Every Event has a Cause as Metaphysics

In his book An Essay on Metaphysics in Part IIIc Causation, Collingwood has considered what could mean that every event must have a cause. This could be interesting for a discussion on free will, as Collingwood shows that causation presupposes free will. In other words, if free will is to be abandoned, then causation must be abandoned as well.

Below all quotes are according to Robin George Collingwood,  An Essay on Metaphysics (Revised Edition with an Introduction and additional material edited by Rex Martin).

I will start with a quote from Function of Metaphysics that nicely shows that ‘Every Event has a Cause’ happens not to be self-evident.

p. 409 “We are accustomed nowadays to say that every event must have a cause. When we say this, we are speaking as metaphysicians. We are saying something which fully expressed would run thus: our ordinary or scientific thinking rests on the presupposition that every event has a cause. Speaking as scientists, i.e. in so far as we are engaged in ordinary thinking as distinct from reflecting on it or studying it historically, we should not say that every event has a cause, we should only presuppose it. Now, suppose someone were to reply to our remark that every event has a cause, by saying ‘You may be right, but of course remember that Newton didn’t think so. He divided events or states in nature into two classes, uniform motions, or states of rest, and accelerations or decelerations; and he thought that the second class had causes and the first not. Newton thus held that some events have no causes’. On hearing this, most people, I think, would be at first incredulous. They would say ‘but surely it is self-evident that all events must have causes, and Newton can’t have failed to see it. He can’t have thought that the uniform motion of a body through a certain tract of space had no cause. He must have thought, as we do, that it had a cause, viz. the same body’s previous movement through an adjacent tract of space.’ When we had overcome this incredulity by studying the text of Newton for ourselves, incredulity would be replaced by indignation. We should say ‘I am now convinced that Newton did think that some events have no causes. But it was stupid of him. It isn’t true. Actually all events do have causes, and if Newton thought otherwise, he was wrong’.”

Collingwood has shown that what we would find nowadays as self-evident has started with Kant only (just a bit more than 200 years ago).

p. 328 “(a) That every event has a cause,
(b) That the cause of an event is a previous event,
(c) That (a) and (b) are known to us a priori.”

Collingwood has started with three different senses of the term ’cause’.

p. 285 “Sense I. Here that which is ’caused’ is the free and deliberate act of a conscious and responsible agent, and ‘causing’ him to do it means affording him a motive for doing it.

Sense II. Here that which is ’caused’ is an event in nature, and its ’cause’ is an event or state of things by producing or preventing which we can produce or prevent that whose cause it is said to be.

Sense III. Here that which is ’caused’ is an event or state of things, and its ’cause’ is another event or state of things standing to it in a one-one relation of casual priority“.

He has referred to these senses as the historical sense, the sense of the practical sciences of nature, and the sense of the theoretical sciences of nature respectively.

p. 289 “That the relation between these three senses of the word ’cause’ is an historical relation: No. I being the earliest of the three, No. II a development from it, and No. III a development from that.”

XXX. Causation in History

p. 291 “This is a current and familiar sense of the word (together with its cognates, correlatives, and equivalents) in English, and of corresponding words in other modern languages. A headline in the Morning Post in 1936 run, ‘Mr. Baldwin’s speech causes adjournment of the House’. This did not mean that Mr. Baldwin’s speech compelled the Speaker to adjourn the House whether or no that event conformed with his own ideas and intentions; it meant that on hearing Mr. Baldwin’s speech the Speaker freely made up his mind to adjourn.”

XXXI. Causation in Practical Natural Science

p. 296 “The question ‘What is the cause of event y?’ means in this case ‘How can we produce or prevent at will?’.

This sense of the word may be defined as follows. A cause is an event or state of things which it is in our power to produce or prevent, and by producing or preventing which we can produce or prevent that whose cause it is said to be.”

p. 297 “The search for causes in sense II is natural science in that sense of the phrase in which natural science is what Aristotle calls a ‘practical science’, valued not for its truth pure and simple but for its utility, for the ‘power over nature’ which it gives us: Baconian science, where ‘knowledge is power’ and where ‘nature is conquered by obeying her’“.

p. 299 “Here are some examples. The cause of malaria is the bite of a mosquito; the cause of a boat’s sinking is her being overloaded; the cause of books going mouldy is their being in a damp room; the cause of a man’s sweating is a dose of aspirin; the cause of a furnace going out in the night is that the draught-door was insufficiently open; the cause of seedlings dying is that nobody watered them.

p. 304 “The principle may be stated by saying that for any given person the cause in sense II of a given thing is that one of its conditions which he is able to produce or prevent.”

p. 309 “Sense II of the word ’cause’ is especially a Greek sense; in modern times it is especially associated with the survival or revival of Greek ideas in the earlier Renaissance thinkers; and both the Greeks and the earlier Renaissance thinkers held quite seriously an animistic theory of nature.”

p. 310 “To sum up. Sense II of the word ’cause’ rests on two different ideas about the relation between man and nature.

1. The anthropocentric idea that man looks at nature from his own point of view; not the point of view of a thinker, anxious to find out the truth about nature as it is in itself, but the point of view of a practical agent, anxious to find out how he can manipulate nature for the achieving of his own ends.

2. The anthropomorphic idea that man’s manipulation of nature resembles one man’s manipulation of another man, because natural things are alive in much the same way in which men are alive, and have therefore to be similarly handled.”

p. 312 “Among natural scientists to-day it is orthodox to take the will for the deed. For the historical metaphysician it is a question how far this anti-anthropomorphic movement has been successful. The continued use of the word ’cause’ in sense II is prima-facie evidence that its success has not been complete.”


Finally Collingwood has analyzed the sense III of the term ’cause’ as well as causation in Kantian philosophy. He has shown that the sense III brought problems with it:

p. 332 “The logical incompatibility of these two suppositions does not prove that they were not concurrently made; it only proves that, if they were concurrently made, the structure of the constellation that included them both was subject to severe strain, and that the entire fabric of the science based upon them was in a dangerously unstable condition.”