We thank the AHRC (grant ref AH/N001877/1) for helping to make this joint course possible

We thank the AHRC (grant ref AH/N001877/1) for helping to make this joint course possible

Modality and Causation

Oxford-UCL graduate seminar


Instructors: Simona Aimar (UCL) & Alexander Kaiserman (Oxford)

Weds 2-4, Ryle Room, Oxford Philosophy Faculty


Here is an annotated bibliography for each week. Start at the beginning and get as far as you can.

Some weeks have guest speakers: their contributions are starred.

Week 1 (Apr 25): Reducing Causation to Counterfactuals

We start this week with Lewis’s classic counterfactual account of causation (which will hopefully be familiar to many of you):

  • Lewis, D. (1973). Causation. Journal of Philosophy 70(17), 556-567.

If causation is to be analysed in terms of counterfactuals, we need an analysis of counterfactuals that doesn’t itself appeal to causation. Here is Lewis’s attempt to do that:

And here is a criticism of Lewis’s attempt:

A different strategy is suggested in this passage:

Woodward simply accepts that we cannot analyse the relevant counterfactuals in non-causal terms, but denies that the resulting circularity is problematic; see:

  • Woodward, J. (2003). Making things happen: A theory of causal explanation, sections 1.4 [motivation of the approach], 2.2, 2.3, 2.7 [the analysis of causation in terms of interventions], 3.1 [the analysis of interventions in terms of causation] and 3.6 [comparison with Lewis’s view], Oxford: OUP.

Week 2 (May 2): Reducing Counterfactuals to Causation

Last week we looked at different attempts to analyse counterfactuals in non-causal terms. Here is a general argument to the effect that this cannot be done:

Perhaps, then, we should be analysing counterfactuals in terms of causation. Here is one attempt to do that:

  • Kment, B. (2014). Modality and Explanatory Reasoning, ch. 1 [motivation for the approach], chs. 8-9 [the analysis of closeness], ch. 11 [making fully explicit the role of causation and its link with counterfactuals], Oxford: OUP.

Handout - expanded on the basis of the discussion we had in class.

Week 3 (May 9): The Third Factor - GUEST SPEAKER: Michael Strevens

Rather than analysing causation in terms of counterfactuals or vice versa, perhaps we should be analysing both of them in terms of some third concept, such as laws of nature. Here’s a nice initial motivation of this idea:

For one attempt to reduce causation to laws of nature, start by reading this:

Then read this:

  • * Strevens, M. (2007). Mackie remixed. In J. Keim Campbell, M. O’Rourke and H. S.Silverstein (eds.), Causation and explanation, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2.

To see how such an approach might be able to capture the connections between causation and counterfactuals, see:

This is a classic critique of the idea that there is a law-like connection between causes and effects:

  • Anscombe, G. E. M. (1981). Causality and determination. In G. E. M. Anscombe, Metaphysics and the philosophy of mind: Collected philosophical papers Vol. 2. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. [Link is to the abridged version.]

And finally – a view that says we have two different concepts of causation, namely counterfactual dependence and production:

  • Hall, N. (2004). Two concepts of causation. J. Collins, N. Hall and L. A. Paul (eds.),Causation and counterfactuals, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Week 4 (May 16): Dispositions and Modality - GUEST SPEAKER: Barbara Vetter

Some people try to analyse dispositions in counterfactual terms; for example:

But here is a general argument that this cannot be done:

Vetter thinks that disposition ascriptions are equivalent either to standard possibility claims, or to something a bit stronger, which she calls easy possibility; see:

This paper engages with Vetter but develops the view that all disposition ascriptions are semantically equivalent to standard possibility claims:

When it comes to the metaphysics, Vetter thinks that modality should be analysed in terms of dispositions; see:


Week 5 (May 23): Dispositions and Causation - GUEST SPEAKER: Ralf Bader

This week will focus on recent explorations into the relationship between dispositions, modality and causation. Start with this piece by Bader:

  • * Bader, R. (ms). Dispositionality, Intrinsicality and Causation. [Circulated via email -- check your mailbox :)]

Then read the following chapters of McKitrik’s forthcoming book:

For an attempt to ground causation in dispositions, see:


Week 6 (May 30): Causal Contextualism and Modal Contextualism

There are two different kinds of contextualism about modal talk. According to the first, modal claims are relativized to a set of facts we’re ‘holding fixed’:

According to the second, de re modal claims are relativized to a choice of counterpart relation:

Insofar as there are connections between causation and modality, one might expect causal claims to be context-sensitive in the same sorts of ways. Here are two arguments to that effect:

Others have proposed different contextualist semantics of causal claims; for a summary, see:

  • Schaffer, J. (2012). Causal Contextualism. In M. Blaauw (ed.), Contrastivism in philosophy, London: Routledge.

And for a defense of invariantism about causal claims, see:


Week 7 (June 6): Degrees of Causation and Degrees of Possibility - GUEST SPEAKER: Boris Kment

Do causation and possibility come in degrees? Some think yes. Here is a summary of different ways an event might be ‘more of a cause’ of some effect:

For an approach to modality that naturally lends itself to a notion of ‘degrees of possibility’, see:

Linguists also focus on degrees of modality. They ask how to account for the gradability of modal claims. Kratzer, as we saw last week, does it in terms of ordering sources. Lassiter thinks that we need to appeal to probability instead:

Whereas Klecha thinks that only some modals are gradable and thus puts forward a hybrid approach:


Week 8: Mini-conference

On-line guest: Adam Harwood :)

GROUP 1 (2.00-2.30): Degrees of Modality - Oxford

GROUP 2 (2.30-3.00): Causation & History - UCL

GROUP 3 (3.00-3.30): Degrees of Causation - Oxford

GROUP 4 (3.30-4.00): Dispositions - UCL


Thanks everyone for a great seminar!