On Causation

Causation seems commonly to be understood as a physical concept, like being a fossil. The paleontologist seeks the one right answer to the question of when a particular dinosaur bone became part of the fossil record; likewise readers of international news seem to think there is one right answer to the question of whether Donald Trump or Ali Khamenei caused the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on January 8, 2020.

There is not one right answer. If you are Trump, you caused 176 civilian deaths by attacking the Iranians and provoking their response. If you are Mitch McConnell, you caused the deaths by inhibiting the removal of Trump from office. If you are Khamenei, you did it by meeting Trump’s fire with fire.

Being a cause does not mean you deserve condemnation or praise: that is another matter.

Causation is relative. This is an observation by R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940). Physics has a theory of relativity, whereby measurements of time and distance depend on who is making them, and there is nothing to argue about when different observers get different numbers. Natural science may in this way provide a model for thinking about causation.

Wikipedia currently has articles

  • “Causality,”
  • “Causality (physics),”
  • “Causation (law),”
  • “Causation (sociology),”

and several other related articles. I am not going to examine all of them here; but I think Collingwood’s observation of the relativity of causes ought to be more widely recognized. That is what this essay is about.

I have added the foregoing introductory remarks (and some later ones), evidently after January 8, 2020, and thus after the original posting of this essay on August 20, 2019.

The Wikipedia article “Causality” has a section called “Manipulation theories,” which begins:

Some theorists have equated causality with manipulability. Under these theories, x causes y only in the case that one can change x in order to change y. This coincides with commonsense notions of causations …

Four sources are cited for the first sentence, and the earliest of the sources is Collingwood’s aforementioned Essay. At the end of the section, a fifth source is cited: Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation (Oxford, 2003), by James Woodward, who himself cites the same five sources (and more) in his article “Causation and Manipulability” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Woodward is also the author of a 2014 paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology called “From handles to interventions”; this is a commentary on Collingwood’s article, “On the So-Called Idea of causation,” which was reprinted in the same issue of the same journal, but which had been revised 74 years earlier to form part of the Essay on Metaphysics.

It is good that Collingwood has such recognition. However, perhaps he is not recognized for what I think is most important in his thought:

  1. Some kind of manipulation is what we have in mind, usually, when we refer to causation. This is an historical claim, albeit about history that is ongoing.
  2. Originally what was being “manipulated” was another free agent: a person like ourselves. Only later, when we were more practiced in manipulating inanimate entities to suit our purposes, did we think of those entities themselves as causes.
  3. According to what they themselves can do, different persons recognize different causes.

In his SEP article, Woodward notes “two standard complaints,” which suggest a different purpose from Collingwood’s, and in my view a misguided one:

[1] that manipulability theories are unilluminatingly circular and [2] that they lead to a conception of causation that is unacceptably anthropocentric or at least insufficiently general in the sense that it is linked much too closely to the practical possibility of human manipulation.

To spell out the first objection, Woodward lays a scene:

Suppose that X is a variable that takes one of two different values, 0 and 1, depending on whether some event of interest occurs. Then for an event or process M to qualify as a manipulation of X, it would appear that there must be a causal connection between M and X: to manipulate X, one must cause it to change in value. How then can we use the notion of manipulation to provide an account of causation?

This is not actually Woodward’s own objection. Later—in the section of his SEP article called “Is Circularity a Problem?”—Woodward refers in the third person to his own response to the objection of circularity:

Suppose that we agree that any plausible version of a manipulability theory must make use of the notion of an intervention and that this must be characterized in causal terms. Does this sort of “circularity” make any such theory trivial and unilluminating? It is arguable that it does not, for at least two reasons. First, it may be, as writers like Woodward (2003) contend, that in characterizing what it is for a process I to qualify as an intervention on X for the purposes of characterizing what it is for X to cause Y, we need not make use of information about the causal relationship, if any, between X and Y.

Many people are repelled by algebraic symbolism generally, and I confess that even I, a mathematician, am repelled by its use here. I would just say that Shakespeare provides an example of causation by having Iago manipulate Othello into strangling Desdemona. If this is not helpful, you may need more experience of life.

