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In Defence of Powerful Qualities


The ontology of ‘powerful qualities’ is gaining an increasing amount of attention in the literature on properties. This is the view that the so-called categorical or qualitative properties are identical with ‘dispositional’ properties. The position is associated with C.B. Martin, John Heil, Galen Strawson and Jonathan Jacobs. Robert Schroer (2012) has recently mounted a number of criticisms against the powerful qualities view as conceived by these main adherents, and has also advanced his own (radically different) version of the view. In this paper I have three main aims: firstly, I shall defend the ontology from his critique, arguing that his criticisms do not damage the position. Secondly, I shall argue that Schroer’s own version of the view is untenable. Thirdly, the paper shall serve to clear up some conceptual confusions that often bedevil the powerful qualities view.

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  1. Though Schroer does not mention Jacobs specifically in his critique.

  2. Martin calls the view ‘the limit view’, whereas Schroer refers to it as ‘the M/H/S position’. I prefer the more popular name of ‘the powerful qualities’ view. This is only a terminological matter.

  3. E.g. Armstrong (1997) uses the term ‘categorical’, Martin and Heil use ‘quality’.

  4. Schroer himself commits this very error when he defines his terms (2012, p. 2).

  5. Those who hold the former view include Lewis (1986) and Armstrong (1997). Those who hold the latter include Mellor (1974), Shoemaker (1980) and Bird (2007). There is of course room for another view where there exists a mixture of these two types of property (Ellis and Lierse 1994).

  6. Martin does state the position in different ways over the course of his career (see, e.g. in Armstrong et al. 1996). However, it is this contemporary version held by Heil and Strawson as well as Martin which I shall be examining, and which is the focus of Schroer’s critique (see Schroer 2012, p. 3).

  7. The example is used several times in the literature (e.g. Heil 2003, p. 112).

  8. Though Gibb is not herself discussing the powerful qualities view.

  9. Heil (2003, p. 120 and 2004, p. 200) uses different examples to make the same point.

  10. Both myself and Schroer define ‘phenomenal consciousness’ in the traditional way as the ‘what it is like-ness’ of certain mental events.

  11. Though Schroer claims that he is the first person to discuss this ‘hypothetical’ position (2012, p. 10), a very similar position is advanced in Heil (2003, chapters 18–20; 2004, chapters 14–15 and 2010).

  12. In §3.4, we will examine some points where Schroer seems to hold this explicitly, though he explicitly claims not to (2012, p. 2).

  13. Proponents of this strategy include Loar (1990/1997), Papineau (2002) and Balog (2008) though they differ in their precise account of how ‘phenomenal concepts’ work. The strategy does, of course, have its critics (e.g. Goff 2011 and Hill 2009, chapter 2) but it is probably the most popular view of phenomenal consciousness at the moment. The phenomenal concept strategy as I have presented it here is a version of what Chalmers (1996) calls ‘type-B physicalism’ though similar ideas have been employed by Chalmers (who is of course a dualist) in his account of the epistemology of consciousness (2010, chapters 8–9). This subtlety will not matter for present purposes.

  14. Perhaps this is what Schroer could mean by saying that the hypothetical position claims that phenomenal properties are not ‘stand-alone’.

  15. See e.g. Levine (2001). Though Levine himself rejects the conclusion that brain properties cannot be identical with phenomenal ones.

  16. Schroer is employing the famous ‘zombie’ arguments of Chalmers (1996 and 2010).

  17. This canonical argument in favour of physicalism can be found in many places (e.g. Papineau 2002, chapter 1 and Levine 2001, chapter 1).

  18. Arguments along these lines are present in Shoemaker (1998) and Heil (2010, esp. p. 69).

  19. Schroer in part motivates this by a discussion of the Lockean concept of substratum (see Martin 1980 and Lowe 2000).

  20. How one interprets ‘alike’ will depend upon one’s theory of properties. A universalist (Armstrong 1997) would interpret it as meaning ‘identical’. A trope theorist (Ehring 2011) would interpret it as ‘exactly similar’. This subtlety will not affect my argument.

  21. Of course, Schroer could reject (2*) but this would be a large departure from the powerful qualities view as we have been examining it. It is questionable whether the resultant position would really be a version of the view at all. Certainly it would be nothing like what Heil and Strawson have in mind.


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Thanks to David Westland for comments on an earlier draft of the paper. Thanks to John Heil, Alex Carruth and all attendees to the Oxford Workshop on Powerful Qualities for stimulating discussion.

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Correspondence to John H. Taylor.

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As Schroer’s article has yet to appear in print, I have assigned it page numbers based upon those of the PDF available at the DOI stated in the index. This will be updated when Schroer’s article is printed.

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Taylor, J.H. In Defence of Powerful Qualities. Int Ontology Metaphysics 14, 93–107 (2013).

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  • Powerful qualities
  • Categorical properties
  • Dispositional properties
  • Partial consideration
  • Phenomenal consciousness