Fall 2018 - PHIL 357 D100

Topics in the History of Philosophy (3)

Causation in Modern Phil

Class Number: 8897

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Tu 10:30 AM – 11:20 AM
    WMC 3535, Burnaby

    Th 9:30 AM – 11:20 AM
    WMC 3510, Burnaby

  • Prerequisites:

    PHIL 150 or 151.



May be repeated for credit.


Selected Topics: Causation in Modern Philosophy (Causality and Freedom in Late Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy)

Students who have completed the Summer 2015 offering of PHIL 451W (Causation in Modern Philosophy) or the Fall 2016 offering of PHIL 357 may not take this specific offering of PHIL 357 for additional credit. 

The early modern period in philosophy saw some of the best minds alive struggle to reconcile a traditional philosophical theology with the results of an enormously successful mechanistic scientific paradigm that began to emerge in the late 16th century. This is perhaps nowhere as evident as in philosophers’ attempts to make room for a conception of freedom robust enough to allow for ascriptions of moral responsibility to human agents. Freedom was threatened from two directions. First, some philosophers, under the influence of medieval Christian Aristotelians, saw a significant, or even universal, causal role for God in the ordinary course of nature. But this conception of God’s role in producing and maintaining nature threatened to leave too little for human agents to do. Second, most philosophers of the period (including many in the first group) were tempted by a deterministic conception of the natural world, on either theological or natural scientific grounds. But if nature is wholly determined, then it would appear that human agents have no power to do other than they in fact do, and this appears to remove responsibility for actions from agents themselves. For the early modern philosophers, the question of freedom cannot be divorced from theories of causation: it is the express aim of a number of the philosophers of the period to offer a general causal theory that respects our ordinary intuitions about human freedom and moral responsibility. Our aim in this course shall be to study and understand the complex set of issues surrounding these questions about causation and freedom.

We shall begin by reading about the medieval theories of causation with which many early modern philosophers engaged. We shall then turn to early modern accounts of causality and freedom, and our focus shall be on most or all of the following philosophers: Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, Locke, Hume and Kant. For the first three, we shall pay particular attention to how they engaged with the philosophical theology of the medieval period, especially including theological conceptions of divine causality and human freedom; for the last three, we shall examine how questions about causality and freedom shifted as the philosophical context became more secular at the end of the 17th century into the 18th century.


  • • Two medium-length papers (1500 words minimum): 25% each 50%
  • • One long paper (3000 words minimum) 50%



Rene Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings. Cottingham, Stoothoff and Murdoch, eds. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 978-0521358125 

Nicholas Malebranche, Philosophical Selections. Nadler, ed. Hackett. ISBN: 978-0872201521

G.W. Leibniz, Philosophical Essays. Ariew and Garber, eds. Hackett. ISBN: 978-0872200623 

Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 2nd ed. Hackett. ISBN: 978-0872202290

Other selections will be made available on Canvas or from the instructor.

Department Undergraduate Notes:

Thinking of a Philosophy Major or Minor? The Concentration in Law and Philosophy? The Certificate in Ethics? The Philosophy and Methodology of Science Certificate?
Contact the PHIL Advisor at philmgr@sfu.ca   More details on our website: SFU Philosophy

Registrar Notes:

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