Metaphysical and Conceptual Grounding


In this paper, I clarify the relation between two types of grounding: metaphysical and conceptual. Metaphysical grounding relates entities at more and less fundamental ontological levels. Conceptual grounding relates semantically primitive sentences and semantically derivative sentences. It is important to distinguish these relations given that both types of grounding can underwrite non-causal “in-virtue-of” claims. In this paper, I argue that conceptual and metaphysical grounding are exclusive: if a given in-virtue-of claim involves conceptual grounding, then it does not involve metaphysical grounding. I then present two heuristics for deciding which type of grounding is relevant to a given case. These heuristics suggest that certain proposed cases of metaphysical grounding may not actually involve metaphysical grounding at all.

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  1. 1.

    See, e.g., Schaffer (2009), Audi (2012a).

  2. 2.

    See Chalmers (2012, 452–460).

  3. 3.

    For ease of presentation, I have adjusted these examples to give them a common form. The examples are from (in order): Schaffer (2012, 125), Fine (1995, 271), Schaffer (2012, 126), Rosen (2010, 110), Fine (2012, 1), and Clark and Liggins (2012, 812).

  4. 4.

    For discussion, see Schaffer (2009, 375–376).

  5. 5.

    See Audi (2012a, 687–688) for this view. One might instead say that metaphysical grounding is just identical to metaphysical explanation (see Trogdon (2013, Sect. 3) for discussion). The distinction between these views will not be relevant to the arguments ahead.

  6. 6.

    See Clark and Liggins (2012, 813).

  7. 7.

    It is commonly supposed that metaphysical grounding straightforwardly implies supervenience. But see Leuenberger (2013) and Skiles (2015) for more nuanced discussion.

  8. 8.

    See, e.g., Rosen (2010, 114) and Audi (2012a, 693). Other theorists, such as Schaffer (2009, 375–376), claim that metaphysical grounding takes different types of entities as relata. Other theorists, such as Correia (2010) and Fine (2012a), express metaphysical grounding claims using sentential operators.

    The arguments ahead should generalize to any view on which metaphysical grounding is a relation that takes worldly entities (e.g., properties) as relata. These arguments may not be available on certain versions of the operator approach; see fn. 35 for discussion.

  9. 9.

    See Trogdon (2013, Sect. 2) for discussion.

  10. 10.

    One could also define a relation of conceptual grounding for Fregean propositions, for thoughts, etc. (I thank an anonymous referee for this observation). The discussion ahead should not depend on this choice. But it is interesting to consider which type of conceptual grounding is comparatively fundamental. This question may be related to the dispute over the relative primacy of mental representation vs. public language meaning.

  11. 11.

    When speaking strictly, I will say that [Fox] corresponds to a case of conceptual grounding (just as [Chem] corresponds to a case of metaphysical grounding). But more colloquially, I will speak of [Fox] as a case of conceptual grounding.

  12. 12.

    The present analysis imples that ‘x is a female fox and y is a female fox’ conceptually grounds ‘x is a vixen’. To address this case, I will stipulate as a further condition that B conceptually grounds A only if the sentence ‘A in virtue of the fact that B’ is genuinely explanatory. (One might also rule out this case with a minimality condition to the effect that B conceptually grounds A only if there is no \(\phi \) such that (i) A is conceptually grounded by \(\phi \) and (ii) \(\phi \) is a proper part of B. I thank an anonymous referee for this suggestion.)

  13. 13.

    See Chalmers (2012) for extended discussion.

  14. 14.

    Throughout this paper, I will rely on examples like [Fox], [Chair], etc. to provide the reader with an intuitive grip on the notion of semantic priority. See Chalmers (2012) for discussion.

  15. 15.

    For discussion of conceptual explanation, see Schnieder (2006, 405–406).

  16. 16.

