Force, Motion and Causality: More’s Critique of Descartes

  • John Cottingham
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 150)


We are so used to admiring the mathematically based scientific revolution of the early modern period that we sometimes forget what it did not achieve. In Descartes’ formulation of a new structure for physics, and his famous critique of preconceived opinion, there is one concept that never receives systematic scrutiny — that of causality Descartes gives us new causal principles — both detailed formulae like the rules of impact, and overarching axioms like the law of conservation — but he never provides a clear explicit analysis of what it is for two events to be causally related. That task was taken up later: the occasionalism of Malebranche the pre-established harmony of Leibniz and the reductive regularism of Hume can all be seen as attempts to provide a new theoretical account of causality compatible with the emerging science of mathematical physics.


Natural Kind Causal Power Scientific Revolution Causal Efficacy Innate Faculty 
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  1. 1.
    G. W. Leibniz, “Primae Veritates” [c. 1684], in L. E. Loemker (ed.), Leibniz, Philosophical Papers and Letters, (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1969), p. 269;Google Scholar
  2. 1a.
    cited in Eileen O’Neill, “Influxus Physicus”, in S. Nadler (ed.), Causation in Early Modern Philosophy (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), p. 28.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    O’Neill, op. cit. Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    “[une] cause véritable est une cause entre laquelle & son effet l’esprit apperçoit une liaison nécessaire”, Recherche de la Vérité [1674–5], VI. ii. 3.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Appeals to the presumed logical possibility of such alternative scenarios are in fact rather more problematic than this — an issue which I will ignore for present purposes. See J. Cottingham, “The Cartesian Legacy”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supp. Vol. LXVI (1992).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Cf. G. E. Moore, “A Defense of Common Sense” and “Proof of an External World” (Philosophical Papers, London, 1959). Just as Moore argued that there were paradeigmatically straightforward propositions so obviously true that no philosophical theory could shake them, so it seems that there are certainly paradigmatically straightforward cases of causal interaction where the mechanisms of interaction are so obvious to the ordinary observer that no scientific theory, however sophisticated, could surpass their explanatory power.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Eileen O’Neill distinguishes four components of such Neoplatonic influx models: (i) what flows out is some kind of likeness or replica; (ii) the flowing is from more to less perfect; (iii) the effect brought about is coexistent with the activity of the agent (like the illumination caused by sunlight); and (iv) the outflow cannot exhaust or even diminish the essential power of the agent. (“Influxus Physicus”, in Nadler, Causation and Early Modern Philosophy, op. cit., 32–6.)Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    The Immortality of the Soul [1659], Bk. III, Ch. XVI, 8. Other More sources referred to in this paper are: the letters to Descartes of 11 December 1648, 5 March, 23 July and 21 October 1649, and the Responsio ad Fragmentum Cartesii of July/August 1655 (all reprinted in AT V). All translations of More are my own. In this paper, “AT” refers to the standard Franco-Latin edition of Descartes by C. Adam, & P. Tannery, Œuvres de Descartes, (12 vols., revised edn., Paris: Vrin/CNRS, 1964–76);Google Scholar
  9. 7a.
    “CSM” refers to the English translation by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vols. I and II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), and “CSMK” to Vol. III, The Correspondence, by the same translators plus A. Kenny (Cambridge University Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Compare Leibniz: “The ... Platonists ... are right in seeking the source of things in final and formal causes, but wrong in neglecting efficient and material causes and in inferring, as did Henry More in England and certain other Platonists, that there are phenomena that cannot be explained mechanically.” (Letter to Nicolas Remond, of 10 January 1714, in Loemker op. cit. p. 655.)Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    For some of the problems generated by adherence to the “causal similarity principle”, see J. Cottingham The Rationalists (Oxford, 1988) 201f.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    See E. Gilson, Etudes sur le rôle dans la pensée médiévale dans la formation du système cartésien (Paris: Vrin, 1951);Google Scholar
  13. 10a.
