He then argued that external objects have causal impact on the mind, but not by representation.

The important secular master John Buridan (1301 – 1358) is usually also called a nominalist. Buridan was one of the leading logicians of the middle ages, and wrote on a wide range of philosophical questions. He had several noteworthy students who are also considered nominalists, including the logician, natural philosopher, and bishop Albert of Saxony (1320 – 1390). Marsilius of Inghen (1340 – 1396) was another nominalist who wrote on logic, natural philosophy, and theology. The theologian Gregory of Rimini (1300 – 1358) is also considered a nominalist.

The great theologian John Duns Scotus (1265 – 1308) was a commited realist who nonetheless influenced Occam on some relatively unrelated points. The influential Walter Burley (1275 – 1344) is sometimes called an extreme realist. Paul of Venice (1369 – 1429) was formerly classed as a nominalist, but is now considered a realist.

Among those who were called nominalists, there were many different views and distinctions related to the complex medieval theories of sensible and intelligible “species”. In one aspect, these were mental representations, but theories of sensible species usually had a physical component loosely inspired by Stoicism. Occam denied species, while Buridan made use of them.

From the 12th century onward, Latin philosophers developed sophisticated original theories of the different kinds of “supposition”, or generic ways in which something said can be meant. The general notion was that the kind of supposition that should be read into a concrete utterance should be determined by analyzing the context of the utterance in various ways. This was basically a kind of semantics. What is perhaps surprising is that broadly similar supposition theories were largely shared by dedicated nominalists like Occam and commited realists like Walter Burley, providing a common vocabulary.

On a side note, Occam’s causal impact theory seems problematic from the point of view of the development here. While its avoidance of dependence on representation is attractive, a direct causal link from external objects to thoughts does not seem adequate to account for the full range of diversity of thoughts. Also, there seems to be an incipient mentalism already at work here, related to that of Avicenna.

Occam was a theological voluntarist and a fideist. Fideism is the belief that faith offers a kind of knowledge superior to reason, an extreme position that was repeatedly condemned by the Church. Occam has nonetheless often been named as a major precursor of the point of view of modern science. Even though some connections can be made, this seems questionable as well, given his mainly theological intent and the character of the theology he promoted.


Literally since childhood, I’ve been concerned about ethical issues involving ego or egoism in a plain ordinary dictionary sense. This involves a number of related aspects. At the grossest level, there is selfishness and arrogance. Beyond that, there are many kinds and degrees of self-centeredness. At the subtle end of the spectrum, there are various kinds of self-involvement that impair our attention to the concerns of others. What these all have in common is that with varying degrees of seriousness, they result in failures of reciprocity in social relationships, failures to apply the golden rule. As a young person, this led me to investigate various spiritual teachings about ego and self and what to do with them. This still stands as a backdrop to my philosophical interest in questions related to subjectivity, and in related questions of historical interpretation.

Philosophically, ego in the ordinary sense is not at all the same thing as a Subject, but the two are commonly confounded. Both are problematic, and require careful handling. Modern common-sense views of such things most often implicitly reflect a very specific historical “mentalist” philosophical view shared by Descartes and Locke, which tends to simply identify the two. In my view, this identification of ego-self-subject-mind as one simple thing is utterly wrong, and makes it impossible to adequately address the serious issues with each separate concept.

Historically, the rise of Cartesian-Lockean mentalism was closely tied to the rise of possessive individualism, of which Locke, along with Hobbes, was one of the main theorists (see Rights). This gave egoism in the ordinary sense a new kind of respectability that it did not have in premodern society. On this theory, people could claim ethical justification for egoistic behavior, and claim additional support from theories like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. This created a further slippery slope, leading to all manner of extensions and abuses of these principles that Locke or Smith would not have condoned. (See also Desire of the Master; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

In sound ethics, reciprocity comes before self. This does not imply any extreme self-denial, just appropriate consideration of others, who should give the same consideration to us. (See also The Ambiguity of “Self”; Individuation; What Is “I”?)

Inferentialism vs Mentalism

Brandom’s “inferentialism” or emphasis on material inference effectively makes what I call ethical reason the most important thing in the constitution of subjectivity — not psychology, and not some putative immediate mental presence, or universal transparent representational medium, or supposedly perfect reflexivity.

This is not to deny that there is such a thing as immediacy; it is rather to specify that immediacy is not foundational, and has nothing to do with certainty. Immediacy has a very different role to play, in showing us the world’s “stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency” and providing occasions for learning. (See also Mind Without Mentalism; Psyche, Subjectivity.)

Mind Without Mentalism

In spite of the excellent work of many philosophers, socially dominant views of mind today remain in the thrall of narrow mentalist, representationalist conceptions originally promoted by Descartes and Locke. What are implicitly Cartesian and British empiricist views of this sort largely inform what passes for common sense. Our minds are in here, and things are out there. What seems to be immediately present to the mind has special, privileged status, mostly sheltered from the doubts that may be entertained about things out there.

This notion of special privileged status traces back historically to the Latin medieval notion of an intellectual soul, which has an Augustinian heritage, and gained favor as a perceived solution to historically specific theological concerns that emerged from the late reincorporation of Aristotelian learning into the Western tradition in the 12th and 13th centuries CE.

While a degree of support for something like an intellectual soul can be extrapolated from Plato, it was counterbalanced by his strong emphasis on discursively articulable form as the basis of intelligibility. Plotinus added an alternate emphasis on immediate presence in the soul, about which Plato had been much more circumspect. Building on Plotinus as well as Christian doctrine, Augustine further accentuated this tendency, fusing previously separate notions of intellect and personality.

Earlier, Aristotle had moved in the opposite direction, anticipating something like Hegel’s emphasis on mediation. In the immense scholastic florescence of the later Latin middle ages, many complex hybrids developed that are still little known and understood. But all this was abruptly discarded in the transition to printed books and modern languages. Printed books in modern languages promoted one-line dismissals of scholasticism, and also failed to distinguish it from the historical Aristotle. (See Aristotle: General Interpretation; Aristotle: Core Concepts; Languages, Books, Curricula.)

Although Spinoza and Leibniz were great philosophers and partial exceptions to the mentalist trend, it was not until Kant and Hegel that a new, major alternative to Cartesian/Lockean mentalism clearly emerged. This was such a big event that it has taken until recently for this aspect of Kant and Hegel to be adequately understood and foregrounded. Numerous independent nonmentalist developments after Hegel can now be seen in this added light. (See also Intentionality; Inferentialism vs Mentalism; Ego; Subject; Matter, Mind; Radical Empiricism?; Primacy of Perception?; Structuralism; Imaginary, Symbolic, Real; Archaeology of Knowledge.)