Workshop #4: What brings about change? Historical perspectives from the early modern period to the 21st century (Oct 2023)

Date: Thur, 5 October 2023, 9:00-18:00 (CET)
Online (Zoom)

The workshop is an activity of the research network Change and Change-Makers (CCM). This time, the focus is on various accounts of change-making and change-makers in the course of  the history of philosophy. CCM is glad to welcome international expert guest speakers for a tour d’horizon with topics which range from early modern philosophy to a novel account of persistence.

A video documentation is available on

Sophie Allen (Keele)
Sebastian Bender (Göttingen)
Kristina Engelhard (Trier)
Michael Korey (Dresden)
Stefan Roski (Münster/Hamburg)
Niko Strobach (Münster)
Valtteri Viljanen (Turku)
Jessica Wilson (Toronto)


If you would like to participate, please send an e-mail to Change and Change-Makers <> for a Zoom link.

Niko Strobach (Münster)

[all times are CET]

09.00–09.15 Welcome & introduction
09.15–10.00 Sebastian Bender: Malebranche on Agent Causation and Change
10.15–11.00 Valtteri Viljanen: The Notion of Striving from Hobbes to Spinoza
11.15–12.00 Sophie Allen: Of self-moving matter: Margaret Cavendish on the nature of matter and change
12.15–13.00 Michael Korey: Game-Changers in Brass? Astronomy, Power, and the Material Culture of Renaissance Planetary Clocks
14.00–14.45 Kristina Engelhard: Changemakers in Kant
15.00–15.45 Stefan Roski: Bolzano on Causation and Causal Explanation
16.00–16.45 Niko Strobach: We are like rivers, but unlike ships. A glimpse at Thomas Hobbes’ view on the replacement of matter
17.00–17.45 Jessica Wilson: A Determinable-based Approach to Persistence through Change
17.45–18.00 Wrap-Up


Abstracts (in chronological order):

Sebastian Bender: Malebranche on Agent Causation and Change

Malebranche is an occasionalist. He holds that God is the only true cause and that there are nothing but occasional causes in the created universe. For Malebranche, then, there are no genuine change-makers in the created universe; all the change-making activity is outsourced to God. This paper argues that Malebranche’s main motivation for subscribing to this occasionalist picture is that he is deeply committed to an Aristotelian account of agent causation. Given his sharp criticism of the Aristotelian tradition, this is a rather surprising finding. The paper also argues that Malebranche paves the way for a Humean account of change—a view according to which there is change without change-makers.

Valtteri Viljanen: The Notion of Striving from Hobbes to Spinoza

This paper discusses three major early-modern philosophers – Hobbes, Descartes, and Spinoza – to throw light into the way in which the nature of change and its metaphysical basis was understood in the seventeenth century. All three thinkers see striving (or endeavour, or conatus) as the basic element to be invoked in philosophically adequate explanations of natural events; their views contain both similarities and differences to the extent that they form a line of development that can be called the robustification of the notion of striving (or conatus). As perhaps the most consistent corpuscularian thinker ever to have existed, Hobbes opts for a minimalist view of the notion, merely defining conatus in terms of motion; this, however, robs it of explanatory power to a problematic degree. Descartes, in turn, considers striving as a tendency or inclination to continue in the prevailing state; although there has been a lively discussion as to whether this equals attributing genuine powers to things, it seems that the Cartesian view of striving ultimately remains weaker than Descartes perhaps realized. Finally there is Spinoza, for whom striving is a decidedly a (temporal) form of power – understood as genuine causal efficacy – that underpins all natural phenomena, corporeal as well as mental. As such, it allows Spinoza to build nothing less than his naturalistic moral and social philosophy on the conatus principle.

Sophie Allen: Of self-moving matter: Margaret Cavendish on the nature of matter and change

Margaret Cavendish is often seen as a maverick, an ‘odd sort of materialist’ who embraced panpsychism with her account of rational and sensitive self-moving matter in order to maintain materialism, setting herself in firm opposition to both her mechanist contemporaries and those who maintain that nature requires immaterial intelligence in order to behave as it does. This paper explores Cavendish’s accounts of matter and change, and argues that claims about Cavendish’s supposed ‘oddness’ are the result of both mechanist and dualist biases which inadvertently inflate what she means by matter being knowlegeable and perceptive. Furthermore, I will argue that recent deflationary interpretations of Cavendish find faults in her account because they rely too heavily on a causally inert, mechanistic conception of matter and change.

