What Does the 17th C. Have to Do With It?

This: In the 17th c., there was a lively argument about whether or not God created the world such that material objects have their own causal oomph.  To use the technical term.  Some said yes.  Some said no.  On the no side, some plumped for no oomph period, others for oomph but only with God’s constant intervention.  And everyone knew that deep down they were arguing with Aristotle.

In recent years, the flat-out “nays” have had it — at least in analytic metaphysics.  No such thing as a power.  Not unless one is a friend of the occult.  But then came, even more recently, a recovery of oomph (i.e., causal powers-to-do that don’t reduce to properties of some other kind).

Almost immediately upon the reintroduction of powers, however, a remarkable thing happened in analytic metaphysics.  It might be two things, depending upon how you count.  First, it became possible to say, with a straight face, that one believes in the reality of oomph, but that what oomph is, is exactly that feature of the world to which passivists had formerly pointed when claiming: “There is no such thing as oomph; there is only [fill in the passivist blank].”   Humeans and “powers” theorists alike, that is, can now claim to believe in the existence of real causal powers in virtue of holding fanced-up (or in some cases down) versions of 17th and 18th c. passivist ontologies.  (As it happens, self-avowed Humeans generally hold ontologies that are, in the end, Hume’s, while “powers” theorists tend to prefer a rationalist-style passivism.)

Second (or, if you prefer, related), it is now possible to declare that a distinction between those who believe in oomph (dynamists, let’s call them) and those who do not (i.e., passivists) is not to be taken seriously.  Why?  Because – it is said – everyone believes in oomph, in activity.  It’s just a question of what activity is: some people think that activity is such that it must be understood in terms of activity; others think that activity is such that it amounts to a fact of order.

Now, what is so heuristically valuable about the early modern period (or, one thing that is so heuristically valuable about it)  is that the debates therein, i.e., robust debates about whether or not material phenomena are powerful — such debates provide a reality check for the go-to moves of the type that I have just described.






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