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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Emergence, Part 2 (of 3)

In what was going to be Part 2 but will now be Part 3, I was (and still am) going to say a few things about how I think of emergence, in keeping with what I said in Part 1.

But before I do that I want to register some problems that I see with maintaining, as Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum do, that emergent phenomena (a) have parts; which parts, (b) in virtue of being parts of an emergent whole, are different from what they (the parts) are like on their own, i.e., when they are not parts of such a whole (recall: the parts having been sufficiently transformed is Stephen & Rani’s test for the whole being emergent); and which parts (c) either in their original form or in their changed form (it seems as though it would have to be in their original form, but it’s not clear), cause the emergent whole of which they are the parts.  I’m not opposed to (a) – some emergent wholes do have parts, in my view – and I’m fine with (b) too (though not as a criterion of emergence), since in some cases the parts are indeed transformed.  It’s (c) that I reject.  I don’t think that the relationship between an emergent whole and its parts (if it has parts) is causal.

Stephen and Rani are neither alone in thinking that emergent entities are caused by the lower-level phenomena to which those who deny emergence think purportedly emergent entities reduce, nor the first to think it.  But they think it and also hold an explicitly anti-Humean, anti-passivist, productive account of what causation is.  This is true of Doug Porpora too, for that matter, but Stephen presented (a)-(c) as a package at the conference that Phil Gorski & I organized earlier this month, so for that reason I will direct myself to him and Rani now.

Here are some points that seem problematic to me, in no especially important order.

1. Is it the parts pre- or post-transformation that cause the emergent entity?   [Actually, Stephen and Rani prefer to talk of powers being causes, not powerful things.  So to be precise it’s probably the powers of its parts that, as they have it, cause the emergent whole (and its powers), not its (powerful) parts that do so.  I’ll use “micro-level phenomena” whenever possible (or, stylistically viable), which can refer either to powers of parts or to powerful parts, as one prefers.]

At first glance, it looks as though it’s going to have to be the pre-transformation micro-level phenomena that are the cause of the emergent whole, since the parts being different than they would otherwise be (i.e., if they weren’t parts of an emergent whole) presupposes that the emergent whole (of which they are the parts) already exists.

But if we say that the causing of the emergent whole is done by its pre-transformation parts (or the powers thereof), we will then need to know what the relationship is between the resultant emergent whole and its (now sufficiently) transformed parts — since (by stipulation) the latter parts (or the powers thereof) aren’t the ones that are its cause.  This way seems to leave us with too many groups of parts, only the first of which (or the powers thereof) is the cause.  Moreover, if the transformed parts (or the powers thereof) aren’t the ones that cause the emergent whole – if, e.g., they instead constitute it in some way – then the position starts to sound less like an alternative to the constitution view, since the instant the emergent whole exists at all, its parts are indeed the transformed ones (as per Stephen and Rani’s account of what an emergent entity is).

2. If we say instead that the emergent whole is caused by (the powers of) its transformed parts, we will be able to just set aside the pre-transformed parts (or powers thereof).  They have nothing to do with the emergent entity in question.  So now at least we don’t have an extra batch of parts to deal with.

But there are complications this way too.  First is the issue of the transformed parts presupposing the existence of the emergent whole.  Second, in explaining why it’s the already-transformed parts (or the powers thereof) that cause the emergent whole, rather than the parts as they were before they were parts of the whole, it looks as though it will be hard to avoid saying that the reason why the pre-transformation parts (or powers thereof) aren’t relevant is that, not being transformed, they amount to a plurality of parts, not an emergent whole.  But as soon as we start talking about what things amount to, it’s harder to make out why it wouldn’t be that what we’re talking about is constitution, rather than causation.

This will also be the end-result, I think, of saying that the reason why there is no paradox in the case of transformed parts causing a whole that they presuppose is that causes can bring about effects instantly.  Here, of course, we need the full effect, viz., the whole, to be brought about instantly, such that the transformed parts can instantly be the transformed ones that we need to cause the whole in the first place.  But once you say this it starts to sound very much as though what we’ve got is constitution, expressed as a wildly implausible causal scenario.

