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Exemplification as Explanation


In this paper I critically investigate an unorthodox attempt to metaphysically explain in virtue of what there are states of affairs. This is a suggestion according to which states of affairs exist thanks to, rather than, as is the common view, in spite of, the infinite regress their metaphysical explanation seems to engender. I argue that, no matter in which form it is defended, or in which theoretical framework it is set, this suggestion cannot provide us with the explanation we crave.

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  1. I borrow the distinction between causal and constitutive explanations, though not the use made of it, from W. Salmon (1984).

  2. Throughout this paper, anything put between ‘<’ and ‘>’ should be understood as a proposition.

  3. For some recent, more thorough (and sometimes conflicting), views on the topic of metaphysical explanations, see e.g. Betti (2010), Correia (2008), deRosset (2010), Schaffer (2010), Schneider (2010), Wieland and Weber (2010).

  4. This regress is perhaps most famously formulated by Bradley in his (1908 [1893]). Cf. also: Maurin (2002, 2010b, 2011).

  5. More or less extreme ways out include e.g. accepting monism and regarding all distinction as appearance (Bradley’s own solution) and (less extremely) tinkering with how we regard the nature of exemplification by either taking exemplification to be “non-relational” (cf. Armstrong 1978) or by taking it to be such that it necessarily relates specific relata (cf. Bergmann 1967; Maurin 2002, 2010b, 2011), etc. Another escape, one that we will have reason to get back to in this text, involves giving up the assumption that exemplification is contingent, and hold instead that if a and F-ness exist, a must exemplify F-ness.

  6. Exactly how the different steps of the regress—as well as the regress in its entirety—manage to metaphysically explain Fa is in fact slightly more complicated than that, and this is a point where different proponents of this view tend to disagree. For the purposes of this paper, this complication does not matter and so I will leave its discussion for another occasion (but see Gaskin 2008: 356f.).

  7. As I interpret them, Segelberg (1999 [1945]) and Orilia (2006, 2009) are proponents of the Infinitismcontingent view. The Infinitismnecessary view is, as far as I know, defended only by Gaskin (2008, 2010a, b).

  8. I will not argue for this conclusion by arguing, as I very well might, that an infinite regress, no matter how it is structured, cannot constitute an explanation. Whether or not it can is a question I will have to leave for another paper. Here I will simply assume that it can.

  9. Cf. e.g. Lowe (2005), Schaffer (2010).

  10. …at least not as long as we conceive of the property-constituent of the state of affairs as a universal (which is one of the background assumptions of the discussion conducted in this paper). If properties are non-transferable tropes, however, it should not be impossible to find defenders of something like the Infinitismnecessary view set in a framework that is the same as that in which both the orthodox and the Infinitismcontingent views are set. Non-transferable tropes are defended by e.g. Molnar (2003). I argue that tropes should be conceived of as transferable in my 2010b.

  11. Perhaps a version of this view set in an unorthodox framework which does not end up in the kind of trouble I will argue that it does end up in if the unorthodox framework is of the Gaskian kind could be formulated. I will not argue that it could not, though I note that I find it rather implausible that it could.

  12. One radical consequence of this concerns how truth, meaning, and existence now supposedly relate to one another (pp. 241–242): “It is not because our expressions have referents that we succeed in saying things that are true or false: rather, it is because we succeed in saying things that are true or false that the expressions we use have referents. For that is the whole point of the context principle: in the beginning was the sentence—true or false—and words, together with their sense and referents, are posted with a view to gaining an essentially theoretical understanding of how sentences mean, how they are interrelated, and how on the basis of our linguistic training we are able to understand new sentences. The existence of objects is thus a fallout from the existence of language.”

  13. We will have reason to return to Gaskin’s views on this point below.

  14. Gaskin is clear on this point. On p. 386 he argues that: “We can compare the proposition that a is F with the mere aggregate of entities F, a, and ask what their difference consists in. Even if such aggregates are never found in pre-propositional reality—since there is no such thing as pre-propositional reality for them to be found in: reality is propositional (if the objects are in the picture, so is the proposition formed of them). The aggregates are however conceptually available /.../ Hence we can raise the distinctively theoretical question: what differentiates a proposition from a mere aggregate?”.

  15. In a response to Vallicella’s charge of inconsistency, Gaskin offers a rather weak defense, the gist of which is that, as Vallicella is willing to accept the existence of propositionally structured entities at the level of sense, “there is nothing in the consideration he [i.e. Vallicella] brings to bear against the possibility of false but unified Russellian propositions that would not equally rule out the possibility of false but unified Fregean Thoughts” (Gaskin 2010b: 305). Aside from the fact that this argument could easily be interpreted as merely adding to, rather than taking away from, the trouble Gaskin is in, it also clearly misses the point. For even supposing that Vallicella accepts that there are unified propositions on the level of sense, propositions which may be either true or false, he also takes there to be a level more fundamental than the propositional one at which the truth or falsity of these propositions can be metaphysically grounded.

  16. Strong independent reasons for why we should not accept Gaskin’s argument for this point exist of course. It is, first, at least unclear why there could not be a distinct level of likewise propositionally structured entities (especially given the existence, according to Gaskin himself, of a distinct level of propositionally structured Fregean Thoughts). It is also unclear why, if that which exists at the fourth level is propositionally structured, only something with not just the same structure, but the same constituents (in the same order) could metaphysically explain the truth of <Fa> (were it not for the unfortunate circumstance that this something then would be identical to <Fa>). Even more seriously for his argument, if what exists at the fourth level is not propositional, why should we require that only if it were could it metaphysically explain what exists on the third level? Why, that is, should we accept that to be able to metaphysically explain the truth of a proposition, something must share the structure of that proposition? On this point, it seems to me, the burden of proof is definitely on the side of Gaskin as many accounts of truth today (the so-called truthmaker accounts) seem to do perfectly well without accepting this kind of “mirror-thesis”. Cf. e.g. Beebee and Dodd (2005), Maurin (2002, 2010a), Mulligan et al. (1984); etc.

  17. In principle she could of course stubbornly maintain that exemplification is necessary, even in this case. The price would, however, be (too) high. For, if it is necessary, then the proponent of the Infinitismnecessary view set in an unorthodox framework would have to endorse the seriously implausible kind of account of propositional truth forced upon the proponent of the same view set in an orthodox framework.

  18. Cf. also my 2011.


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I would like to thank Ingar Brinck, Göran Hermerén, Johannes Persson, and Nils-Eric Sahlin for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I have also benefitted from the comments received from one of this journal’s anonymous referees. A special thanks to Johan Brännmark without whose helpful comments and insightful criticisms I would not have been able to finish this paper.

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Correspondence to Anna-Sofia Maurin.

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Maurin, AS. Exemplification as Explanation. Axiomathes 23, 401–417 (2013).

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  • Exemplification
  • Explanation
  • Regress
  • Gaskin
  • Ontology
  • Metaphysics