As for the second of the “two standard complaints,” Woodward gives it some backing:

it is uncontroversial that causal relationships can obtain in circumstances in which manipulation of the cause by human beings is not practically possible—think of the causal relationship between the gravitational attraction of the moon and the motion of the tides or causal relationships in the very early universe.

My own response to the objection that Woodward thus passes along would be something like the following. It is uncontroversial that we speak of “causal relationships” where we have no real power of interference. Nonetheless, we have this power in our imagination. Such a power was often on display in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.

With a bucket of water, Calvin makes like a force of nature,
always ready to wipe out a city in a sandbox.
Image from Go Comics

By the hypothesis later codified as the law of universal gravitation, whereby every particle pulls on every other particle with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, Newton could explain the motions of the planets and the seas. If we say the moon causes the tides, I think it is because we can imagine taking the moon out of orbit, as in the premise of a science-fiction program from my childhood, Space: 1999. We manipulate the moon in imagination, just to think what the time and strength of the next tide will be, if we want to know.

Boats lining a channel at low tide
Low tide in the channel at Boyardville, on the Atlantic island of Oléron in 2011, the last time I was by an ocean (as distinct from a sea, such as the Aegean, which I visit every summer, but it has no tide that I notice)

Identifying “causes” that are beyond our control can be a way to avoid responsibility for our actions. Collingwood acknowledges this, but does not dwell on it. This might be my objection to his account of causation.

I shall elaborate on that account. There are other discussions of the matter in my Causation category, especially “War and Talk,” which takes up Tolstoy, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as Collingwood. One may also read Collingwood’s own words, which I typeset and annotated, and for which I wrote the introduction from which the rest of this post is adapted.


The mode of inquiry called metaphysics, which takes its name from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, is the historical science of absolute presuppositions. So argues Collingwood in An Essay on Metaphysics. The part of the Essay on causation is an example of doing metaphysics in this sense.

Every question has its presuppositions. These are usually answers to logically prior questions; but if they are not, they are absolute presuppositions.

Certain absolute presuppositions may be specific to a particular mode of inquiry. To the scientist in that mode, the presuppositions are unquestioned; however, none of us is simply a particular kind of scientist. We may step back as philosophers, to identify the absolute presuppositions of ourselves or others, through metaphysical analysis. We may be driven to this analysis by some kind of unease. The unease may be due to a conflict in our presuppositions. When we recognize this conflict, our presuppositions may change.

The term “metaphysical analysis” is Collingwood’s. The analogy with psychoanalysis is patent; however, Collingwood does not spell it out, though he underwent fifty sessions of analysis in 1938 (according to R. G. Collingwood: An Autobiography and Other Writings, page 240).

Being metaphysics in Collingwood’s sense, our analysis of causation (as we follow along with Collingwood) will be historical. We use the word “cause” in at least three senses, which are historically related. Our concern is with the senses, not the word itself, in whose place we may use other words, such as “force,” with similar senses. Getting the senses straight should improve our practice of science.

In the original sense, it is actions that have causes. We perform an action—we act—when we

  1. find ourselves in a situation, and
  2. intend to create a new one.

These two factors compose the cause in sense I of our action. If the finding and intending are our own work, then we are the cause of our own action. Some other person may also be the cause, either by giving us to understand our situation, or persuading us to form an intention about it.

If the situation that we want to create is, for example, an illuminated room at night, then we may learn to achieve this by throwing a switch on the wall. In sense I, we are the cause of the illumination; but the cause in sense II is the switch. Metaphorically, at least, we transfer our agency to the switch.

A cause in sense II is something in nature that we can use to bring about something else. A virus causes a disease in this sense, provided we can do something to prevent infection, or perhaps create it. If we can neither cure nor induce the disease, it has no cause in sense II.

Practical science seeks causes in sense II through experiment, as distinct from mere observation. Once discovered, a cause in sense II will be expressed universally: “E always results from C.”

Different persons will recognize different causes of the same effect, depending on what those persons can severally accomplish regarding that effect. This is the principle of relativity of causes.

One may however wish to rise above this relativity, assigning to each individual effect a unique cause. This then is a cause in sense III. The concept is ultimately incoherent, since there is no way to account for the necessity with which the cause is supposed to produce the effect:

  1. This necessity is not mathematical, since we do not believe that conclusions about the world can be inferred without experiment.
  2. Neither is experiment enough: if something happens n − 1 times, we still need a reason to conclude that it will happen an n-th time. (I worked with this idea a bit in an essay “On Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.”)