    N. Abercrombie, St Augustine and French Classical Thought (Oxford: Clarendon, 1938).Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    AT VII 242: CSM II 168. This principle is defended in Eustachius, Summa philosophiae quadripartita [1609], III 56Google Scholar
  15. 11a.
    Suarez, Disputationes Metaphysicae [1597], 26. 1. 2.;Google Scholar
  16. 11b.
    see E. Gilson, Index scolastico-Cartésien, (Paris: Vrin, (1913) 1966) p. 44.Google Scholar
  17. 12.
    AT VII 42 and IX 33: CSM II 29.Google Scholar
  18. 13.
    There are of course, many other aspects to the reasoning advanced by Descartes in the causal proof of God’s existence which I cannot discuss here (some of them are examined in J. Cottingham, Descartes (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), Ch. 3.Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    AT V 156: CSMK 340.Google Scholar
  20. 15.
    AT VII 369: CSM II 254.Google Scholar
  21. 16.
    Principles of Philosophy [1644], Part III, arts. 47, 53; Part IV art. 133ff.Google Scholar
  22. 17.
    So much so that it is a matter of dispute among commentators what he does intend. Cf D. Garber, Descartes Metaphysical Physics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), Chs. 6–9.Google Scholar
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    Letter of 11 December 1648, AT V 237.Google Scholar
  24. 19.
    Letter of 5 March 1649, AT V 312.Google Scholar
  25. 20.
    Letter of 23 July 1649, AT V 382–3.Google Scholar
  26. 21.
    Imaginatio mea non capit, qui possit fieri, ut quicquam, quod extra subjectum esse non potest (cuijusmodi sunt modi omnes) in aliud migret subjectum (ibid., AT V 382).Google Scholar
  27. 22.
    Daniel Garber, “Descartes and Occasionalism” in Nadler op. cit. p. 12; Descartes Metaphysical Physics, p. 116. It should be noted however, that Garber, for reasons I cannot discuss here, prefers not to label Descartes an occasionalist.Google Scholar
  28. 23.
    Indeed (for Garber) in the physical world, God is the only such genuine causal agent: “Descartes and Occasionalism”, in Nadler, op. cit., p. 12. Garber’s main thesis is that in explaining motion Descartes rejected the “tiny souls” of the schoolmen, “only to replace them with one big soul, God” (Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics, p. 116). I cannot discuss this view here, except to note that if this was Descartes’ conception of the role of scholastic substantial forms, it was a grossly distorted one; substantial forms were never intended by their proponents to function as ghostly quasi-efficient thrusters, and it is hard to believe that Descartes could have supposed as much.Google Scholar
  29. 24.
    See Third Meditation, AT VII 49: CSM II 33.Google Scholar
  30. 25.
    Garber in fact maintains that the cinematic view is a “natural interpretation” of Descartes’ position rather than an explicitly presented thesis (Metaphysical Physics, 277). One passage Garber cites as supporting the cinematic view is the letter to More of August 1649, when Descartes, discussing the tranfer of motion, says “vis autem movens potest esse ipsius Dei conservantis tantumdem translationis in materia quantum a prima creationis momento in ea posuit” (AT V 403–4). But even here what is referred to is a universally conserved property of matter in general; this falls a long way short of the genuinely cinematic view of, for example La Forge, who sees God as causing motion by recreating the matter that was in place A, and putting it in place B. (Traité de l’esprit de l’homme [1665], in Oeuvres philosophiques ed. P. Clair (Paris: PUF, 1974), 240; cited in Steven Nadler, “The Occasionalism of Louis de la Forge”, in Nadler (ed.), Causation in Early Modern Philosophy, p. 63.Google Scholar
  31. 26.
    AT V 404: CSMK 381.Google Scholar
  32. 27.
    The third rule of impact: Principles, Part II, art. 48Google Scholar
  33. 28.
    Cf. the view of Martial Gueroult, who regards the forces of motion, in contradistinction to the divine will that they manifest, as “immanent in nature or extension”; that is, he maintains that Descartes’ God creates matter which (in virtue of the law of persistence) has an inherent tendency to motion. (“The Metaphysics and Physics of Force in Descartes”, in S. Gaukroger (ed.), Descartes: Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics (Sussex: Harvester, 1980), p. 198; quoted Garber, Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics, p. 295.)Google Scholar
  34. 29.