3. What if we say that emergent wholes are caused first by pre-transformation micro-level phenomena, and then, after that, by the now-existent wholes’ now-transformed parts  (or the powers thereof)?  This seems messy too.  If nothing else, it is going to be a question how two different sets of powers [those of the (soon-to-be) parts pre-transformation and those of the parts post-transformation] have caused the same emergent entity.

4. Since the emergent entity doesn’t ever stop having (now-transformed) parts, it looks as though emergent wholes are going to be being caused throughout their existence.  At no point will the cause have issued in the effect, i.e., the existence of the emergent whole.  This doesn’t seem right either.  Especially since we need the whole to be caused instantly, in order to underwrite the transformation of the parts.

5. If emergent entities are caused by their parts, transformed or not, it would seem that all real entities (i.e., all entities that don’t reduce, metaphysically, to other entities) that have parts will have to be caused by their parts.  That alone needn’t be a problem.  The proponent of this view will just say that all real entities with parts are, by definition, emergent.  But it does raise the question of what the principled difference is between causation and constitution, on this powers-based view of emergence as a causal relation.

6. And it does matter that it’s a powers-based view of emergence as a causal relation.  If one were to hold, for example, that causation is counterfactual dependence, then to claim that the emergent whole is “caused” by its parts would be to say nothing more than that it wouldn’t exist if its parts didn’t.  The realist about productive causal powers (who means something entirely different by “caused by” than counterfactual dependence) is perfectly entitled to deny that emergent entities are caused by their parts (transformed or otherwise) but affirm that, absent their parts (or their base, be this parts or not), they would not exist.

7. My hunch is that the powers-based argument over whether or not emergent phenomena are caused by their parts (rather than being constituted though not exhausted by their parts, if they have them) — my hunch is that disagreement about this ultimately intersects with the issue of whether or not one retains substances (or objects) in one’s ontology, if only since an ontology that bottoms out in displays of powers is one in which issues of constitution may not figure at all.

8. For what it’s worth, Roy Bhaskar argued against the view that societies, as one type of emergent whole anyway, are caused by individuals.  He didn’t think that societies are composed of (but not exhausted by) individuals, either, but even so, critical realists who think that societies are emergent wholes that are caused by their (transformed) parts, where the parts are individuals, should note that in saying so they are rejecting Roy’s charge that such a position amounts to voluntarism, and that individuals must be seen as re-producing society, rather than producing it.  It’s fine to disagree with Roy Bhaskar – I argued against his concept of alethic truth as early as 1997; I mean only to point out the connection between the present issue and Roy’s defense of the TMSA (transformational model of social activity) and the so-called “ontological gap” between individuals and society (though the gap issue is not identical to the “not caused by” point).

9. Again, I am working up to a post in which I offer some positive thoughts on these matters.  But, as before, I hope that these preliminary comments will be of interest in the meantime.



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Emergence, Part 1

There was a lot of discussion of the metaphysics of emergence at the Causal Powers and Sociology conference that we organized this past weekend.  Almost everyone there was someone who’d thought about emergence a lot; many of the people there have published on it, several of the presentations addressed the issue directly; and most if not all of the discussion assumed a commitment to it in one form or another.  But there was lots of disagreement, too, even amongst people who agree that there are such things as emergent wholes with emergent causal powers.

Some of the disagreement is semantic.  People agree upon distinctions between different types of phenomena, but reserve the term ’emergence’ for different types.  Some delimit the category such that emergent phenomena are few and far between; others are more permissive.  Similarly, some use the term as a verb: entities and/or powers emerge out of other ones as a process of coming into being; others use it as an adjective: entities and/or powers are emergent, vis-a-vis some other entity and/or power(s).  [As Jessica Wilson notes – via her attached paper in the comments, below – we can refer to these stances as diachronic and synchronic, when those terms serve to clarify — as many of us did in discussion during and after the conference.]

But there is also substantive disagreement, ranging from ontologically motivated disputes in favor or one or another of the semantic options, to disagreement about whether or not emergence under any description exists, to what emergence under any given description (if it exists) involves metaphysically.