The idea of necessitation—of causation or compulsion—in the natural world is a remnant, a “survival,” of Neoplatonism, whereby God creates agents in the world to serve the divine purpose.

People can have incoherent convictions. Kant and his followers are examples, for teaching both

  1. that every effect has its cause—a unique cause, which therefore has sense III, and
  2. that this cause comes earlier in time—and therefore has sense II.

Natural science has learned to reject these teachings. Nonetheless, philosophers brought them into the twentieth century, thus threatening to inhibit the progress of science by creating hostility, both in the general public and in the academy.

Thus would I summarize Collingwood’s essay on causation in the Essay on Metaphysics.

Specimen of Philosophy

According to the Author’s Preface in the Essay, the parts of Part III

might be called, as Descartes called a corresponding feature in a book of his own, specimina philosophandi. One of them, that on causation, has already been printed in a different shape in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society for the present year.

The Preface is dated 2 April 1939. The Proceedings volume that Collingwood refers to is xxxviii, of 1937–8. Collingwood’s article there, “On the So-Called Idea of Causation,” was reprinted in the International Journal of Epidemiology, 2014, along with two new articles of commentary, by Kronfeldner and the aforementioned Woodward respectively.

It would be desirable to collate Collingwood’s earlier paper with the essay in the Essay. The latter is without a recommendation made in the former:

it will be found that the best way of avoiding confusion will be to restrict our use of the word cause to occasions on which it is used in its “proper” sense, No. I; that on the occasions on which we use it in sense II we should be wise to use instead the terminology of means and ends; and that when we use it in sense III we should do better to speak of “laws” and their “instances”.

Collingwood went on to change his mind, ridiculing this kind of recommendation in The Principles of Art (1938; page 255):

philosophical controversies are not to be settled by a kind of police-regulation governing people’s choice of words, and … a school of thought (to dignify it by that name) which depends for its existence on enforcing a particular jargon is a school which I neither respect nor fear.

Again, Collingwood in the Essay calls his work on causation a specimina philosophandi. Today, in English, a specimen is an example or sample for examination; but a Latin dictionary translates specimen as “sign, evidence; token, symbol.” This Latin sense is appropriate for a book of philosophy. As a sequence of words, a book is not itself philosophy; however, the book may be a sign that philosophy has taken place. Similarly, by the account in The Principles of Art, a painting is not a work of art, but a sign that art has taken place.

The relevant passage from Principles was excerpted in Issue 15 (fall 1998) of Stay Free! magazine, which (like so much else) has been preserved on the Web Archive. I made use of Stay Free! and thus the Web Archive also in a post of December 2016 called “Smarts and Intelligence,” comparing Donald Trump to a schoolchild.

Meanwhile, the precise expression of Descartes seems to have been Specimina Philosophiae, “Specimens of Philosophy”; Collingwood has replaced philosophiae, “of philosophy,” with philosophandi, making the phrase mean something like “specimens of how to do philosophy.” My Latin is minimal; here I am just following examples like pudenda “those [parts] of which one ought to be ashamed,” from pudeo “be ashamed.”

Theory and Practice

I do find Collingwood’s work to be a specimen of how to do philosophy. Philosophy is a difficult pursuit, appropriately undertaken as a professional responsibility by certain academics. And yet philosophy is too important to be relegated to a university department.

Collingwood makes both of those points in the Essay. He begins the Prologue of his earlier Speculum Mentis (page 17) with the assertion,

All thought exists for the sake of action. We try to understand ourselves and our world only in order that we may learn how to live.

Collingwood thus echoes Thoreau’s description in Walden (pages 14–5):

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

Collingwood can be irascible in a late work like the Essay. He has started to suffer the strokes that will kill him in a few years, before he reaches the age that I have (54 in 2019). He is set on edge by the coming war, which he will address directly in The New Leviathan (1942). Meanwhile, he writes on page 343 of the Essay, “The fate of European science and European civilization is at stake,” as we try to get our metaphysics right.

Others do not get metaphysics or Collingwood right. I am going to talk about two examples in the remainder of this essay. They may arise from resistance to the practicality of Collingwood’s thought.


