The final distinction we will need, or more accurately, family of distinctions, is between internal and external relations. What makes them members of a single family is that a relation is internal if its holding between things is somehow fixed by the things themselves or how those things are; external relations are relations whose holding between things isn’t fixed this way.

SEP (emphasis mine)

The traditional external relations correspond to relations that are intrinsic to their pairs, but not intrinsic to their relata.

Menzies, on singularist theories. Non-singulairst theories which say that the relation between causal pairs is extrinsic, and set by the rest of the world:

Suppose I drop a piece of sodium into a beaker of acid, which event causes an ex- plosion to take place. The intuition emphasised by singularists is that the causal rela- tion holding between these events depends entirely on the local character of the events and the process which links them; and does not depend on anything else happening in the world. For example, suppose that another person is waiting in the wings, ready to drop a piece of sodium into the beaker of acid if I do not. Does the presence of this alternative cause, which would come into play if I do not drop the sodium, make any difference to whether the causal relation exists between my dropping the sodium and the explosion? The singularists argue that it does not: the presence of an alternative cause is neither here nor there to the causal relation that exists between the actual cause and effect. The causal relation does not depend on any other events occurring in the neighbourhood: the causal relation is intrinsic, in some sense, to the relata and the process connecting them.

Is it possible to conceive of a non-singularist analysis of causation that is internal? That the actual cause and effect are not all there is to the causal relation, and this involves the regularity as it appears elsewhere, so that the relation of causation is extrinsic; but still the cause and effect are intrinsically related.

Relations intrinsic to their relata correspond to the traditional internal relations. For example, the internal relation of congruence of shape is intrinsic to its relata in this way

It would have drawbacks, but does anyone talk about it ever at all? I think the advantage would be that then causal powers "do not have their origins in any kind of sensory impression" (Menzies on Hume) but nevertheless do intrinsically bring about their effect with no further explanation needed.

  • I struggle to understand what it means for a relation that relates its relata intrinsically to be "extrinsic". The general view is that causation is a manifestation of general causal laws, the singular view is that individual causal powers line up to produce such laws "statistically". What exactly is your mix supposed to do?
    – Conifold
    Feb 13, 2020 at 12:23
  • sure. "the relation of causation is extrinsic; but still the cause and effect are intrinsically related... I think the advantage would be that then causal powers "do not have their origins in any kind of sensory impression" (Menzies on Hume) but... with no further explanation needed." @Conifold
    – user44289
    Feb 13, 2020 at 12:45
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    If it did not help the first time reproducing it is unlikely to do better. I suppose round squares could also have advantages, but one would need to explain what they mean first.
    – Conifold
    Feb 13, 2020 at 12:59
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    This may be way to far back, but pure idealisms seem to do this all the time, the Monadology of Liebniz traces cause to a relationship of predetermined harmony among the monads involved. The actual cause is by the influence of reflection between the monads, but the process of reflection has a global extrinsic cause in the harmony. Platonic 'participation' can appear to be the material and efficient cause of things, but their "real cause" is formal or final and inheres in the Forms.... Feb 13, 2020 at 17:35

1 Answer 1


If we take cause and effect, Hume-style, as distinct and discrete events, so that a cause, C, can be specified independently of its effect, E, and vice versa, then there is no conceptual space for causation in a nexus or universe of internal relations. In such a nexus there are no independently specifiable events; everything is inherently related to everything else. There can be no causation between distinct and discrete events since there are none. The result is the same (mutatis mutandis) if we substitute objects, states of affairs, etc., for events as causal relata.

In F.H. Bradley's metaphysics, the implications of the doctrine of internal relations are recognised - principally that there is only a single entity or individual, the nexus itself, commonly called the Absolute. Only the Absolute, which contains all internally related events, etc., but is itself internally related to nothing else, because there is nothing else, exists.

See further : Standford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, F.H. Bradley, §6 Metaphysics..

  • yeah i was wondering something like that, the idea that everything that is, is self identical with everything else, due to it having Being, and so (?) internally related. is that what you're getting to? i don't see that as necessarily idealist, though
    – user44289
    Feb 16, 2020 at 14:44
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    Thanks for comment. I agree that there is no necessary connexion between the doctrine of internal relations and Idealism. I didn't mention Idealism, though I did refer to one Idealist who held the doctrine, namely FH Bradley. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 16, 2020 at 14:47

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