The upshot is that there are all sorts of ways for people to talk past one another.

A useful place to begin, I think, is with the question of whether or not a whole is the same thing as a plurality of parts.  In sociology, the classic formulation of this question involves a battalion.  Is a battalion just another name for the total number of individual soldiers of which it is composed — such that, if there are 400 soldiers, the total number of entities in existence would be 400, rather than 401?  Or does the battalion exist too, in addition to the 400 soldiers?

There are many ways to equivocate, in response to this question.  In all cases it amounts (in my view) to wooly thinking.  We need a yes or no answer to this first question.  Not: “Well, battalions exist alright, but what they are is a plurality of soldiers.”  Not: “Battalions aren’t anything in addition to a plurality of soldiers since what a battalion is is a plurality of soldiers duly arranged.”  And for sure not: “Battalions are the same thing as a plurality of soldiers, but I can’t talk about the behavior of a battalion unless I help myself to the macro-level terminology, so I will, and it follows from this that I am not a reductionist.”

It’s fine if one answers “Yes” – i.e., “Yes, the battalion exists too, in addition to the 400 soldiers” – but also prefers to reserve the term ’emergence’ for something more than the fact that wholes do not reduce, ontologically, to pluralities of parts.  To put it differently, one might think that emergence is something more than the negation of ontological individualism.

What would such a ‘something more’ be?  One possibility would be to say that it’s not emergence unless the emergent whole is an entity that has no parts.  Tim O’Connor and Jonathan Jacobs have defended this sort of view, though others do too — including Aquinas.  Another possibility would be to say that an emergent whole is a relational phenomenon that retains its parts, but that the parts have to have been transformed in some way, such that they are qualitatively different from what they were on their own.  Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum defend a view of this type, though again I don’t mean to ascribe the position to them uniquely.  Stephen was at the conference, so it makes some sense to refer to him here.

Notice two things, with respect to these versions of emergence as something more than the fact (if it is one) that wholes are not equal to pluralities of parts — and that ontological individualism (i.e., metaphysical reduction in the sociological context) is therefore false.

First, neither version actually requires that one reject ontological individualism in the case of entities that don’t pass the recommended ‘something more’ test.  A proponent of either version would be free to think that a battalion is not the 401st thing in an ontological inventory that includes 400 soldiers.  A proponent of the ‘no-parts’ view who thought that battalions aren’t emergent entities could say that battalions reduce to micro-level phenomena because battalions have parts.   Similarly, a proponent of the ‘transformed parts’ view who was a reductionist about ostensibly macro-level phenomena that flunk (their version of) the ‘something more’ test would say that the soldiers in a battalion have not been sufficiently changed for the battalion to count as a 401st thing.  Of course, proponents of either version of the ’emergence requires something more than not reducing’ view would be equally able to think that battalions, even if they flunk the emergence test, do not reduce to a plurality of their parts.

Second, proponents of the ‘transformed parts’ view will have to be sure that it is the parts of the emergent entity that no longer behave as they did before, and not the whole emergent entity itself.  For example, we can’t drink oxygen, and we can drink water.  But if water does not reduce to a plurality of its parts, then it is not altered-oxygen that we drink, when we drink water, but water.

Even this much allows us to see more concretely some of the myriad of ways that people can wind up disagreeing and/or talking past each other.  One might count all wholes as emergent, on the grounds that wholes don’t reduce.  One might count only some wholes as deserving of the label ’emergent,’ but still think that no wholes reduce.  One might think that only those phenomena that count as emergent according to a ‘something more’ (or, ‘something other’) test, don’t reduce.  One might think that all purported sociological wholes reduce to individuals, but that the reduction stops there.  One might think that it’s parts all the way down.

Sometimes the terms ‘strong emergence’ and ‘weak emergence’ are used to sort out these differences.  I don’t find the terms helpful, so I’m avoiding them.  Best, I think, is to get as close as possible to the alternate views of how the world is, without introducing potentially misleading names.  Especially unhelpful, to my mind, is the use of the term ‘weak emergence’ to refer to what is already an equivocation (in my view), viz., the idea that a whole is a plurality of parts, “duly arranged” — where “duly arranged” does metaphysical work sufficient to distinguish such an arrangement from a plurality of parts as such (including, presumably, from heaps), but not sufficient to ground, or to be, an irreducible entity.

