September 2002

What I will attempt to do in the following brief remarks is argue against Chisholm's position that we cause our "basic actions," or that such actions are causal consequences of the agent doing the acting. The central semantical element to this discussion will be the notion of nominalization, which I will now briefly describe.
    In Meinong we find that the difference between a sentence and its nominalization is one of mere "expression" not meaning. In other words expressions such as

1.                                This metal is light


2.                                This light metal

do not differ in "meaning" but rather in some other feature or features. Such features have remained controversial for some time. I am not going to examine the details of Meinong's doctrine of nominalization (nor of meaning), because what I'm interested in is the employment of nominalization in characterizing causal sentences.

    Russell made use of nominalization in portraying the difference between 'implies' and 'therefore' when he tried to capture the difference between "formal implication" and mere "implication," at one point saying:

In grammar, the distinction is that between a verb and a verbal noun, between, say, "A is greater than B" and "A's being greater than B." In the first of these, a proposition is actually asserted, whereas in the second it is merely considered. (Principles of Mathematics. Norton. p. 35.
Discussion of nominalization would, after Russell, be neglected for the most part until Cocchiarella and more recently Landini took up the concept in examining fundamental issues in Russell's philosophy of logic. (e.g., N. Cocchiarella "The Development of the Theory of Types and the Notion and the Logical Subject in Russell's Early Philosophy." _Synthese_. 45. 1980. pp. 75-115. and Gregory Landini: "On Denoting" Against Denoting." in _Russell_. Summer 1998. pp. 43-80). In 1970, Chomsky wrote a very influential paper on nominalization which I have discussed in connection with Russell elsewhere (this can be accessed under the title "Chomsky and Russell on Nominalization" at

What we find in the above quotation from Russell is the idea that if we nominalize a sentence in the manner in which he describes, there is a feature, assertion, that gets "cancelled" in the process. Another way of looking at it is to say that nominalization takes away from a sentence any implication of truth or falsity, which for Russell were logical notions, leaving us with conceptual content, something which for Russell is mainly psychological. Now what I am going to propose is this:
Just as nominalization cancels the assertion property of a sentence, nominalization cancels the "event feature" of a sentence - should that sentence express an action.
"But what," the reader may ask,"is this going to accomplish?" The answer is this: once it is understood that the event feature associated with the verb, and not just its assertion feature, is cancelled, there will be implications for any assessment based on the semantics of natural language of the doctrine that the agent who acts is a *cause* of his or her actions.
    Two philosophers figure prominently in the debate over the reality of "agent causation": Rodrick Chisholm and Zeno Vendler. How, then, might nominalization figure in causative constructions? Consider a schema for representing the form of such sentences

3.                                e1 caused e2.

Here "e1" represents some event; however, there are clearly locutions such as

4.                                NP caused e2

where the causal antecedent appears to be the referent of a noun phrase ("NP") which need not be an event. Supposing we substitute the name of a person who is an agent for "NP":

5.                                Tom caused e2.

In a very interesting essay by Zeno Vendler, one which will figure prominently in our discussion, Vendler contends that in all such cases there is available to us a construction such as

6.                                Tom caused e2 by Xing.

Suppose we restrict ourselves to "basic actions," such as arm raisings, fist clenchings, wrist turnings etc. which require no further action in order to be performed. The relevant question is: "When I raise my arm do I cause my arm to go up?" Here is what Vendler says

A. Hence, since the sentence 'He caused his arm to rise incompletable, the predicate disallowed, and, a fortiori, the predicate 'is the cause of'...John, in simply raising his arm, did not cause the raising his arm, and he is not the cause of the event. ("Agency and Causation" Midwest Studies in Philosophy IX. 1984. _Causation and Causal Theories_. p. 372.
Shortly I shall return to this argument, but first a word on the effects of nominalization on sentences of the form (3) expressing a causal relation. Consider one such sentence.

7.                                John's kicking Bill caused him to fall down the stairs.

We have two events asserted to be in a causal relation, viz., 'John's kicking Bill' and 'his falling down the stairs'. Notice that both expressions are nominalizations (of 'John kicked Bill' and 'He fell down the stairs' respectively). But now I want to raise a question which is central to my position: Supposing that John's kicking Bill is an event, is 'John's causing Bill to fall down the stairs' descriptive of yet another event? That is, one which is identifiable with neither e1 nor e2 in our fundamental schema, (3), which is exemplified by (7)? I want to say that the answer is no, but other philosophers appear to want to say just the opposite. Here is what Chisholm says,

B. Suppose, then, that on a certain occasion a man does cause an event p to happen. What now of that event - that is his thus causing p to happen? (Person and Object. 1976 Open Court.
Careful examination of the claim being made reveals that not only are we, if Vendler is right, dealing with a sentence ultimately of the form

8.                                A man caused an event p to happen by doing Z

we are committed to an event not identical to Z or p which is the *causing* of p by Zing. So we have three events, even though (3) makes mention of only two, e1, and e2. Clearly something has gone wrong. If I am right, what has gone wrong is that a third event has been slipped in surrepticiously. What I deny is that whenever we have a sentence of the form 'e1 caused e2' there is another of the form 'e1's causing e2' which is an event, call it e3, in addition to e1 or e2. If this is the case, then Chisholm's doctrine of agent causation is in jeopardy. But are we prepared to hand Vendler a so easily won victory? Perhaps not.
    Vendler believes he is arguing that basic actions are not caused by an agent. He believes he has shown this by arguing that a statement of the causal relation fails in the criterion he has established for such relations, (A). There is some reason for doubt. What Vendler claims of basic actions, alone, one can claim of any event which stands in the relation of immediate precedence to another event which it causes. But are there causal episodes where the cause is immediately precedent to its effect? My inclination is to think not. Whenever we have two events, e1 and e2, such that one can be said to be the cause of the other it would appear that there is always some event, e3, between them of which it can be said that it is by e3-ing that e1 cause e2. If this is to say that there are no causally initiating events in nature - an idea going back to Aristotle - then we do have a distinction between basic actions and the events of nature. If so Chisholm is wrong. So we conclude this part of our examination with a question: "Are the events of nature continuous with one another in the mathematical sense? Dedekind, and Russell's treatment of causation, come together here in ways I cannot take the time to specify. But now a concluding word on nominalization.
    (5), above, is merely an instantiation of (4). But suppose that instead of substituting the name of a purported agent we substitute some nominalization of a causal sentence. If we were to admit some event e3 in addition to e1 and e2, that is, if we were to say that e3 was the event of e1's causing e2, would we now be faced with asserting additional causes of e3? Are we committed to some sentence

9.                                e1's causing e2 caused e4

where e4 is caused by neither e1 nor e2? We are clearly faced with a multiplication of events offending our respect for economy. My proposal that there is no such event as e3 carries with it the idea that when I nominalize a cause sentence of the form (3) not only is the assertive feature cancelled but the event feature is cancelled as well. So on my view a sentence such as 'e1's causing e2' is neither the assertion of a causal relation nor a term referring to some event. Whether it "refers to" or in some sense "signifies" a proposition is another matter. The claim is merely that cancellation of the assertion component concommitantly cancels the event feature. This may have implications for very interesting work done by Davidson, James Higginbotham, Parsons, and others (perhaps the finest in depth treatment that takes standard linguistic theory into account is "Events, States and Times" in Richard Larson's and Gabriel Segal's Knowledge and Meaning: An Introduction to Semantic Theory. We may want to explore event structure as part of the inflectional or agreement structure with a more attentive eye on philosophical problems.