Determinism and causal feedback loops in Montesquieu's explanations for the military rise and fall of Rome
British Journal for the History of Philosophy , Volume 21 - Issue 3 p. 507- 528
Montesquieu's Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1733/1734) is a methodological exercise in causal explanation on the meso-level applied to the subject of the military rise and fall of Rome. Rome is described as a system with contingent initial conditions that have a strong path-determining effect. Contingent and plastic initial configurations become highly determining in their subsequent operation, thanks to self-reinforcing feedback loops. Montesquieu's method seems influenced by the ruthless commitment to efficient causality and the reductionism of seventeenth-century mechanicist philosophy; but in contrast to these predecessors, he is more interested in dynamic processes than in unchangeable substances, and his use of efficient causality in the context of a system approach implies a form of holism that is lacking in his predecessors. The formal and conceptual analysis in this article is in many ways complementary with Paul Rahe's recent predominantly political analysis of the Considérations. At the same time, this article points to a problem in the works on the Enlightenment by Jonathan Israel: his account stresses a one-dimensional continuum consisting of Radical, Moderate and Counter-Enlightenment. This invites Israel to place the combined religious, political and philosophical views of each thinker on one of these three points. His scheme runs into trouble when a thinker with moderate religious and political views produces radical philosophical concepts. Montesquieu's Considérations is a case in point.
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Schuurman, P. (2013). Determinism and causal feedback loops in Montesquieu's explanations for the military rise and fall of Rome. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 21(3), 507–528. doi:10.1080/09608788.2013.771612