The Leo Apostel Centre invites everyone to the 61th of its interdisciplinary seminars in the Foundations series. In this series CLEA invites scholars that are actively engaged in the research on the foundations of a particular discipline. Their lectures will always be directed to an interdisciplinary audience, and the discussions aim at confronting the foundations of the different disciplines.

Thursday May 17 2007, 16u00-18u00, VUB, room 10F747 (Building F, 10th floor)

What happened to Causation in Scientific Revolution?

Speaker: Prof. Dr. Eric Schliesser, Leiden University/Syracuse University

Abstract: A natural, and not uncommon story about the demise of Aristotelian physics during the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century is one in which science went from four legitimate causes (material, efficient, formal, and final) to only one (efficient causation). In particular, often in this narrative the removal of final causes from the explanatory toolbox as somehow illegitimate in the modern world-view is stressed. Yet, recent scholarship has not only pointed to many forms of continuity between late Scholasticism and the Mechanical philosophy, but also called attention to the fact that despite heated rhetoric by Descartes, Bacon, and Spinoza, many of the emblematic figures of the New Science (Boyle, Newton, and Leibniz) continued to defend and use final causes. Many commentators find teleological explanations even in Descartes writings on perception, the passions, and his physics. Reading the new scholarship, one is sometimes left with the unintended impression that only those natural philosophers that did not contribute much to the content of the new sciences (i.e., Bacon, Spinoza) rigorously opposed final causes. Somewhat surprisingly, the fate of the other two Aristotelian (i.e., formal/material) causes is generally ignored in most recent treatments of the period. Yet, this new scholarship implies that the Aristotelian causes were re-interpreted and re-introduced in the new science. However, even faint familiarity with the practice of the philosophy of the period suggests that contrary to perception, the 17th century was a period in which canonical figures were willing to offer many different kinds of causation beyond the four traditional Aristotelian ones. For example, one can find important debates about the status of immanent, emanative, and transitive causation in many prominent authors, not to mention the status of attraction at a distance and the debates over inertia as a passive or active principle, etc. If anything, if one knew nothing about the 17th century, it would seem to be a period in which a great many conceptions of causation were treated with utmost seriousness. My paper offers simultaneously a philosophic history of the physics and metaphysics of the period, and a history of the historiography of the new science which originates in the period and whose themes manifest themselves even in contemporary narratives about science and its history.