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The emergence of ground: some limitative results

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In this paper I’m going to deal with the divide between foundationalism and infinitism about grounding. I will examine a thesis about the emergence of ground that has recently been proposed by Matteo Morganti. I will show that a generalized version of this thesis suffers from some serious limits and it cannot be accepted without a significant departure from the standard notion of grounding.

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  1. 1.

    See, for example, Schaffer (2003, 2010), Cameron (2008), Orilia (2009), Morganti (2009, 2015), Tahko (2014), Bliss (2013) and (ms), Bohn (forthcoming).

  2. 2.

    See Gaskin (1995) for an attempt to show that Bradley’s regress involves a sort of logical puzzle.

  3. 3.

    See, for example, Fine (2012a).

  4. 4.

    For a remarkable exception, namely a foundationalist about ontological dependence who is not committed to the existence of mereological atoms, see Schaffer (2010); the author claims that a gunky universe is possible, nevertheless chains of ontologically dependent entities are well-founded since the right explanatory direction is not from composite wholes towards their parts, but from parts towards composite wholes. Hence the whole universe is the ultimate ground for the existence of everything.

  5. 5.

    See Tahko (2014) for a sustained defence of this claim.

  6. 6.

    Among these kinds of metaphysical explanation, the most discussed are: conceptual grounding (viz. a complex concept being explained by some more primitive concepts), normative grounding (viz. a normative property being explained by non-normative properties), dispositional grounding (viz. a dispositional property of a thing holding in virtue of its categorical features) and, above all, logical grounding (e.g. the truth of a conjunction being ensured by the truth of both its conjuncts).

  7. 7.

    See Rodriguez-Pereyra (2005) and Schaffer (2009).

  8. 8.

    See Correia (2010) and Fine (2012b).

  9. 9.

    Morganti’s article puts the accent on ontological dependence and he seems to be engaged essentially to the thesis that there are chains of ontologically dependent items that display the same feature that chains of epistemic justification display. For the purpose of my article I take Ground Emergentism to be a little more general thesis, one including also several relations that go under the label of ‘metaphysical explanation’. Such a generalization doesn’t make the thesis too strong and, then, easier to confute. On the contrary, in Sect. 4 it is shown that the application of Emergentism to a very well known case of metaphysical explanation, namely logical grounding, looks possible and at least prima facie convincing.

  10. 10.

    See Schaffer (2012).

  11. 11.

    See Rodriguez-Pereyra (2005).

  12. 12.

    And it can never reach the value 0 because of the assumption that Ωm is grounded by Ωm+1.

  13. 13.

    Here I omit the details of the proof, but the interested reader can look at pp. 561–564 of Peijnenburg and Atkinson (2013).

  14. 14.

    See, for example, Skiles (2015).

  15. 15.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

  16. 16.

    And it cannot but be 1. There’s no controversy on the fact that if a disjunct is true then the disjunction is true.

  17. 17.

    As I’ve already said in footnote 13, I prefer to omit detailed explanations that can be found in Peijnenburg and Atkinson (2013).

  18. 18.

    The sentence I presented has another interesting feature. It is grounded by a grounding tree such that each branch of it has no lower bound. In literature there are other interesting examples of infinitely descending grounding chains (see Dixon 2016; Litland 2016; Rabin and Rabern 2016) but all these examples are such that every sentence in the grounding chain is also grounded by an ungrounded sentence. In the example I present there are no ungrounded sentences. Litland (2016) contains some important observations about the relaxed use that both Dixon (2016) and Rabin and Rabern (2016) make of a certain principle of associativity of grounding. His critical remarks can be applied also to my example. Nevertheless Litland’s point is only that the associativity principle in question is not valid in general and not that the particular use of it that occurs in Dixon and Rabin and Rabern examples (and mine) is wrong.


