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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2 Responses to On David Armstrong

  1. Joshua says:

    Armstrong is a delightful read, but I find him to be a hair shaky here as well. Clearly, he wants the ‘oomph’ and wants to avoid Humean-ism. But past that, it’s murky.

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