Simon Blackburn may be right about some persons’ emotional responses:

All this is off-putting, and Collingwood’s readers have to learn to shake their heads with a smile rather than toss the whole thing in the bin.

This is from a 2010 article, occasioned by the publication of a “warm-hearted, affectionate biography of an irascible but brilliant philosopher and historian.” The work is Fred Inglis’s History Man, and Blackburn remarks on it,

Even if Collingwood was not the jovial, beer-drinking common man that Inglis would have liked him to be, it is good to see him brought some way back to the human fold.

Having read the biography, I can agree with Blackburn’s assessment. Blackburn also provides a good overview of Collingwood’s work:

Most contemporary philosophers … think of their subject in an entirely unhistorical way. They conceive of themselves as investigating things such as the nature of thought, or truth, or reason, or meaning. They wonder what a language, or a mind, or a world is that thought and reason and the rest are possible. This conception of the investigation is entirely “a priori”: the problem would be the same as it perplexes us and as it perplexed Plato or Descartes. For Collingwood, this is all self-deception. What we may think of as a priori and timeless will be no such thing. It will be simply an application of the “absolute presuppositions” of our own period of thought.

Concerning these absolute presuppositions, Blackburn himself engages in self-deception, saying that they

lie so far underneath the edifices we build that we cannot dig down to them. They remain invisible, if only because they would be at work determining the shape our digging would take, or what we could notice as we conducted it. We can never step on our own shadow. The only power that can reveal these presuppositions is that of time: later generations will see them, but we cannot.

On the contrary, if we can discover the absolute presuppositions of past generations, then we can discover our own. Collingwood will make a similar suggestion about causation on page 294: if somebody else can cause us to do something, we can also cause ourselves to do it.

Learning our own absolute presuppositions is difficult, but possible. Collingwood is explicit on page 43 of the Essay:

… in our less scientific moments, when knowledge appears to us in the guise of mere apprehension, intuiting that which simply confronts us, we are not even aware that whatever we state to ourselves or others is stated in answer to a question, still less that every such question rests on presuppositions, and least of all that among these presuppositions some are absolute presuppositions. In this kind of thinking, absolute presuppositions are certainly at work; but they are doing their work in darkness, the light of consciousness never falling on them. It is only by analysis that any one can ever come to know either that he [sic] is making any absolute presuppositions at all or what absolute presuppositions he is making.

I have italicized the last sentence. With too much appeal to formal logic, one might say that, by Collingwood’s account, “analysis” is only a necessary condition for coming to know one’s absolute presuppositions; this does not mean coming to know them is actually possible. However, in an end-of-chapter note referring back to the passage above, Collingwood says,

People are not ordinarily aware of their absolute presuppositions (page 43), and are not, therefore, thus aware of changes in them; such a change, therefore, cannot be a matter of choice.

Again the italics are mine, to highlight the exception that proves the rule: awareness of our own absolute presuppositions is possible, through analysis, as we said.

At least we can discover our absolute presuppositions as they were, just before we discovered them. Blackburn suggests that being discovered will change the presuppositions, by something like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Discovery may effect a change in our presuppositions, owing to their heretofore unrecognized incompatibility. The conflict in them may disappear, like a neurosis under psychoanalysis. Collingwood describes such a conflict on page 96 of the Essay:

The ‘science’ [in the nineteenth century] which was to be protected by this cry of ‘No more Metaphysics’ was being in effect described as a reactionary science, one which could only be imperilled by a critical inquiry into its foundations. Behind that cry there lay a feeling that the constellation of absolute presuppositions made by this reactionary science was exposed to certain strains which could only be ‘taken up’ by keeping them in darkness. If people became aware that in certain contexts they were in the habit of treating this or that presupposition as an absolute one, they would be unable to go on doing it.

To my mind an example, even the example, of metaphysical strain lies in the conviction, seen in Oedipus and the character called Michael Eden in Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (in a chapter that I have selected) that our lives are fated, and yet we can do something about them anyway.

Collingwood’s main example, to be considered in Chapter XXXIII, is Kant’s metaphysical analysis whereby (a) every event has a cause, and (b) this is a previous event. That this was generally accepted in the nineteenth century “is strong, though of course not necessarily conclusive, evidence that it was correct” (page 333)—correct in the sense that persons really made these two presuppositions; and in this case, pace Blackburn, they could see that they did. They made the presuppositions under strain though, because they were incompatible.