    To see the difference between semantic explanation and metaphysical explanation, contrast [Fox] with a case like [Chem]. We would not say that “what it means for an \(\hbox {H}_{2}\)O molecule to exist just is for there to be hydrogen and oxygen atoms arranged in a certain way.”

  17. 17.

    If the reader disagrees, the case [Bald] also plausibly exhibits conceptual priority without explicit definition. I further discuss the ‘knowledge’ case in 5.1.

  18. 18.

    Proponents of worldly facts include Correia (2010, 258–259) and Audi (2012b, 3.5). Rosen (2010) and Fine (2012a) seem to adopt a finer-grained conception of facts.

  19. 19.

    While these claims are meant to be distinct, some philosophers may worry that conceptual grounding is just a form of the fine-grained conception of metaphysical grounding. I address this concern in the next sub-section with the example [Bach].

  20. 20.

    I intend for [Bach] to be distinguished from a case of “conjunctive grounding” like [Bach\(^*\)]: x is unmarried and male in virtue of the fact that x is unmarried and the fact that x is male. [Bach\(^*\)] is explicitly distinguished from [Bach] in the literature (see, e.g., Chalmers (2012, 454)). This seems appropriate, since [Bach] and [Bach\(^*\)] have different explanatory force: in [Bach] the emphasis is on ‘bachelor’, while in [Bach\(^*\)] the emphasis is on ‘and’. I will argue that conceptual grounding is needed to account for the distinctive explanatory force in [Bach].

  21. 21.

    See, e.g., Rosen (2010, 124).

  22. 22.

    Here, I am assuming a fine-grained categorization of beliefs on which the belief that x is a bachelor is distinct from the belief that x is an unmarried male.

  23. 23.

    Note: this argument stands even on a deflationary account of facts and of the metaphysical grounding relation. See 3.3.

  24. 24.

    I thank an anonymous referee for suggesting this line of argument.

  25. 25.

    For discussion of these responses, see Rosen (2010, 124) and Jenkins (2011, 169), respectively.

  26. 26.

    As an alternative, we might consider whether the meanings of the concepts expressed in a conceptually grounded sentence are metaphysically grounded in the meanings of the concepts expressed in the conceptually grounding sentence (I thank an anonymous referee for this suggestion). If successful, this account might provide a means of precisifying the notion of semantic priority discussed in 2.2. This account would also further support the claim that there is an important difference between the in-virtue-of claims found in 2.1 and 2.2.

  27. 27.

    This case falls within the scope of C/M because Chalmers (2012) considers ‘bachelor’, ‘unmarried’, and ‘male’ to be super-rigid terms (453–454). I note that [Bach] will be a counterexample to C/M even on a deflationary conception of metaphysical grounding—see 4.4.

  28. 28.

    Of course, conceptual grounding is a relation between sentences, not properties. I introduce this term just to keep track of the property corresponding to the predicate in a conceptually grounded sentence. Note that a property’s status as c-grounded will be relative to the in-virtue-of claim under consideration.

  29. 29.

    Note that, throughout this paper, I assume that it is possible to take different stances towards different types of properties. So, for example, I assume that one can adopt a deflationary view of being roughly spherical while adopting a heavyweight view of having determinate shape R. I think that adopting a lightweight view of the c-grounding property having determinate shape R is also incompatible with viewing [Shape] as a case of metaphysical grounding. But in this section, I discuss only the c-grounded property because I focus on this type of property in the arguments of Sect. 4.

  30. 30.

    Says Schiffer (1996, 159): “there’s nothing more to the nature of properties ... than is determined by our [property-hypostatizing] linguistic practices. What we can learn about them is what our linguistic practices license us to learn about them.”

  31. 31.

    Because some nominalists do not countenance facts, we should perhaps view the metaphysical grounding relata in some other way for present purposes. This technicality does not affect the current point.

  32. 32.

    Perhaps one could have the view that x’s shape partially contributes to the metaphysical explanation of P, in addition to facts about our linguistic practices. But even on this view, [Shape] itself will not count as a case of metaphysical grounding.