Michael Korey: Game-Changers in Brass? Astronomy, Power, and the Material Culture of Renaissance Planetary Clocks

Planetary clocks or astraria were rare masterpieces of technical ingenuity and astronomical learning. Though numerous tower and table clocks with astronomical indications survive from the early modern era, we single out as ‘planetary clocks’ those few designed to emulate the non-uniform motion of the planets according to received Ptolemaic theory. Such clocks were the preserve of high clergy, princes, and emperors, and notice of about a dozen of them has reached us, along with tantalizing hints of several more. A planetary clock would ideally show the position of all the heavenly bodies visible to the naked eye and trace their motion through the firmament in real time, provided that a keeper synchronized the hour hand with the Sun by day or with a star at night.
Four such clocks from the 16th century survive, one each in Paris, Vienna, Kassel, and Dresden. Although they mark a pinnacle of contemporary knowledge and mechanical ingenuity, remarkably little is recorded about their actual use. Close, on-site examination of their mechanisms by a team of historians of science and clockmakers has gone beyond existing accounts and revealed that, though they share a common aim, the machines differ fundamentally in their realization of even the “simplest” of the planetary motions, namely that of the Sun. This richly illustrated talk will discuss these findings. It argues that such differing approaches not only reflect varying degrees of collaboration among the actors involved in the construction of these four technical masterpieces – princely commissioners, learned astronomers, and artful craftsmen (with these categories sometimes overlapping) – but also that they offer a further, mechanical contribution to the centuries-old reception and refinement of Ptolemaic planetary theory. Indeed, tantalizing new finds suggest that a new astronomical theory was first made manifest in the gearing of one of these remarkable machines.

Kristina Engelhard: Changemakers in Kant

In recent years, the debate on Kant’s theory of causation and laws of nature has raised the idea that Kant has a dispositional theory of properties, i. e. properties that are causally efficacious (Watkins) and ground the laws of nature (Messina, Massimi). I defend a version of this view and show that it is relevant to three important domains, fundamental physics, biology, and philosophy of mind. In all three domains, powers are the changemakers. But their causal efficacy is very different in character, as are their identity criteria and our epistemic access to them.

Stefan Roski: Bolzano on Causation and Causal Explanation

In his major work Theory of Science Bolzano offers a conceptual analysis of the notion of causation. This account has been investigated by Schnieder (2014). However, apart from providing an analysis of causation, Bolzano also developed an interesting conception of causal discovery and the role that causes play in explanations. This part of this theory has so far not been investigated. Central to this conception is a certain take on the notion of a complete cause and the role of generalizations in causal explanations. In my talk, I will investigate how this conception relates to Bolzano’s metaphysics of causation and argue that it anticipates the accounts of causation that have been defended by Mackie and Strevens.

Niko Strobach: We are like rivers, but unlike ships. A glimpse at Thomas Hobbes’ view on the replacement of matter

The talk simply consists in a close reading of Hobbes’ famous text on the ship of Theseus (De corpore 2.11.7). Hobbes adds the plank collector to Plutarch’s tale of the ship of Theseus and, thus, makes its problem even harder. But he also offers a solution which is far from obvious. The talk intends to make clear how fundamentally Hobbes disagrees with the Athenian philosophers whom Plutarch mentions, why he adds the plank collector, why he has a sane theory of sortal identity, why he thinks that human beings are like rivers (and cities), but unlike ships (and unlike water) and how his solution, in terms of “materia sic figurata” is connected to a working definition of “ship” which may be stated as “this matter, floatably arranged”. Hobbes’ solution turns out to be informative about his peculiar kind of materialism.

Jessica Wilson: A Determinable-based Approach to Persistence through Change

I offer a new metaphysical account of persistence through change. My account is closer in spirit to endurantism than to perdurantism, in maintaining that an object’s persisting through change involves something continuing (strictly) numerically identical through the change, and involves the object, rather than its temporal parts, having different properties. But on my view what persists (strictly) numerically identical through change is not the object itself, but rather the object’s ‘essential core’, consisting of certain determinable (and perhaps also some determinate) properties. When an object undergoes change, this involves the object’s essentially having a determinable property (e.g., shaped), which is differently determined (e.g., first as straight, then as bent) at different times.