Now, I am a person who thinks that there is a difference between wholes whose parts retain their integrity and those whose parts are significantly transformed or whose material base is not best thought of as a proper part at all.  I also think that there is a difference between living things and non-living things, and between conscious things and non-conscious things.  But I don’t think that any wholes reduce to their parts, and I don’t think that it is possible to have it both ways with respect to “parts, duly arranged.”  “Parts, duly arranged” are either a plurality of parts, or they are an irreducible whole; you don’t get the “duly arranged” for free.

So despite holding that there are important metaphysical differences between types of entities that don’t reduce, I still refer to all such entities as emergent.  I do so because I think that the distinction upon which it is most important to have a roll call vote is that of reduction.  Once we establish that no wholes reduce, we can sort the wholes into different metaphysical sub-categories.

A proponent of the ‘something more’ view – especially one who is a reductionist about everything except phenomena that pass the ‘something more’ test – can be expected to say that emergence so construed is too easy to come by.  Everything and anything is going to turn out to be emergent.

I’d reply as follows.  (Do, hereby, reply as follows.)

First, it would misleading to characterize the ‘something more’ view [when it is combined with reductionism about all of other (ostensible) wholes] as being a commitment to ‘strong’ rather than ‘weak’ emergence.  In fact, rather than being strong on emergence, the position is much closer to a general reductionist program than is the view that no wholes reduce.  The real objection, from this quarter, to the person who thinks, as I do, that no wholes reduce is that s/he has taken too hard of a line against reductionism.

Second, note that the logic of what I’ve just said becomes maximally apparent once we remove the option of fudging on “duly arranged.”

I say this because, third: if the equivocation is disallowed, then the proponent of the ‘something more’ position has to say either (a) that what they are counting as emergent entities are the only entities that don’t reduce, or (b) that non-reductive but non-emergent (as per their scheme) arrangements don’t reduce either.

And if they say the latter, then, fourth: the disagreement is not about there being too many non-reducible entities; it’s about not having enough names for the different types of non-reducible entities, and wanting to use the name ’emergent’ for only one of the types, rather than for the whole set of non-reducible entities.

Finally, notice that the otherwise reductionist proponent of the  ‘something more’ criterion for wholes will not be allowed an emergent entity that is emergent vis-a-vis an organized entity one level “down,” unless that micro-level entity also passes the ‘something more’ test.  It will be reduction all the way down to a “lower” level, if there is one, of part-less entity or entity whose parts have been sufficiently transformed.

Okay, so far so good.  As I say, I like ’emergence’ for all wholes, with appropriate names for ones with different general compositional features (and I’m so far talking here about propertied entities, not properties themselves).   But I don’t care too much about the names.  We can call non-reducible entities ‘wholes’ if that’s better — and it might be.  Or NRE’s.  Or Biff.

I’ll go with ‘NRE’ for present purposes.  Let me also assert that it’s in the nature of the case that if it’s an NRE, its properties are had by it, not by its parts or by a plurality thereof.  If you want to tuck the properties of wholes into the properties of their parts, you’re simply denying that there are NREs.  Whether or not it’s a plausible move – the tucking – is a separate issue.

Having said all of this really just as preliminary, in order to try to lessen the likelihood of miscommunication, I want to offer some quick & initial thoughts in relation to the disputes about emergence that were had at last weekend’s conference. There were two major points of disagreement.

First, people disagree about whether NREs are (a) caused by their parts or (b) constituted (but not exhausted by) their parts.

Second, there was disagreement about whether the properties of NREs [rather than the entities themselves (treat the distinction as you will)] are (a) caused by the properties of the parts or (b) had by the NRE, as part and parcel of its being what it is, rather than something else.

