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Thinking about Causes: From Greek Philosophy to Modern Physics

Thinking about Causes: From Greek Philosophy to Modern Physics edited by Peter Machamer and Gereon Wolters. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007, 328 pp.



Happy is he who knows the causes of things.


Cause and effect is one of the earliest concepts to be discussed philosophically. It could be, as this text quotes Cicero, “that our capacity to understand causality is a fundamental difference between the nature of humans and animals.” But many outside of the realm of philosophy seem to pay little heed to cause and effect, especially those dealing with military affairs. These tend to be men and women of pragmatic minds who, perhaps, view the idea of cause and effect as a primary, almost innate, principle that requires no discussion or debate. They view it simply as A causes B. This book, with various views spanning history, may alter some viewpoints.

Thinking about Causes is a collection of 16 essays presented by philosophers from the United States and Europe at the Seventh Pittsburgh-Konstanz Colloquium held in May 2005. The editors, Peter Machamer, from the University of Pittsburgh, and Gereon Wolters, from the University of Konstanz in Germany, are philosophy professors. In their preface, they state that their purpose in presenting these essays is not only to examine causality in a contemporary context but to explore the historical development of the concept. Toward this end, they lay the book out in a chronological manner. The first essays discuss Greek philosophy, the middle span medieval to modern philosophy, and the last few articles address contemporary trains of thought. The editors succeed in highlighting the fascinating and unusual history of causality. Not only does the text span time, it covers an assortment of topics and perspectives.

While it was enjoyable to trace the development of the causality concept from ancient to modern times, perhaps the greatest strength of this work is the variety of contexts in which causality is discussed. Jürgen Mittelstrass’ “The Concept of Causality in Greek Thought” takes the reader through the genesis of Western philosophy in the context of causality—from pre-Socratic to Socrates then through Plato and Aristotle. Building upon this discussion of the Greeks, Brad Inwood delves deeper into the aspect of human nature in his essay, “Moral Causes: The Role of Physical Explanations in Ancient Ethics.” A section by Emidio Spinelli discusses how the Grecian concept of causality spans the kosmos of the whole.

It was fascinating to realize the close correlation between the thinking of ancient philosophers and the postwar development concept of general systems thinking as espoused by Ludwig von Bertalanffy and others. An essay on sacramental causality discusses the mysteries of transubstantiation and production of grace in the soul. In the chapter titled “From Scholasticism to Modern Physics—and Back?” Robert Schnepf provides an excellent primer on causality moving into modern thought. Schnepf deconstructs Aristotle’s concepts of causes into three topoi (categories). He then mirrors Descartes’ thoughts of causality among the same three topoi, providing additional commentary of Malebranche. Reading this deconstruction of cause and effect was most helpful in clarifying the concept. Additional essays in the book address Kant and transcendental laws, plurality, antifundamentalism, epiphenomenalism, and free will. Of these, some are quite enlightening, others quite thick. A standout piece by Sir Clive W. J. Granger provides the reader with a solid foundation for understanding causality in economics and the fundamentals for creation and use of empirical models. The myriad discussions within differing contexts and assorted levels of complexity showcase that cause and effect is not a simplistic concept to be taken for granted.

Despite the interesting chronological flow and range of noteworthy topics, the book is not an easy read. Those unaccustomed to philosophical treatises can find the reading laborious in dealing with semantics, intricate logic, and references that may be obtuse to the average reader. Indeed, while many of the essays provide some elaboration of their references, the reader needs to have additional background knowledge to appreciate the discussions fully. But the mental workout this book provides is worth the effort. Looking at cause and effect in different contexts, seeing causality deconstructed, challenges one’s beliefs in a concept that is often overlooked. This, in turn, can lead to a greater range of perspectives for developing strategy and policy. The reader, though, must decide if the mental gymnastics provided by the book is worth the somewhat hefty price tag. While discounts are available from various online stores, the book is a tad expensive for those who may have only a passing interest in the philosophical aspects of cause and effect. But then again, reading the text may bring the reader closer to Virgil’s vision of happiness.

Lt Col Craig Plain, ANG

Wisconsin Air National Guard

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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