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Hitchcock’s (2001) treatment of singular and general causation


Hitchcock (2001a) argues that the distinction between singular and general causation conflates the two distinctions ‘actual causation vs. causal tendencies’ and ‘wide vs. narrow causation’. Based on a recent regularity account of causation I will show that Hitchcock’s introduction of the two distinctions is an unnecessary multiplication of causal concepts.

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  1. See, for example, Sober (1985) and Eells (1991) for arguments in favor of two types of causal relations and Carroll (1991) for a one-type approach.

  2. See especially Hitchcock (2003).

  3. Hitchcock (2001a), p. 219.

  4. The actual–tendency distinction is originally due to Good (1961) and (1962).

  5. Hitchcock (2001a), p. 220.

  6. Hitchcock (2001a), p. 220.

  7. Hitchcock (2001a), p. 220.

  8. Hitchcock (1995), p. 283.

  9. Regularity theories of causation face a standard set of objections such as the purported inability to identify epiphenomena and spurious correlations, and to account for the asymmetry of causal relations. Solutions to the mentioned objections (including the ‘Manchester factory hooters’ and more) are proposed in Graßhoff and May (2001).

  10. The name of the theory, MT, derives from the first letters of the essential theoretical construct: Minimal Theory. At first sight, MT bears a close resemblance to Mackie’s (1974) INUS-conditions, but a second glance will show that some important lessons have been learned.

  11. For the analysis of causal inferences as well as the details and formal representation of the conceptual analysis see Graßhoff and May (2001), Baumgartner and Graßhoff (2004), and Baumgartner (2005).

  12. An adequate formal representation of causal claims requires first-order logic. For purposes of simplicity, however, quantifiers, variables, and non-causal relational properties of event types and events are omitted. As a consequence, material conditionals and bi-conditionals are to be read such that the event types in the antecedence are always coincidentally instantiated by events different from the event instantiating the consequence.

  13. Complex event types are conjunctions of simple event types.

  14. Note that event types redundant relative to one minimally sufficient condition may nonetheless be part of other minimally sufficient conditions for the same effect.

  15. In fact, (CR) is the definition of direct causal relevance. Indirect causal relevance is also defined within the framework of MT, but the distinction of direct vs. indirect causal relevance is of no importance for the subject of this paper.

  16. For similar views see for example Davidson (1967), p. 702f and Dowe (2001).

  17. The following critique of Hitchcock’s distinctions can also be stated on the basis of theories of causation other than MT.

  18. Even Hitchcock himself assumes that on type-level, i.e., general causation, the verb ‘to cause’ always describes causal tendencies rather than cases of actual causation (see Hitchcock (2001b), p. 375, footnote 9).

  19. The difference between Hitchcock’s classification of (T) as a narrow causal tendency and its MT-analysis may be considered as merely terminological, concerning what ‘singular causal statement’ is to mean. The fact that, according to Hitchcock’s account of singular vs. general causation, (T) is a claim about singular causation even though the only causal relation expressed is one between types of events, however, seems to be a terminological oddity worth criticizing.

  20. David also instantiates L, of course, but this follows from David’s instantiation of SX i .

  21. This seems to be true according to any arbitrary theory of events.

  22. I’m fully aware that CR as the analysis of (G) does not explicate the undoubted practical and conceptual connections between general causal claims like (G) and recommendations for interventions (i.e., ‘Refrain from smoking if you do not want to develop lung cancer’). The MT-account of those connections will, of course, refer to CR, but such an analysis of (recommendations for) interventions is considered to be a task separate from the analysis of claims like (G) in terms of CR.

  23. It seems to me that the very basic idea of probabilistic analyses of causation, i.e., probability-raising of effects by their causes, promotes exactly this confusion between the existence of a general causal relation and the frequency of its instantiation in certain populations.


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For comments on earlier drafts I would like to thank Michael Baumgartner, Gerd Graßhoff, Christopher Hitchcock, audience members at the University of Berne (Switzerland) and the University of Konstanz (Germany), and anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Christian Jakob.

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Jakob, C. Hitchcock’s (2001) treatment of singular and general causation. Minds & Machines 16, 277–287 (2006).

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  • Causal claims
  • General causation
  • Philosophy of science
  • Regularity theory
  • Singular causation