Further analysis would reveal the incompatibility, thus freeing the former believers. Science is hampered by attempts to impose the presuppositions of a bygone era. Scientists can defend themselves by recognizing clearly what it is they are really doing. In this they can be aided by metaphysicians who understand their own work. This is Collingwood’s theme, which he will take up again in Chapter I of The New Leviathan.

Blackburn may acknowledge Collingwood’s theme, while not thinking it of much importance. He says,

Collingwood hated the dominant philosophy of his time because of its unhistorical nature. It is not possible even to do science, in his view, without presupposing history, since it is only through their records and their results that scientists can pick up and profit from the labors of their colleagues. But in principle, at least, it is possible to be a good scientist, at the cutting edge of a field, with little historical sense.

In the last sentence (italicized by me), Blackburn uses “history” in the conventional sense, narrower than Collingwood’s philosophical sense, described in general terms in An Essay on Philosophical Method (page 35):

when a concept has a dual significance, philosophical and non-philosophical, in its non-philosophical phase it qualifies a limited part of reality, whereas in its philosophical it leaks or escapes out of these limits and invades the neighbouring regions, tending at last to colour our thought of reality as a whole.

For each field of science, there may be some number N such that what happened in the field N years ago is of little use. However, what happened less than N years ago is still history, and this is essential for the science. Blackburn seems only to acknowledge this when the science is philosophy, which,

by contrast, is concerned with thought—and as we have seen, Collingwood held that you cannot identify a thought unless you know to what question it was supposed to be an answer. The history of philosophy is therefore not a somewhat down-market curriculum option of no great interest to contemporary practitioners, just as the history of physics might exist alongside physics as something for retirement or bedtime. Instead Collingwood sees thought as something that is historically embodied … We can understand where we are only by understanding where we have been …

We can understand where we have been only through the traces it has left where we are now. This is what makes history practical, by Collingwood’s account in An Autobiography (page 106):

If the function of history was to inform people about the past, where the past was understood as a dead past, it could do very little towards helping them to act; but if its function was to inform them about the present, in so far as the past, its ostensible subject-matter, was incapsulated in the present and constituted a part of it not at once obvious to the untrained eye, then history stood in the closest possible relation to practical life.

Some traces of the past may be survivals, as Collingwood describes them on page 311 and, at greater length, in a manuscript published posthumously in The Philosophy of Enchantment (page 142):

Civilized peoples have developed out of savage ones; and civilization contains many elements which, taken at their face value, are condemned as irrational and described as superstitions; but it would be better to drop that word and describe them as survivals, for they are things whose proper home and meaning must be sought in the context of an earlier civilization.

Dogmatic Metaphysics

Though I am a fan both of Collingwood and of my alma mater St John’s College, and I have compared their projects in another essay, the College may not treat thought, in Blackburn’s words, “as something that is historically embodied.” At the College, there is no study of history as such, although there is mathematics, language, science, and music. And yet the whole Program is historical, if only in the sense that its texts are read mostly in chronological order. There is no “literature segment,” in which one reads together Homer, Dante, and Jane Austen; no “metaphysics segment,” in which one reads Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant. One reads them all, but over a span of years, in the order: Homer, Aristotle, Dante, Descartes, Kant, Jane Austen.

By contrast, in a conventional philosophy department, one may take a course in metaphysics. Then one might read a textbook such as Michael J. Loux, Metaphysics: A contemporary introduction (London, 1998), which I happened upon in an Ankara bookshop some years ago.

Collingwood begins his own Essay on Metaphysics by analyzing Aristotle’s book on the subject. He writes down (on page 11) two propositions, “each of which offers what might be called a definition of metaphysics”:

  1. Metaphysics is the science of pure being.
  2. Metaphysics is the science which deals with the presuppositions underlying ordinary science; where by ‘ordinary science’ I mean such thinking as is ‘scientific’ in the sense defined in the preceding chapter, and ‘ordinary’ in the sense that it is not a constituent part of metaphysics.

In this chapter I shall argue that the first of these two propositions cannot be true because a science of pure being is a contradiction in terms. The second proposition I take to be true, and this book as a whole represents my endeavour to explain its meaning.