    On Garber’s view, Descartes was so clear about the “underlying causal story” (that God causes all motion in the world, either by “divine shove” or else cinema-style), that he never worried too much about the language used to describe force in bodies. He was happy to describe bodies as if they had a force to continue their motion, content in the knowledge that, from an ontological point of view, this added nothing to the story of divine conservation (Metaphysical Physics, p. 298). It seems to me, however, that the best diagnosis of Descartes’ often fuzzy remarks about “force”, “power”, “impulse”, “transfer” and the like is that he was, precisely not clear about the underlying causal story. If I am right, Descartes’ writings betray the failure of almost all pre-Humean thinkers to ask what we can really mean by notions like “force” and “shove”, over and above the regularities (whether merely “natural” or divinely decreed) which the scientist delineates.Google Scholar
  35. 30.
    “... non tam suscipiat motum quam se in motum exerat.” The distinguished More scholar Alan Gabbey unaccountably mistranslates this crucial phrase, rendering it “does not take as much motion as it needs for movement”; “Philosophia Cartesiana Triumphata”, in T. M. Lennon et al., Problems of Cartesianism (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1982), p. 211.Google Scholar
  36. 31.
  37. 32.
  38. 33.
    Conversation with Burman, AT V 156: CSMK 340.Google Scholar
  39. 34.
    See Gabbey, op. cit. Google Scholar
  40. 35.
    “Tanto magis innatae esse debent ideae doloris, colorum, sonorum, & similium, ut mens nostra possit, occasione quorundam motuum corporeorum, sibi eas exhibere” (AT VIIIB 359: CSM I 304).Google Scholar
  41. 36.
    Thus Garber in “Descartes and Occasionalism” (in Nadler op. cit., p. 24).Google Scholar
  42. 37.
    That the use of the term “occasion” should not be taken necessarily to signify Occasionalism with a capital “O” is a point well made by Stephen Nadler in his paper “The Occasionalism of Louis de la Forge”; as Nadler notes, “occasional” as applied to a cause in seventeenth century writers can often simply mean “remote” “accidental” or “inferior” (in Nadler (ed.), Causation in Early Modern Philosophy, p. 65).Google Scholar
  43. 38.
    More’s own account is developed in his Antidote against Atheism [1653], p. 17: “[T]he Mind of Man being jogg’d and awakened by the impulses of outward objects is stirred up into a more full and clear conception of what was but imperfectly hinted to her from external occasions”. Despite important differences, there is at least something in common between these Platonic metaphors of awakening and the scholastic notion of “eduction out of potentiality”, developed by Aquinas from Aristotle; cf O’Neill, op. cit. p. 38.Google Scholar
  44. 39.
    Compare Sixth Replies: conceiving of gravity as a “real quality” involved thinking that “it carries bodies towards the centre of the earth as if it had some knowledge of the centre within itself”’ (AT VII 442: CSM II 298).Google Scholar
  45. 40.
    Dated by Alan Gabbey July—August 1655; see AT V 642.Google Scholar
  46. 41.
    The shadow analogy of course derives ultimately from Plato; cf. Republic, 510a.Google Scholar
  47. 42.
    Descartes had told More that vis movens could belong either to God (in virtue of his conservation of as much transfer in matter as he put there in the first moment of creation), or to created substance like our mind or some other thing to which he gave the power to move a body (letter of 30 August 1649, AT V 403–4, CSMK 381). Note that More’s quotation of Descartes is not quite exact: Descartes does not explicitly insist that the created substances which might have vis movens, are limited to incorporeal ones.Google Scholar
  48. 43.
    AT V 646–7.Google Scholar
  49. 44.
    In fact More’s marginal reference is to the work of Descartes “disciple” Regius (see footnote at AT V 643); but the language of transfer is clearly present in Descartes’ own Principles: cf. Part II, art. 46.Google Scholar
  50. 45.
    See R. Harré and E. H. Madden, Causal Powers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975).Google Scholar
  51. 46.
    “In adhibendo allusiones quasdam & similitudines ... res propriis nominibus non appellari, sed tralatitiis” (loc. cit., AT V 646).Google Scholar
  52. 47.
    It could be suggested, however, that the Cartesian doctrine of the divine creation of the eternal verities, by introducing an element of “arbitrariness” into the status of the relevant laws, effectively places limits on the possibility that the rationale for such laws could be grasped by human beings, in this respect at least partially anticipating the Humean position on the limits of reason. For a development of this theme, see Cottingham, “The Cartesian legacy”, op. cit. For futher study of the relationship between More’s philosophy and the new science, see A. Gabbey, “More and Mechanism”, R. H. Popkin, “The spiritualistic cosomologies of Henry More and Anne Conway” and R. Hall, “Henry More and the Scientific Revolution”, all in S. Hutton (ed.), Henry More (1614–1687), Tercentenary Studies (Dordrecht, 1990).Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

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  • John Cottingham

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