Some people answered (a) to both questions.  Others (b) to both.  And one person answered (b) to the first, (a) to the second.  In all cases people agreed that the causal processes (i.e., displays of the powers of things) are diachronic.  I was in the (b)-to-both group.

But what I thought even more than that the (b)’s seemed righter than the (a)’s, was that there were actually better ways to think about the whole thing, as it were (get it?), than the ways given by those choices so formulated.

However, because it is very, very late, and this post is now very, very long, I am going to end with: “To be continued in Part 2.”  If you have read this far, I think that what I say in Part 2 will be clear, even if you don’t agree.  That will (hopefully) have made Part 1 worth it.



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Workshop on Causal Powers & the Social (Yale University, March 4-5)

Click on the link for info!

Causal Powers and Social Science Conference_Program Schedule 2016

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Social Structures as Causes

This is a memo for an upcoming working conference on social ontology from a powers-based perspective.  We were charged with setting out something that vexes us, that we are trying to sort out.  All thoughts welcome!  Sorry about the formatting glitches; I can’t seem to fix them.

  1. The problem

1a. I’m interested in whether or not social structures can be causes, in keeping with an anti-passivist account of causation, in which causing is either akin to doing or derivative of doing.

1b. This question, in turn, raises the issue of what a social structure actually is. I need to know what something is before I can think about whether or not it is the type of thing that can do anything – and if so what the sense of “doing” is.

Note: since I am a person who thinks that causation is causation is causation, I am going to have to say the same about “doing.” That is, concretely there are all sorts of qualitatively different kinds of doing – and in fact there is no such concrete thing as generic doing (except maybe for commodified labor-power in its value-form); nonetheless, “doing” will have to be understood in such a way that it can apply to all instances of it. There won’t be an easy “pluralism about doing” move to be made, just as (in my view) there isn’t one to be made when one is using the term “causation” rather than the term “doing.”

2. Formal Cause

2a. One way to at least think that you’ve answered both questions – what structures are and in what sense they can be causes – is to say that structures are formal causes, as per Aristotle. I have suggested in the past that they are this, though I don’t think that I was clear enough at the time about what they were the formal causes of. I am not sure now if structures are formal causes, though they might be, and I am even less sure that being a formal cause amounts to doing.

2b. What is a formal cause?

Aristotle tells us in the Physics that when you ask what caused x there are really 4 different questions that you might be asking, with four very different kinds of answer.

  • “What is x made of?” – Answer gives you the material cause of x
  • “What is it to be an x?” – Answer gives you the formal cause of x
  • “Who or what made it be that x came into being; who or what was the source of the change?” – Answer gives you the efficient cause of
  • “What is the purpose of things that are x’s? I.e., what is involved in being afully actualized x?” – Answer gives you the final cause of x

2c. The formal cause of x, then, is the “what it is,” as Aristotle says, in virtue of which it is x and not y; the formal cause of x is its essence, its x-ness. Instantiated x-ness is material, of course, which is to say that concrete x’s are not exhausted by their x-ness; they also are their materiality – though it is x-materiality all the way down.

  1. What are social structures?

3a. Not sure, though I don’t think that they aren’t what people such as Giddens and Searle say they are, and they might be what Doug Porpora says they are.

3b. It’s easy to think of a social structure in spatial terms, as an arrangement of persons, as in a human pyramid, or an arrangement of steel, as in a bridge. It might be that the spatial metaphor of isn’t quite right, though.

Synchronically, it may be better to think of a structure as a (relatively fixed, diachronically) distribution of various things (“things” as a count noun): (i)material things, (ii) psychological things and (iii) power (i.e. efficacy), chief amongst them. The impulse is to say that the structure is that which accounts for a given stable distribution, and I think that there is something right about that, but I’m not sure how to think of it, and it seems to me that a synchronic configuration of goods could be diachronically self-reproducing.

Such a configuration would, in the case of some structures at least (e.g. patriarchy) be an essential feature of the social whole of which the structure is a structure. Synchronically, it seems to me, a distribution being as it is could give rise to emergent relational properties, and to irreducibly sociological positions, including ones that we could call “internal relations,” in which each position requires the other. Diachronically, it would be reproduced via activity mediated by these same conditions.