Loux makes the same distinction, but his choice of focus is opposite to Collingwood’s. In Kant’s terminology, the two understandings of metaphysics are respectively “transcendent” and “critical,” and by Loux’s account,

Whereas transcendent metaphysics seeks to characterize a reality that transcends sense experience, critical metaphysics has as its task the delineation of the most general features of our thought and knowledge …

Kant’s conception of a metaphysical enterprise whose task it is to identify and characterize the most general features of our thought and experience is one that continues to find defenders in our own day.

Now Loux provides evidence for Blackburn’s speculation about Collingwood, “I doubt if he is more than a ghost in the footnotes to syllabi across the Western world.” Loux makes his only reference to Collingwood in an end-of-chapter note. Neither the book’s index nor the note itself gives the page that refers to the note. That page is 8; the note itself is number 8 among the nine notes on page 17.

In his note, Loux lists Collingwood’s Essay as the earliest of several “examples of this [critical] approach to metaphysics.” Then he continues in the main text:

These philosophers tell us that metaphysics is a descriptive enterprise whose aim is the characterization of our conceptual scheme or conceptual framework.

Metaphysics is not exactly descriptive; Collingwood’s term would be criteriological. But to the philosophers who think this way, Loux assigns a jocular if not pejorative and dismissive title: “conceptual schemers.” Loux will not follow them:

I am inclined to think that traditional metaphysicians are right here. As I see it, arguments designed to undermine the conception of metaphysics as traditionally understood invariably call themselves into question. In any case, it is metaphysics as traditionally understood that we will be doing or trying to do in this book. The aim will be to characterize the nature of reality, to say how things are.

The physicist, the mathematician, the historian, the psychoanalyst, the poet: they all, and many others, investigate the nature of reality, in order to say how things are. Is the philosopher going to do the work of all of them?

It is not critical metaphysics that calls itself into question; it is skepticism, as Collingwood points out in An Essay on Philosophical Method (pages 140–1):

Scepticism … is in reality a covert dogmatism; it contains positive theories of the nature, method, and limitations of philosophical thought, but disclaims their possession and conceals them from criticism. Hence it is both inconsistent, or false to its own professed principles, and—intentionally or unintentionally—dishonest, because applying to others a form of criticism which in its own case it will not admit.

I suggest an example of such self-defeating skepticism by considering a remark in Collingwood’s first book, Religion and Philosophy (page 87):

The first law of matter is that it cannot originate states in itself. But the universe as a whole, if it has any states, must originate them itself; and yet if it does so it breaks the first law of matter; for it is itself a material thing. But the universe only means all that exists; so if the universe is an exception to the law of causation, everything is an exception to it, and it never holds good at all.

Matter cannot originate states in itself; but a person can. One might argue on the contrary that, since everything is matter, a person in particular is matter, and thus one cannot originate states in oneself, but any appearance otherwise is an illusion. However, though we may presuppose that all is matter, we observe that we originate states in ourselves. We do things. We cause things to happen. An explanation of this observation that does away with it is no explanation.

Meanwhile, Loux says:

If the conceptual schemer is correct in claiming that the act of conceptual representation bars us from an apprehension of anything we seek to represent, then why should we take seriously the schemer’s claims about the conceptual representation?

Why indeed? But the kind of skeptical stance that Loux attributes to his “conceptual schemers” is not Collingwood’s. Again Loux:

Traditional metaphysicians will go on to insist that we manage to think and talk about things—things as they really are and not just things as they figure in the stories we tell. They will insist that the very idea of thinking about or referring to things presupposes that there are relations that tie our thoughts and words to the mind-independent, language-independent things we think and talk about …

If “traditional metaphysicians” are insisting that we have certain presuppositions, then these persons may indeed be metaphysicians, by Collingwood’s account, as summed up in the last quotation above from the Essay on Metaphysics (“Metaphysics is the science which deals with the presuppositions underlying ordinary science …”), as well as on page 47:

Metaphysics is the attempt to find out what absolute presuppositions have been made by this or that person or group of persons, on this or that occasion or group of occasions, in the course of this or that piece of thinking.

