Skip to main content

Subset Realization and the Problem of Property Entailment


Brian McLaughlin has objected to Sydney Shoemaker’s subset account of realization, posing what I call the problem of property entailment. Recently, Shoemaker has revised his subset account in response to McLaughlin’s objection. In this paper I argue that Shoemaker’s revised view fails to solve the problem of property entailment, and in fact makes the problem worse. I then put forward my own solution to the problem.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. For discussion of competing accounts, see for example Melnyk (2006).

  2. Shoemaker (2001, 2003, 2007), and (2011). As will emerge in what follows, Shoemaker’s account has evolved over time. Other defenders of the subset account include Clapp (2001), Watkins (2002), and Wilson (2011).

  3. Shoemaker (2007: p. 12) with inessential re-lettering. Shoemaker (2007: p. 13) further refines his account to handle a problem posed by conjunctive properties, but we can ignore this complication here.

  4. See McLaughlin (2007: pp. 159–161) and (2009: §3).

  5. For his endorsement of the principle, see Shoemaker (2007: p. 6).

  6. The entailment principle is meant to apply to total realizers rather than core realizers, to use Shoemaker’s (1981) familiar distinction. This is why I parenthetically add that the firing C-fibers are in a “normal human body”—to make clear that we are talking about a total realizer here.

  7. Shoemaker (2011).

  8. Shoemaker (2011: p. 5, and n. 2 on pp. 17–18). As Shoemaker observes, by dropping clause (2) he returns to the version of the subset account he originally defended in his (2001).

  9. See Shoemaker (2011: n. 2 on p. 18). Shoemaker first discusses the question of whether distinct properties can differ only in their backward-looking causal features in the postscript to his (1980).

  10. See Shoemaker (2007: n. 5 on p. 12). See also Shoemaker (2003: n. 2 on p. 2).

  11. It bears emphasis here that (Shoemaker’s 2011) assumption, and his account of realization more generally, is restricted to sparse rather than abundant properties. Given a sufficiently abundant conception, one might say that there is a property for every conceivable causal profile there is, just as one might say there is a property of being grue, or a property of being fifty miles from a burning barn. The claim in the text is that no sparse mental (or other realized) property has the causal profile described.

  12. See especially Shoemaker (1980) and (2007: 24–27).

  13. See Shoemaker (2007: 6) and McLaughlin (2007: 159).

  14. This is their focus because they are addressing the question of whether properties have their causal features essentially. If not, the instantiation of a realizer property entails the instantiation of its realize only when taken in conjunction with the causal laws governing that realizer. If so, the entailment goes through even when the causal laws are left out of it. I am ignoring the question of causal essentialism in this paper. My reason for appealing to the laws of nature is that it allows me to capture the causal features of the other realizers of a realized property.


  • Clapp, L. (2001). Disjunctive properties: Multiple realizations. Journal of Philosophy, 98(3), 111–136.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McLaughlin, B. P. (2007). Mental causation and shoemaker-realization. Erkenntnis, 67, 149–172.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McLaughlin, B. P. (2009). Review of Sydney Shoemaker. Physical Realization, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

  • Melnyk, A. (2006). Realization and the formulation of physicalism. Philosophical Studies, 131, 127–155.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shoemaker, S. (1980). “Causality and Properties”, reprinted in Identity, Cause, and Mind: Philosophical Essays (Expanded Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shoemaker, S. (1981). “Some Varieties of Functionalism”, reprinted in Identity, cause, and mind: Philosophical essays (Expanded Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shoemaker, S. (2001). Realization and mental causation. In C. Gillett & B. Loewer (Eds.), Physicalism and its discontents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shoemaker, S. (2003). Realization, micro-realization, and coincidence. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, LXVII, 1, 1–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shoemaker, S. (2007). Physical realization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Shoemaker, S. (2011). Realization, powers, and property identity. The Monist, 94(1), 3–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Watkins, M. (2002). Rediscovering color. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Wilson, J. (2011). Non-reductive realization and the powers-based subset strategy. The Monist, 94(1), 121–154.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Justin Tiehen.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Tiehen, J. Subset Realization and the Problem of Property Entailment. Erkenn 79, 471–480 (2014).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: