“The Devil is in the Categories – Metaphysics & Political Thought”

It matters for your social/political theorizing what your basic ontological assumptions are.   Short talk for a conference panel.  Panel is “Critical Theory, Loosely Construed.”


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Critical Social Ontology Workshop – 1st annual meeting, cfp

Click on the link below for the cfp for the 1st annual meeting of the Critical Social Ontology Workshop (and a little bit about the initiative), June 16-17, 2017, Saint Louis, MO.  Please share widely!

The Critical Social Ontology Workshop has a fb page, so you can keep up with news there.


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On Social Ontology – Capitalism, Racism, Patriarchy

Here’s a link to a talk that I just gave on the metaphysics of capital/capitalism.   Also some discussion of white supremacy and patriarchy.



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Substances, powers & necessitation

Some preliminary thoughts about substances and metaphysical necessitation, by way of Harre & Madden.

Okay, the following is a view (as they say): “The relationship between causes and the effects that they bring about is one of metaphysical necessity, not accidental correlation.”  There are alternate versions of the view.  In particular (no pun intended), there are different possible sources for the necessity.  And of the contemporary thinkers who hold it (or who did when they were alive), or who use language that is suggestive of it, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t stipulate that the metaphysical necessity in question can be foiled by the intervention of some other cause; it’s always (for better or for worse) ceteris paribus.  I say “for better or for worse” since Stephen Mumford (now with Rani Lill Anjum), for example, has always been quick to note that a relationship of supposed necessity that may not actually hold might be thought to be mislabeled.

Still, there is a view, held by some, rejected by others, that: (a) the relationship between causes and the effects that they bring about is one of real, live, this-worldly metaphysical necessity (rather than accidental correlation); and yet (b) the relationship in question does not imply that any token cause necessitates the token outcome to which it is so related metaphysically.  I’ll call it the ‘metaphysical necessity view’, in the way of the operative speech genre.  (Also, it’s shorter to call it that.  Though I could also call it Bob.  And maybe I will, since that would funnier than ‘the metaphysical necessity view’ – and shorter too – and funny wins.)  I’m interested in Bob in the context of theories in which causation is connected to the display of powers-to-phi, where such powers are thought to involve real, non-metaphorical, non-reducible activity.

Mumford & Anjum are well known for rejecting Bob.  Reconstructed (I hope accurately), their charge is that claim (b), above, is incoherent.  One cannot say that token causes may not actually issue in the outcomes with which they are metaphysical associated unless one rejects (a).  While it is true (they hold) that the relationship between causes and their effects is not one of accidental correlation, it is not true that it is one of metaphysical necessity.

Now, since the major proponents of Bob (or of close relatives) do hold (b), it is clear that whatever it is that they are affirming when they affirm (a) – coherently or not – it isn’t a straightforward assertion of de facto token necessitation.  What is it, then?  The governing interpretation seems to be that what is being asserted as a matter of ontology is that there exists some kind of base-line necessitation relation between causes and their effects that holds deep down, even though everyone agrees that actual token causes do not necessitate any given token outcome.  (Bhaskar, especially, of those who might be counted as being a friend of Bob’s, is at pains to stress that the modal status of a power is that of a tendency.)

I think that this interpretation is a bad reading of Bob.  I think this even though in some places even proponents of Bob sound as though they might think that that’s what they mean.  Certainly it’s not what anyone should mean, since one shouldn’t both deny and affirm determinism.  I also think it although the implicit counterfactual determinism can be sustained by what is (I think) actually meant (and certainly what should be meant).  [Note: don’t get hung up on “meant” or “mean” — I am using the words in a non-technical sense, not signalling that anything hangs on anyone’s semantics.]

What, then, might it mean to say, as Harre & Madden do, that it is a matter of metaphysical necessity that, if a substance of the kind ‘human being’ is thrown into a furnace (I know; it’s gruesome), then, in the absence of some other cause coming into play, given the nature of human beings and the nature of fire, that substance will be incinerated?   More precisely, what might it mean (other than that one is prepared to affirm p & ~p) to say this and yet to also insist, as Harre & Madden do, that it is not the case that if there is a furnace into which a human being is thrown, then necessarily that human being will be incinerated?

In Harre and Madden’s case, at least, the answer is very clear.  The claim is not that there is a relation of metaphysical necessity between raging fires and incinerated substances of the kind ‘human being.’  The claim is that there is a relationship of metaphysical necessity between something’s being a member of the kind ‘human being’ and being such that if it is cast, unprotected, for a sufficient period of time, into a raging fire, it will be incinerated.  There is a similar relationship of necessity between fire and the properties of fire.  The kind-natures of the given powerful particulars underwrite the apparent counterfactual necessitation underlying the ceteris paribus stipulation, but (a) they don’t deliver de facto necessitation (for the very sensible reasons that Harre & Madden provide, having to do with the potential contributions of other powerful particulars), and (b) it is a reification to think that that the “would otherwise” refers to some underlying causal relation that is somehow being thwarted.

No.  As Bob has it, there are two fundamental issues of ontology here: one concerning substances (or objects), one concerning causation.  With respect to substances, the claim is that there are powerful particulars of given kinds.  The further modal specification is that while it is not metaphysically necessary that any given kind of thing exist, if a given kind of thing does exist, then the relationship between its members and their kind-based properties is one of metaphysical necessity.   With respect to causation, the claim is that causation involves displays of the powers of powerful particulars of given kinds, which displays constitute relations of cause and effect amongst said powerful particulars of given kinds.  These relations are not arbitrary, but neither are they, at the relevant level of abstraction. presumptively deterministic.

I suspect that, in the case of contemporary analytic thinkers, the temptation to posit the existence of a real but non-actual realm of deterministic necessitation is enhanced by a general squeamishness about substances (or objects), or in any case a distance from them, amongst Anglo-analytic metaphysicians.  Once the discussion effectively assumes nothing but a field of properties, here powers, it is easier to lose hold of the proposed neo-Aristotelian picture.  The temptation is probably also enhanced by the fact that contemporary thinkers are not trained to think in exclusively this-worldly terms about modality.  The habit of going off-world may make it easier for one to imagine that if something would have otherwise happened in this world, that implies that it really is happening somewhere else, if not off-world then here deep down.

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Synthese, On-Line First — “Sublating the Free Will Problematic: Powers, Agency & Causal Determination”

Here is the PDF.  Hopefully Synthese will fix the link that they sent me, which is not presently working.  Also, there is a sentence about Alexander Bird that ends “… identities (or natures).”  It is supposed to end with “essentially.”  They have their given identities (or natures) essentially.


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On David Armstrong

In the book that I am writing – slowly but surely (A Critical Introduction to Causal Powers and Dispositions, for Bloomsbury’s Critical Introductions to Contemporary Metaphysics series) – the governing analytic device is the distinction between anti-passivism and passivism (roughly, whether activity is a real phenomenon or merely a useful metaphor, as my friend Alexander Bird maintains — or even a pernicious one, as Hume had it).

It can be hard to tell which position a thinker holds.

Sometimes the reason(s) for this is (are) rhetorical.  It can be easy, for example, to get swept along by an author’s use of activity-terms (and active verbs generally, for that matter) in setting out a metaphysics in which activity does not really exist.  The potential for confusion of this sort is increased further by the device of the ‘non-eliminativist reduction,’ a move that makes it easier than it might otherwise be for those who work in genres in which the move is permitted to lose track of whether they (or others) have affirmed or denied the existence of something.

Other times a thinker will say things about powers or dispositions (as they conceive of them) that may make it sound as though they are a passivist, when in fact they mean something by the terms that does not preclude a commitment to anti-passivism.  Jonathan Lowe’s The Four Category Ontology is a bit this way.  Jonathan told me in an e-mail once, when I asked him, that he was pretty sure that he believed in real, oomphy powers, even though he didn’t believe in anything that he wanted to call a dispositional property.  This same rhetorical opacity can also be introduced via the range of ways that people define so-called categorical properties.  The general point is that the properties the existence of which one person affirms may very well not be those the existence of which is denied, under the same name, by someone else.

