Abstracta Are Causal


Many philosophers think all abstract objects are causally inert. Here, focusing on novels, I argue that some abstracta are causally efficacious. First, I defend a straightforward argument for this view. Second, I outline an account of object causation—an account of how objects (as opposed to events) cause effects. This account further supports the view that some abstracta are causally efficacious.

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  1. 1.

    I offer no account here of what makes abstract objects abstract. Although I assume that abstract objects have no spatial location, there are issues with positing this as a full account of abstractness. For instance, mental objects (and God according to some theists) are neither abstract nor spatially located.

  2. 2.

    See, for instance, Bach (1987: 12), Balaguer (2001: 1), Dodd (2000: 431), Dummett (1973: 493), Friedman (2005: 288), van Inwagen (2007: 200), Juvshik (2018), Linsky and Zalta (1995: 252), and Parsons (2008: 1). Note that Dodd (2007) changed his mind and argued that some abstracta are causal.

  3. 3.

    See, for instance, Thomasson (1999) and Salmon (1998) for defenses of fictional characters being abstract artifacts, Kaplan (1990) for a defense of words being such, Levinson (1980) and Evnine (2007) for a defense of musical works being such, and Cole (2004) for a defense of corporations being such. See, for instance, Dodd (2000) and Kivy (1987) for defenses of the view that musical works are discovered rather than created.

  4. 4.

    More precisely, Cresswell thinks propositions are causal in some sense but non-causal in another sense.

  5. 5.

    Maddy no longer endorses this view of sets. See, for instance, Maddy (2007), especially Part IV.

  6. 6.

    Dodd and I agree also that objects are causal in virtue of events being causal. Dodd (2007: 13-14) discusses this view. I employ this view in Section 5.

  7. 7.

    For rhetorical purposes I am talking as if events are not objects.

  8. 8.

    Fair (1979) offers a seminal defense of this view.

  9. 9.

    Brock, Maslen, and Ngai (2013: 76) offer very similar criticisms to those I have offered here. See Callard (2007) for further criticisms. See, for instance, Dowe (2004) and Beebee (2004) for criticisms of causation by disconnection and causal omissions.

  10. 10.

    Granted, some interpretations of quantum mechanics (and alternatives to quantum mechanics) are, at least arguably, consistent with there being no causation at a distance. See, for instance, Price (1996) for related discussion of many-worlds interpretations, many-minds interpretations, and retrocausal interpretations. Proponents of the energy transfer view may insist we eschew interpretations that include causation at a distance. This raises methodological questions about whether a metaphysical theory of causation should influence how we interpret quantum mechanics.

  11. 11.

    Alternatively, one could argue that these cases do not genuinely involve causal overdetermination. See Thomasson (2007), especially Chapter 1, for related discussion.

  12. 12.

    Juvshik himself is likely not an error theorist. He is ostensibly more sympathetic to the paraphrasing strategy considered in Section 4.

  13. 13.

    One might think the culprit in (1b) is the plural pronoun ‘them’, given that its antecedent, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, is a singular term. But it will not help to replace ‘them’ with a singular pronoun that purportedly denotes anything other than the novel. For instance, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused many Americans to support abolition; much of it (=the total collection of copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) has been lost’ is infelicitous, even though the anaphoric pronoun purportedly denotes a single object (the collection of copies of the novel).

  14. 14.

    See Burgess and Rosen (1997: 23-25), Caplan and Matheson (2004: 118-121), and Rosen (2017) for discussion about why it is hard to give an account of object causation that allows for concreta, but not abstracta, to be causal. These texts inspired this section of the paper.

  15. 15.

    Recall that when I talk of objects causing an effect, this is consistent with them being merely partial causes.

  16. 16.

    I assume all causal explanations are true. This is purely terminological.


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For helpful comments and discussion, thanks to Mark Balaguer, James Van Cleve, Sam Cumming, Katrina Elliott, Ashley Feinsinger, Deborah Friedell, Pamela Hieronymi, Andrew Jewell, Tim Juvshik, Dominic Lopes, Michaela McSweeney, Eliot Michaelson, Margaret Moore, Terence Parsons, Jessica Pepp, Gabe Rabin, Katherine Ritchie, Sheldon Smith, John Woods, Michel-Antoine Xhignesse, and audiences at the University of British Columbia, Temple University, Occidental College, and the Central European University Summer School in Ontology and Metaontology.

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Correspondence to David Friedell.

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Friedell, D. Abstracta Are Causal. Philosophia 48, 133–142 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-019-00073-9

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  • Abstract objects
  • Causation
  • Object causation
  • Novels
  • Dodd