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Can a Single Property Be Both Dispositional and Categorical? The “Partial Consideration Strategy”, Partially Considered

Abstract

One controversial position in the debate over dispositional and categorical properties maintains that our concepts of these properties are the result of partially considering unitary properties that are both dispositional and categorical. As one of its defenders (Heil 2005, p. 351) admits, this position is typically met with “incredulous stares”. In this paper, I examine whether such a reaction is warranted. This thesis about properties is an instance of what I call “the Partial Consideration Strategy”—i.e., the strategy of claiming that what were formerly thought of as distinct entities are actually a unified entity, partially considered. By evaluating its use in other debates, I uncover a multi-layered prima facie case against the use of the Partial Consideration Strategy in the dispositional/categorical properties debate. In closing, I describe how the Partial Consideration Strategy can be reworked in a way that would allow it to sidestep this prima facie case.

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Notes

  1. The description of dispositional properties as being “full of threats and promises” comes from Goodman 1965.

  2. These expressions come from Martin (1997). The claim that dispositional properties are intrinsic properties is widely accepted; see, for example, Martin (1994, 1997, 2008), Heil (2003, 2005), Molnar (2003), Whittle (2006), and Bird (2007).

  3. As Schaffer (2005) explains, the defender of categorical properties could maintain that the laws of nature are necessary and, hence, constant across all possible worlds. Under such an account, categorical properties would end up conveying the same powers to their bearers in all possible worlds. But, unlike dispositional properties, it would not be part of their essence that they do so.

  4. Dispositional Monists include Shoemaker (1980, 1998) and Bird (2007). Categorical Monists include Lewis (1986), Armstrong (1997), and Schaffer (2005). Some posit that there is a mix of both dispositional properties and non-dispositional (i.e., categorical) properties; see, for instance, Ellis (2001) and Molnar (2003).

  5. To be fair, Molnar also offers some actual arguments against the M/H/S position; see, in particular, Molnar 2003, pp. 150–153.

  6. Heil (2003, pp. 92–95) suggests that part of the reason people assume that there must be properties that are exclusively dispositional in nature and/or properties that are exclusively categorical in nature is because of the temptation to read ontology off of language—i.e., since we have dispositional and categorical predicates, there must be dispositional and categorical properties.

  7. Another “job” sometimes assigned to substrata is to distinguish objects that instantiate all the same universals and thereby account for the numerical diversity of qualitatively identical objects. Conceived of in this other way, what's important about the substratum is its particularity. (For discussion, see Armstrong 1997 and Loux 1998.) Some want the substratum to perform both of these jobs: bear properties and distinguish objects that instantiate all the same universals. (See, for instance, the discussion of thin particulars in Armstrong 1997.)

  8. The absence of essential properties in substrata is sometimes used to argue that the very notion of substrata embodies a contradiction. People drawn to this argument says things like “in order to execute the job they've been assigned, substrata must possess the property of being property-bearers” or “if substrata are property-less, then they possess the property of having no properties”. Such arguments can be blunted, however, by adopting a “sparse” conception of properties where every meaningful predicate does not necessarily map onto a property. Under a sparse conception, the truth of sentences like “the substratum bears properties” or “the substratum is (intrinsically) property-less” doesn't require that the substratum instantiate the property of being a property-bearer or the property of being property-less. For more on this response to the apparent contradictions of the substratum, see Loux (1998, p. 121–123) and Sider (2006).

  9. They also differ over the arguments they give in favor of the substratum; some give arguments in addition to (or in place of) the argument that properties need bearers. As a result, some are working with a conception of substrata where they have additional/other metaphysical jobs besides that of supporting properties.

  10. This expression comes from Nagel (1974).

  11. This point also distinguishes the position under discussion from what Chalmers (1996, 2010) labels “Type-F Materialism/Monism”. According to the latter position, phenomenal (or “protophenomenal”) properties serve as the categorical basis for physical properties and, as a result, are more ontologically fundamental than physical properties.

  12. Others have drawn a similar distinction; see, for example, Levine's (2001) distinction between “thin” and “thick” conceivability. Chalmers' discussion of this and other issues relating to conceivability owes much to Yablo's (1993) seminal paper on the topic.

  13. A small, but growing movement challenges this claim. The basic idea behind the challenge is that the physical sciences only provide relational descriptions of the properties they describe—i.e., they describe these properties in terms of what they help their bearers to do, while remaining silent about the intrinsic nature of these properties. For articulations of this challenge, see Russell (1927) and Chalmers (1996).

  14. The “Phenomenal Concept Strategy” maintains that the conceivability of the relevant scenarios is the result of a special feature of our phenomenal concepts, and not the result of the actual metaphysical distinctness of phenomenal and physical properties. For general discussion of this strategy, see Stoljar 2005.

  15. I suspect that things were different in the infancy of the contemporary Physicalist movement; when he was first giving talks in which he identified phenomenal properties with physical properties, I suspect that Jack Smart met his fair share of incredulous stares. (Although even then there were pre-existing Behaviorist arguments against Dualism that, if accepted, could help undercut the force of the prima facie case for Dualism.)

  16. Perhaps the defender of the Partial Consideration Strategy could co-opt some of the pre-existing defensive maneuvers of the Physicalist. To do so, however, he would first have to make the case that, despite the differences between Physicalism and the Partial Consideration Strategy, the relevant defensive maneuvers deployed on behalf of the former could also be deployed on behalf of the latter.

  17. Recall that we are working with a conception of the substratum where its sole job is to be the bearer of properties. Things would be different on this front if we instead thought of the job of the substratum in terms of particularizing objects; in that case, perhaps we could conceive of the particular substratum associated with an object—say the substratum associated with my dog Fitz—being associated with a completely different set of properties.

  18. We saw earlier, in footnote 13, that some think that the physical sciences are fated to give incomplete descriptions of the properties they describe. The same concern resurfaces here as well: if the physical sciences give incomplete descriptions of they properties they describe, and if they describe properties exclusively in terms of the powers they convey upon their bearers, then there must be more to properties then the powers they convey.

  19. For critical discussions of this conception of categorical properties, see Black 2000 and Bird 2007.

  20. See, for instance, Blackburn (1990) and Chalmers (1996).

  21. Martin and Heil emphasize, repeatedly, that categorical properties are “manifest” qualities. For additional discussion of this way of characterizing the nature of categorical properties, see Molnar (2003), pp. 167–168.

  22. For example, see Shoemaker (1998), Ellis (2001), Heil (2003), and Bird (2007). The seminal discussion of this general strategy for undermining conceivability arguments comes from Kripke (1980), who uses it to undermine conceivability objections to a posteriori identities like “water = H2O” or “Phosphorus = Hesperus”.

  23. There are a variety of arguments that fall under this general theme. Armstrong (1968) argues that dispositional properties need categorical grounds to explain how they continue to exist while unmanifested. Prior et al. (1982) argue that dispositional properties need grounds in order to accommodate the thesis of Determinism. Smith and Stoljar (1998) argue that dispositional properties need grounds in order to give a plausible account of the semantics of dispositional ascription. Etc.

  24. See, for instance, Blackburn (1990), Martin (1997), and Armstrong (1997).

  25. See, for instance, Foster (1982).

  26. I fill in some of the missing details in Schroer 2010.

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Schroer, R. Can a Single Property Be Both Dispositional and Categorical? The “Partial Consideration Strategy”, Partially Considered. Int Ontology Metaphysics 14, 63–77 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12133-012-0112-z

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Keywords

  • Dispositional properties
  • Categorical properties
  • Partial consideration
  • The substratum
  • Phenomenal properties