  33. 33.

    See, e.g., Schiffer (2003, ch. 2). More precisely, proponents claim that we can have conditional a priori knowledge that lightweight properties are instantiated. By conditionally a priori, I mean that it is a priori to infer that lightweight properties are instantiated in a case C once one has been given a basic empirical description of C. For further discussion, see fn. 40.

  34. 34.

    See Swoyer (1999) for discussion.

  35. 35.

    Audi (2012a, 708–709) similarly claims that grounded facts must be something “over and above” grounding facts. While Audi’s focus is on showing that eliminativism is incompatible with metaphysical grounding, I have argued that deflationism and (class and predicate) nominalism are likewise incompatible.

  36. 36.

    This paper assumes that metaphysical grounding relates facts (see 2.1). But the discussion should generalize to views with other worldly entities (e.g., properties, objects) as relata, since the heavyweight/lightweight distinction is available on those views as well. The situation is not as clear on the operator approach (see fn. 8). Some operator-proponents accept that metaphysical grounding claims correspond to relations between facts (see Correia (2010, 254) for discussion). These theorists can accept the heavyweight/lightweight distinction and, accordingly, the Sect. 4 arguments. But other proponents deny that metaphysical grounding is even a genuine relation. For such theorists, further arguments will be needed to establish GE.

  37. 37.

    See, e.g., Thomasson (2001, 320) and Schiffer (2003, ch. 2).

  38. 38.

    For example, one might think that ‘has spin 1/2’ carries heavyweight ontological commitment because this type of expression figures in statements of laws of nature. More generally, philosophers have identified various types of explanatory work that are thought to determine when a given predicate carries heavyweight ontological commitment (see, e.g., Swoyer (1999)). I discuss these types of explanatory work in 5.2.

  39. 39.

    N.b.: here, as in 3.3, I assume that it is possible for some properties to be lightweight while others are not.

  40. 40.

    See, e.g., Swoyer (1999). I discuss the types of arguments used to establish the instantiation of heavyweight properties in 4.2.

  41. 41.

    On current usage, a sentence is a priori when it can be known conclusively (i.e., with certainty) on the basis of reflection that is independent of experience (see Chalmers (2012, 41) for discussion of conclusive apriority). The relevant notion of apriority is also conditionalized. While \(F^{\prime }\) is not a priori simpliciter; it an be known a priori conditional on the assumption that F (see Chalmers (2012, 55–56) for discussion).

  42. 42.

    This is not to suggest that any a priori inference suggests lightweight properties (or conceptual grounding); I clarify which types of a priori inferences are in tension with metaphysical grounding in 5.1.

  43. 43.

    Suppone one is antecedently convinced that having a mass is heavyweight. Then one might try to argue that, because having a mass is heavyweight, the inference from F to \(F^{\prime }\)is not (in fact) a priori, thus blocking the argument.

    I provide a response to this objection in 4.2 (under the heading “scientific practice”). But regardless, anyone offering this line will have to deny that [Mass] involves conceptual grounding. So even if it was successful, this objection would not threaten the argument for GE, which is a conditional thesis: if an in-virtue-of claim involves conceptual grounding, then it does not involve metaphysical grounding.

  44. 44.

    It is important to recognize that viewing [Mass] as a case of conceptual grounding does not require one to accept any specific view of the property having a mass. It is compatible with this view to adopt either a deflationary or a nominalist view of having a mass, or else to adopt an eliminativist stance towards this property (see 3.3).

  45. 45.

