Lessons From The Context Sensitivity of Causal Talk
Journal of Philosophy
Suppose we have a theory of singular causation according to which () Caesar's birth was a cause of his death. is true. Charge: It offends common sense to say that Caesar's birth was a cause of his death. Response: e assertibility conditions of causal claims are affected by conversational context. Even if () is true, in normal contexts it will be uninformative, or misleading, or not a suitable answer to the sorts of questions we are interested in. And general pragmatic principles explain why
... t would offend common sense to assert even true sentences that are uninformative, misleading or not topical. So it is no mark against a theory of causation that it predicts that () and certain other odd sounding sentences are true. is response, prominent in the work of Lewis (a, -; , ), Bennett (, -), and others, is based on the plausible idea that some distinctions made in natural language need not-indeed, should not-be re ected in metaphysics. Natural language does distinguish between Caesar's birth and Brutus's stabbing, with respect to being a cause of Caesar's death, but perhaps our metaphysics of causation should not. If we pursue this line, as I think we should, then we must ask which natural language distinctions do constrain our metaphysics, and how. ese questions are especially important for distinctions that are sensitive to features of conversational context, because we should not inadvertently impute the effects of such context sensitivity to our metaphysics. is paper starts by arguing that ordinary causal talk is far more sensitive to conversational context than has been recognized to date. I then formulate a principle that helps characterize that context sensitivity. I argue that this principle explains why some putative overgenerated causes are never felicitously counted, in conversation, as causes, and I argue that a plausibly strengthened version of the principle explains at least some of the oddness of 'systematic causal overdetermination. ' ese explanations are a natural extension of the line that Lewis, Bennett, and others take with (): when we are confronted with linguistic data that threaten to make trouble for our metaphysics, we try to give a plausible explanation of the data that does not require any changes to our metaphysics. When we are successful, we are not obligated to change the metaphysics. e linguistic explanations of () and many other examples are oen seen as a boon to metaphysics-a For helpful discussion and comments on earlier dras, thanks to Ned Hall, Sarah Moss, Bob Stalnaker, Judy omson, Steve Yablo, and an anonymous referee for the Journal of Philosophy. M , L a and , and B offer such theories. This is the penultimate version. Please consult the official version in the Journal of Philosophy.