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Putting Powers Back on Multi-Track

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Power theorists are divided on the question of whether individual powers are single-track (for a single manifestation type) or are multi-track (capable of producing distinct manifestation types for distinct stimuli). EJ Lowe has recently defended single-tracking, arguing that the multi-tracker can provide no adequate reason for treating powers as capable of having multiple manifestation types, and claiming that putative instances of multi-track powers are either single-track powers in need of unifying descriptions or are merely several single-track powers. I respond to Lowe on behalf of the multi-tracker, first by arguing that he overlooks the extra-empirical features of the debate, then by posing a dilemma for any single-track account of powers concerning the single-tracker’s ability to appropriately deal with fine-grained manifestation types. Finally I provide the aforementioned reason for thinking that there are multi-track powers.

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  1. 1.

    In what follows I use ‘power’ and ‘disposition’ interchangeably, as is standard in the literature.

  2. 2.

    Lowe might feel differently about mental powers—my present interests concern only physical powers.

  3. 3.

    Though I characterise Heil as a multi-tracker, his position is ambiguous between that in which a single ‘base’ property supports numerous single-track powers and one that incorporates multi-track powers. As his view is raised for illustrative purposes only, we need not concern ourselves with its correct interpretation.

  4. 4.

    According to Lowe, the individuation of token powers requires a conjunction of manifestation-type along with the power’s possessor and time of possession. The present discussion is concerned only with types of powers.

  5. 5.

    As indicated, this is only a rough characterisation of how we ascribe powers, and does not apply to all cases. (A notable exception is those powers we ascribe that are rarely or never exercised.) Nonetheless, I suggest it adequately captures the central kind of case and is the foundation from which other, less direct, power ascriptions are made.

  6. 6.

    This error is committed—implicitly—in the thinking of a number of single-trackers; I have in mind Prior (1985), Jackson et al. (1982), and Psillos (2006), but I suspect it is quite common.

  7. 7.

    Recall that Lowe’s discussion is purely illustrative: neither he nor I is attempting to make any serious headway regarding the nature of magnetism.

  8. 8.

    Lowe indicates (endnote 8) that pigeons are said to be able to sense the earth’s magnetic field, and use this in navigation.

  9. 9.

    Lowe (2010: 25, endnote 8).

  10. 10.

    Single-tracker Alexander Bird (2007) argues that we can treat any putative multi-track power as a collection of single-track powers. This is a point I gladly concede; it adds support to the claim that we are dealing with a decision not a discovery.

  11. 11.

    Lowe’s eschewal of defining unifying descriptions by fiat follows from his general claim that a criterion of identity is supposed to be a principle that gives the identity conditions for entities of kind K in “an informative or non-trivial way” (2010: 8). Lowe is less explicit concerning where to find suitable descriptions, but his treatment of pigeon navigation makes clear that empirical evidence should be driving the cart.

  12. 12.

    These activities might turn out to be nothing more than acquisitions of further powers by the objects involved (so claims the pandispositionalist), but Lowe rejects this possibility arguing that some of the activities must be ‘pure’ in the sense that they do not consist merely in the acquisition of further powers (2010: 10).

  13. 13.

    For instance, Ellis (2001) and Handfield (2008) treat manifestations as processes, McKitrick (2010) as effects. Molnar (2003) and Mumford (2009) offer non-event type views. I briefly consider their accounts below.

  14. 14.

    A ‘sparse’ theory of powers is unlikely to include powers like elasticity, but the argument of this section applies equally to sparse powers. Lowe, it would appear, does not endorse a sparse account.

  15. 15.

    To the mechanical engineer who studies tensile strength, minute differences might be the only data she works with.

  16. 16.

    I suggest that something like this criterion be required for any power to count as a single-track power.

  17. 17.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  18. 18.

    I am not convinced that there is any good reason for denying that strictly quantitative differences are differences in type. But for those yet to be swayed, it might help to ask whether we can be sure that the different stretchings differ only in length. Despite being our primary focus, it might well be the case that two stretching event types are not otherwise identical. It stands to reason that each stretching event type carries with it some other variation, perhaps in terms of the powers involved. In that case we would have additional grounds for accepting that these are differences in event type.

  19. 19.

    I will leave aside the question of whether they also reject the second. To my mind, their views postulate unknowable manifestations, so endorsing the second would make all powers similarly unknowable. The result is not inconsistent, but it is impossibly sceptical.

  20. 20.

    See McKitrick (2010) for a comprehensive discussion of the problems these views face.

  21. 21.

    This latter option would not be available to single-trackers who identify powers with their bases.

  22. 22.

    Thanks to Ken Shockley for discussion, and to an anonymous referee for some very useful comments.


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  3. Handfield, T. (2008). Humean Dispositionalism. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 86, 113–126.

  4. Heil, John. (2010). Powerful Qualities. In Marmadoro Anna (Ed.), The Metaphysics of Powers—Their Grounding and their Manifestations (pp. 58–72). New York: Routledge.

  5. Heil, J. (2003). From an Ontological Point of View. New York: Oxford University Press.

  6. Jackson, F., Prior, E., & Pargetter, R. (1982). Three Theses about Dispositions. American Philosophical Quarterly, 19, 251–256.

  7. Lowe, E. J. (2010). On the Individuation of Powers. In Marmadoro Anna (Ed.), The Metaphysics of Powers—Their Grounding and their Manifestations (pp. 8–26). New York: Routledge.

  8. Martin, C. B. (2008). The Mind in Nature. New York: Oxford University Press.

  9. McKitrick, Jennifer. (2010). Manifestations as Effects. In Marmadoro Anna (Ed.), The Metaphysics of Powers—Their Grounding and their Manifestations (pp. 73–83). New York: Routledge.

  10. Molnar, G. (2003). Powers. New York: Oxford University Press.

  11. Mumford, S. (2009). Passing Powers Around. Monist, 92(1), 94–111.

  12. Prior, E. (1985). Dispositions. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.

  13. Psillos, S. (2006). What Do Powers Do When They Are Not Manifested? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 72(1), 137–156.

  14. Ryle, G. (1949). Filling in Space. The Concept of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Correspondence to Neil E. Williams.

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Williams, N.E. Putting Powers Back on Multi-Track. Philosophia 39, 581–595 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-010-9293-2

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  • Powers
  • Dispositions
  • Multi-track
  • Individuation
  • Essence