In addition to these rhetorical factors, sometimes a thinker’s position is just ambiguous and/or contradictory substantively, at the level of the proposed ontology.  I suggested as much in posts concerning Kant and Locke (and do so more formally in the book), and I think that it’s the same with David Armstrong’s position in A World of States of Affairs.  (In fact, I think that the nature of the contradiction is similar in all three cases, though especially so with respect to Kant and Armstrong.)

Armstrong says that the world is composed of states of affairs.  There are token states of affairs and types of states of affairs.  Token causes, figuring in singular causation (which Armstrong allows), are token SA’s that “bring about” other token SA’s.  The issue with respect to whether or not Armstrong is a passivist or an anti-passivist centers on the ‘bringing about’: how is the phenomenon in question being conceptualized?   Does ‘bringing about’ involve real, non-metaphorical activity, or does it not?  The mere fact that Armstrong defends singular causation at all might lead one to think that the answer is yes.  But there is more to be said before we can give an answer.

If nothing else, it turns out that the question is properly pushed back a frame, since Armstrong tells us that [oomphy or not (i.e. involving real activity or not)], what token or singular causal sequences are are instantiations of causal laws.

So what are causal laws, according to Armstrong?

Armstrong distinguishes between three possibilities, for the ultimate form (and nature) of a causal law.

  • The first is: it is always the case that the SA-type of a thing’s being F is followed by a regular sequence in which the SA-type of a (different) thing’s being G is followed by the SA-type of that (same other) thing’s being H (i.e., at time t+1).

This, Armstrong tells us, is a regularity account of laws, with a regularity account of causation as such built into it.  Both are incorrect, in his view.

  • Second: it is always the case that the token SA of a thing’s being F and being related to the token SA of a (different) thing’s being G causes the further thing to become H. (WSA, CUP, 1997, p. 225)

This formulation includes a non-regularity account of causation, says Armstrong, but it doesn’t (yet) give us the correct account of what a causal law is.

  • Third: the SA-type of a thing’s being F and being related to the SA-type of a (different) thing’s being G brings about the further SA-type of the latter thing’s (now) being H. (WSA, p. 225-26)

The third one’s the charm.  That’s what a causal law is: a ‘bringing about’ of one SA-type by another SA-type.  Token causal sequences are instantiations of just such complex, second-order universals.  This third account, which Armstrong calls the “strong” theory of laws, differs from the first two in that neither laws nor causation as such are being explicitly equated with the mere fact of succession.

In combining “strong” laws with singular causation, Armstrong is not a standard Humean.  But we still need to know about the ‘bringing about’: whether or not it is meant to be (or involve) real, non-metaphorical activity.  If yes, he is an anti-passivist; if no, a passivist.

The problem is that, so far as I can tell, on the decisive point David Armstrong just says contradictory things.   On the one hand, he cites Nancy Cartwright approvingly, and says that he holds the view of the world that she does; he talks at length about the direct experience of forces on the body (though motion, one might think, is a narrower category than that of activity); he says that only strong laws can “do justice to the making it happen, the producing, the bringing about, that is involved in singular causation.” (WSA, p. 219)  On the other hand, he says that a belief in powers as per dispositionalism amounts to a psychologistic anthropomorphizing, a projecting of the will onto inanimate objects, and that the crux of causation is nomicity (WSA, p. 227).  Token causality is the instantiation of a relationship between universals; it is “like an inference in nature” (WSA, p. 232), where the inference is secured by the terms of complex second-order universal that has been instantiated.  This is order-talk, not activity-talk.  What is especially striking about the inconsistency is that in at least one place in A World of States of Affairs the contradictory pronouncements are mere paragraphs apart.

I wish that I could ask David Armstrong which metaphysics he meant to endorse, passivist or anti-passivist.  I don’t think that the answer is clear at all.   As I suggested at the outset, the situation is reminiscent of what we find in Kant and Locke too, though that is a post for another day.

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“Powers, Essentialism & Agency …

… : A Reply to Alexander Bird.”

Here, in talk form, is an overdue reply to my friend Alexander.  Presented by Skype to a conference on powers and essentialism organized by the philosophy department of American University in Beirut this past weekend.

Apologies for any remaining typos or any problems with layout in converting to PDF.

Comments welcome as always!

Reply to Alexander – May 1, 2016




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