But if Loux’s “traditional metaphysicians” assert that their own presuppositions are everybody’s, throughout time, well, evidently this is a presupposition too, and it ought to be brought to light. Loux seems to have missed the point of Collingwood, noted by Blackburn: the project of saying how things are is certainly possible, but it is historical.

The point should be developed, but I am not going to try to do it here. I shall just note how I think Loux is at best misguided. He says in the first paragraph of his Chapter 1 (called “The problem of universals I—Metaphysical realism”):

Although almost everyone will concede that some of our ways of classifying objects reflect our interests, goals, and values, few will deny that many of our ways of sorting things are fixed by the objects themselves.* It is not as if we just arbitrarily choose to call some things triangular, others circular, and still others square; they are triangular, circular, and square. Likewise, it is not a mere consequence of human thought or language that there are elephants, oak trees, and paramecia. They come that way, and our language and thought reflect these antecedently given facts about them.

* An exception, of course, is the conceptual schemer we discussed in the Introduction. [Loux’s note.]

Collingwood himself considers the notion of arbitrary choice, beginning on page 301, when he looks at Mill’s notion that a cause consists of many conditions. According to Mill (or Collingwood’s Mill), we arbitrarily call one of the conditions the cause. No we don’t, replies Collingwood; we identify as the cause the condition that we can do something about.

Obviously our manner of talking about things is not arbitrary. However, neither do things just “come” the way we talk about them. “People come in two races, black and white: this is no mere consequence of human thought or language”—many people would agree with this, or name a greater number of races. Quillette seems to publish such people, and I took up an example in “Sex and Gender.” Such people are mistaken. The way we classify things may be based on the things, but the things do not tell us how to perform the classification or what to do with it.

Thus, as considered in “Sex and Gender,” through the work of some persons who have also published in Quillette, there is a biological distinction between male and female gametes. The distinction is useful, because, as we observe, only two gametes of different kinds can produce a zygote. We humans can be classified as male or female, according to the kind of gamete we produce. This classification is useful when we are interested in reproduction and health. It may not be useful otherwise, although, since the classification has been used in invidious ways, we may have to continue to use it in response. In any case, what we mean by calling a person female or male inevitably involves more than biology, even if we intend to forget everything else.


  1. Simon Blackburn. Being and time. The New Republic, 3 April 2010. Review of History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood by Fred Inglis. Posted by Les Lane.
  2. R. G. Collingwood. Speculum Mentis or The Map of Knowledge. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1924. Reprinted photographically in Great Britain at the University Press, Oxford, 1946.
  3. —. The Principles of Art. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1938. Issued as an Oxford University Press paperback 1958.
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  8. —. On the so-called idea of causation. International Journal of Epidemiology, 43(6):1697–707, 2014. Reprinted with permission from the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 38 (1937–8), pages 85–112.
  9. Fred Inglis. History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood. Princeton University Press, 2009. First paperback printing, 2011.
  10. Maria Kronfeldner. Commentary: How norms make causes. International Journal of Epidemiology, 43(6):1707–13, 2014.
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  13. David Pierce. St John’s College. The De Morgan Journal, 2(2):62–72, 2012.
  14. Henry David Thoreau. Walden. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2004. 150th anniversary edition. Edited by J. Lyndon Shanley. With an introduction by John Updike. First edition 1971.
  15. James Woodward. Commentary: From handles to interventions. commentary on R G Collingwood, ‘the so-called idea of causation’. International Journal of Epidemiology, 43(6):1714–8, 2014.
  16. Herman Wouk. Marjorie Morningstar. Doubleday, 1955. Signet Books edition, 3rd printing, November 1957.

Edited June 13, 2022

9 Trackbacks

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    […] “Causation” from An Essay on Metaphysics (as described in the post “On Causation”) […]

  7. By Nature « Polytropy on October 8, 2021 at 10:29 am

    […] Blackburn may well have forgotten about this when, as one inevitably does, he fit Collingwood’s ideas into his own understanding. In my copy of the Essay, the earlier chapters have a lot of my pencil marks, but in the chapter in question, I highlighted only one passage. The chapter is at the end of the book proper, before the three examples of actually doing metaphysics (one which I took up in “On Causation”). […]

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    […] alluded to this passage when I posted “On Causation,” where I mentioned that the passage had appeared in the old Stay Free! magazine. Collingwood […]

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