    The present argument is different from the deflationist’s argument (see 4.0) in important ways. First: the apriority argument does not rely on the inference from ‘x has a mass’ to ‘x has the property having a mass’; instead it relies on the inference from F to \(F^{\prime }\). Because F involves a determinate property, it avoids the worry that the basic sentence builds in heavyweight commitments (see 4.0). (In fact, the apriority argument assumes that F does carry heavyweight commitment, but this commitment is to a determinate property, not a determinable.) Second: the present argument invokes apriority rather than obviousness. This ensures that \(F^{\prime }\) can be established purely as a result of an inference from F; in other words, asserting that \(F^{\prime }\) does not require that one accept any background assumption to the effect that it is obvious that x has a heavyweight determinable. (Even if we ignore this last point, I think it should be clear that \(F^{\prime }\) does not obviously carry commitment to a heavyweight determinable (as opposed to a lightweight one). Indeed, the very existence of the literature on the status of determinables shows that the instantiation of heavyweight determinables is not generally considered obvious.)

  46. 46.

    See, e.g., Armstrong (1997).

  47. 47.

    The claim that c-grounded properties are not required for truthmaking aligns with Heil’s (2003, 6) rejection of the view that “the character of reality can be ‘read off’ our linguistic representations”; we do not need distinct properties involved in truthmaking for every predicate in our language.

  48. 48.

    One may still have the intuition that, if being in a low entropy state scientifically explains anything, then it must be heavyweight. But this intuition plausibly derives from the assumption that scientific explanations correspond to genuine causal relations (I thank an anonymous referee for suggesting this response). Against this assumption, many philosophers have argued that certain scientific explanations are merely pragmatic. See, e.g., Jackson and Pettit (1990).

  49. 49.

    See Swoyer (1999, 107)

  50. 50.

    This argument is originally from Yablo (1992). See Swoyer (1999, 107) for relevant discussion.

  51. 51.

    I thank an anonymous referee for this suggestion.

  52. 52.

    I think the most plausible arguments for heavyweight c-grounded properties are considerations relating to explanatory work, which is why I have focused on these arguments in this section.

  53. 53.

    The intuitive distinctions between “families of terms” will directly mirror the distinctions drawn between domains of facts in the literature on metaphysical grounding (i.e., the type of distinction drawn when it is claimed that physical facts metaphysically ground phenomenal facts, etc.).

  54. 54.

    If [Shape] is indeed a case of conceptual grounding, it is because the term ‘R’ (which picks out a certain determinate shape) is semantically prior to the expression ’is roughly spherical’—see 2.2.

  55. 55.

    I thank an anonymous referee for this example.

  56. 56.

    Of course, if we know that subjects in a certain borderline pain state are in brain state \(P_{i}\), we could precisify ‘is in pain’ by stipulating that anyone in \(P_{i}\) is in pain. But this stipulation is only possible if we possess empirical knowledge about the connections between brain states and conscious states. For this reason, the possibility of such stipulations does not suggest conceptual grounding in [Pain].

  57. 57.

    Schaffer (2007, 873–874) considers this possible example of metaphysical grounding (although he doesn’t endorse it).

  58. 58.

    Non-humeans about causation (such as Tooley (1990)) claim that, even after fixing the laws and the Humean base, there can still be differences in what causes what. These philosophers may deny the applicability of the scrutability heuristic to the present case. While I find this implausible, there is no need to address this issue. This is because the present section only seeks to establish a conditional conclusion: if [Cause] involves grounding at all, the grounding in question is conceptual. Non-humeans will simply deny the antecedent.

  59. 59.

    This example is from Hitchcock (2003, 10).

  60. 60.

    See, e.g., Hofweber (2009). Raven (2012) defends certain alleged examples of metaphysical grounding.


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I would like to thank Mike Bertrand, David Chalmers, Chris Dorst, Ram Neta, Laurie Paul, John Roberts, participants of Ruhr University Bochum’s 2013 Rudolf-Carnap Lectures, and four anonymous referees for helpful comments on this manuscript.

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Smithson, R. Metaphysical and Conceptual Grounding. Erkenn 85, 1501–1525 (2020).

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  • Metaphysical grounding
  • Conceptual grounding
  • Non-causal explanation