I’m not at all sure about this. I think that a society is a relational entity made out of individuals (and other things, too, no doubt); I just don’t know that that’s what a structure is.

3c. Whatever exactly a structure is, though, if a social whole is organized in a patriarchal rather than non-patriarchal way, then the society will indeed be an x the formal cause of which is patriarchy. Patriarchy will be the “what it is,” or essence, of such a social whole. (Or at least one aspect of what it is, though that is a further complication.)

  1. We can see two things right away.

First, in thinking about whether or not structures can do anything, I wasn’t asking if structures are the “what it is” of societies of given kinds. I was asking if structures can bring about change. I was asking if they can be what Aristotle calls efficient causes. On the face of it, at least, it won’t do, therefore, to say: “They are efficient causes in the sense that they are formal causes.” If nothing else, it’s not an answer. It would still be an open question whether or not the “what it is” of a thing can do what efficient causes can do.

Second, it seems as though things that are efficient causes can do what they can do in virtue of having the properties that they do. If structures can do things, and structures are essences (formal causes), we will next have to ask if essences are propertied things. Or if they are properties. And if they are neither, but we still wanted to say that structures are not just essences but efficient causes in virtue of being essences, then we would need to know how essences qua efficient causes compare to regular efficient causes, i.e., ones that aren’t essences but have essences. More generally, it will be necessary to be very clear about the relationship between the essences of things and their powers.

  1. Aristotle does give us a model of essences being efficient causes, at least sort of, in the case of the growth of natural things. This might be the place to look, if one wanted to say that patriarchy is both (a) the “what it is” of certain kinds of social wholes and, precisely qua the “what it is,” (b) the efficient cause of the internal development of such wholes.
  1. At a minimum, though, the question about whether or not structures can be causes has to be understood to be the question of whether or not social structures can bring about change. So the answer can’t be simply that they can do so because they are formal causes, i.e., essences. Perhaps they are essences, but that fact just pushes the question back a frame.
  1. In keeping with point #3 above, I might think that it is social wholes that are powerful particulars, not their structures. I could be talked out of this, for sure. But since I think that it’s propertied things and not their properties (let alone their essences) that do the doing, when causation occurs, it follows that if it’s a patriarchal society and not patriarchy that is the propertied thing, then in saying that patriarchy is a cause what we’d actually be saying – or, what we should be saying – is that a society that is organized in a certain way brings about certain internal outcomes in virtue of being the kind of society that it is. This would make it be that it is society, not its essence, that is the efficient cause.
  1. We’d still want to know, though, what the sense is in which a society can do things.   And also what to say about the relationship between how a society is configured (what its characteristic internal distribution pattern is) and what the powers are that are had by the whole. The powers had by the whole are properties, and the structure of the whole is certainly intimately connected to its identity (or essence). But I’m not sure that structures just are essences. If they aren’t, and it’s in virtue of its structure rather than its essence that a whole has the powers that it does, then seems as though structures might be complex properties (or collections of properties), but not be dispositional ones.
  1. I’m dissatisfied, though, after all of this. The point that I want to go back to is at 3b, where I said that a configuration or distribution pattern of a whole could “mediate” activity. It’s that mediation that is the thing that I wanted to know about in the first place, I think. What kind of doing is that? Can it pass for efficient causation? I think that what I want to say is yes: it is a second-order enabling or constraining of agency. Given what I said above, I will have to say that it is actually the so-configured whole that is doing the mediating, not the configuration itself; I will have to think about that. And I’m still going to want to know how to categorize the configuration, the pattern of distribution: is it a power (of the whole) too? That doesn’t seem right. Perhaps it just is the concrete whole of a given kind. Though that doesn’t seem right either. The other two options would seem to be either that the configuration, or distribution, or structure of a social whole is a categorical property (or set of properties), rather than a power; or that it is the essence of the whole. I don’t have a settled view about which of these four options is right.
  1. If nothing else, I think that there is a better answer to be had to the question of whether or not structures can be productive causes than saying “Structures are formal causes.”












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