  1. Beebee, H., & Dodd, J. (2005). Truthmakers: The contemporary debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  2. Bliss, R. (2013). Viciousness and the structure of reality. Philosophical Studies, 166(2), 399–418.

  3. Bliss, R. (ms). Metaphysical foundationalism and the principle of sufficient reason. https://www.dropbox.com/s/n756zbourl4f0i7/MF%20and%20PSR%20%28Bliss-Final%29.pdf?dl=0

  4. Bliss, R., & Priest, G. (Eds.). (forthcoming). Reality and its structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  5. Bohn, E. (forthcoming). Indefinitely descending ground. In R. Bliss & G. Priest (Eds.), Reality and its structure. Oxford University Press.

  6. Cameron, R. (2008). Turtles all the way down: Regress. Priority and Fundamentality. The Philosophical Quarterly, 58(230), 1–14.

  7. Chalmers, D., Manley, D., & Wasserman, R. (Eds.). (2009). Metametaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  8. Correia, F. (2010). Grounding and truth-functions. Logique et Analise, 53(211), 251–279.

  9. Correia, F., & Schneider, B. (Eds.). (2012). Metaphysical grounding: Understanding the structure of reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  10. Dixon, T. S. (2016). What is the well-foundedness of grounding? Mind, 125(498), 439–468.

  11. Fine, K. (2012a). Guide to ground. In Correia and Schneider (2012), (pp. 37–80).

  12. Fine, K. (2012b). The pure logic of ground. The Review of Symbolic Logic, 5(1), 1–25.

  13. Gaskin, R. (1995). Bradley’s regress, the copula and the unity of the proposition. Philosophical Quarterly, 45(179), 161–180.

  14. Litland, J. (2016). An infinitely descending chain of ground without a lower bound. Philosophical Studies, 173(5), 1361–1369.

  15. Morganti, M. (2009). Ontological priority, fundamentality and monism. Dialectica, 63(3), 271–288.

  16. Morganti, M. (2015). Dependence, justification and explanation: Must reality be well-founded? Erkenntnis, 80, 555–572.

  17. Orilia, F. (2009). Bradley’s regress and ungrounded dependence chains: A reply to Cameron. Dialectica, 63(3), 333–341.

  18. Peijnenburg, J., & Atkinson, D. (2013). The emergence of justification. The Philosophical Quarterly, 63(252), 546–564.

  19. Rabin, G. O., & Rabern, B. (2016). Well-founding grounding grounding. Journal of Philosophical Logic, 45(4), 349–379.

  20. Rodriguez-Pereyra, G. (2005). Why truthmakers?. In Beebee and Dodd (2005), (pp. 17–31).

  21. Schaffer, J. (2003). Is there a fundamental level? Noûs, 37(3), 498–517.

  22. Schaffer, J. (2009). On what grounds what. In Chalmers, Manley, Wasserman (2009), (pp. 347–383).

  23. Schaffer, J. (2010). Monism: The priority of the whole. The Philosophical Review, 119(1), 31–76.

  24. Schaffer, J. (2012). Grounding, transitivity and contrastivity. In Correia and Schneider (2012), (pp. 122–138).

  25. Skiles, A. (2015). Against grounding necessitarianism. Erkenntnis, 80(4), 717–751.

  26. Tahko, T. (2014). Boring infinite descent. Metaphilosophy, 45(2), 257–269.

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A version of this article was presented at the “Ground, Essence, and Modality” Conference held in Helsinki, 8–10 Jun 2016. I’m grateful to the audience for some interesting observations. I owe a great debt to Jon Litland for his careful reading of an early version of the paper and for a number of interesting points he brought to my attention. This article has enormously benefitted from the reviewing process; I warmly thank three anonymous referees for the excellent job they have made.

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Correspondence to Michele Lubrano.

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Lubrano, M. The emergence of ground: some limitative results. Synthese (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1739-2

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  • Ground
  • Emergence
  • Infinitism
  • Total probability
  • Foundationalism