Saturday, October 15, 2016

Properties: An Introduction


To begin my sublimation series on properties, it is important that I give an introduction to the general terrain.

Underlying our judgment of qualitative similarity and difference, and qualitative nature in general, is the notion that there is something which makes multiple numerically distinct entities qualitatively the same, or similar to, each other. What makes these things resemble each other, as well as make them what they are, are known as properties.

For instance, two blue bouncy balls are similar to each other: they are both blue, bouncy, and round. They are similar in virtue of them both being blue, bouncy, and round - they fulfill a requirement necessary for being similar. And a bowl of chocolate ice cream has certain traits to it: soft, cold, brown, sweet, etc. Soft-ness, cold-ness, brown-ness, and sweet-ness are all properties of the ice cream, just as blue-ness, boucy-ness, and round-ness are properties of the two similar balls.


Properties are often referred to by different names: qualities, traits, ways-of-being, attributes, modes, features, characteristics, types, classes, sets, kinds, tropes, concepts, appearances, et al. Some of these are purely aesthetic names, while others describe a particular ontological claim about properties, usually in regards to the problem of similarity. But all terms are referring to the same issue at hand: the qualitative identity of particulars. And a robust articulation of the nature of properties is essential for any robust, all-encompassing metaphysical theory in general, since certain positions about properties include or preclude certain related metaphysical positions.

Relations hold between particulars, and the same concerns about properties can be applied to relations as well. In fact relations are an important part of the property discussion, as will be seen later.


Propositions are statements that are truth-apt; they can be true or false, depending on what the relevant conditions are for truth and falsity (depending on one's epistemology). They differ from other utterances, like "Waaaah!" or "Excuse you!" because they are meant to refer to some entity or fact, which acts as its truth-maker (in the realist sense).


A propositional statement generally takes the form of subject-predicate notation. The subject refers to the particular entity in question, and the referent refers to something about the particular entity in question. Thus, the classic trope "Socrates is wise" has "Socrates" as its subject, and "is wise" as its referent. Socrates is described as being wise. Thus, being wise, or wisdom, is the property associated with Socrates; Socrates is wise in virtue of having the property of wisdom.


Another important distinction must be made here, that of between particulars and universals, and concreta and abstracta. Both distinctions are common in modern analytic metaphysics, although both have also come under fire as arbitrary or flat-out wrong (where alternatives are presented). For sake of brevity and simplicity I will continue to use these distinctions for the most part, but I will offer a presentation of other views later (mostly because I myself accept some of these alternatives).


The first distinction is between particulars and universals. Particulars can be generally defined as unrepeatable entities, usually existing in one, single spatio-temporal location. The most common analytic term used under the umbrella of particular is an object, also sometimes called a thing, entity, existent, or substance, or, if we’re coming from an alternative view to substance ontology, a process or structure. Again, there is ambiguity to many of these terms and so for simplicity I will use the term “object” unless needed. I will present alternative views to objects in general at a later time when discussing process and naturalistic metaphysics. In any case, an object is what instantiates properties - Socrates is an object, wisdom is a property of the object of Socrates. Universals, on the other hand, can be defined as repeatable entities, or entities that can exist in more than one single spatio-temporal location in virtue of being instantiated by particulars in these locations. It is in this latter entity that the problem of universals emerges: what makes things similar or different, or what gives objects their identities? We’ve already seen that “properties” are general term for whatever it is that makes this association so, but we still have to figure out the nature of properties. Therefore, the problem of universals (excluding Quinean desert theory for now) does not revolve around the existence of properties, but rather the explanation of what properties are. Do universals exist? Or do only particulars exist? Universal realists will uphold the distinction between universals and particulars, and anti-universalists, or “nominalists”, will deny the existence of universals and focus only on particulars. The problem of universals is a classic metaphysical debate, and probably the most important problem related to properties as a whole. It’s also my personal favorite metaphysical problem.


The second distinction is between concreta and abstracta. Concrete things are those that exist in a space-time location. As we’ll see, concrete things are not just everyday objects but potentially immanent universals, or universals that exist in space-time. Abstract things are those that “don’t” exist in a space-time location, and are thus commonly referred to as transcendental. Universals aren’t just the only potential candidate for abstracta; some people argue that abstract particulars can exist as well (such as numbers, or tropes).


An alternative account of concreta and abstracta is the type-token distinction. A type corresponds to an abstracta, and a token corresponds to an object. Thus, an individual zebra is token of the type “zebra”, just as a specific instantiation of red is a token of the type “red”. I am not going to use the type-token distinction unless necessary.


In any case, an ontological account of properties is going to make use of both distinctions, either by affirming them or denying the existence of some parts. Classic Quinean desert theorists are going to be adamantly against the existence of any abstracta whatsoever (however this has not been entirely successful). Trope theorists will deny the existence of universals, both immanent and transcendental, but retain the distinction between abstracta and concreta. While universal realists will accept the existence of universals and particulars, but may not accept the distinction between concreta and abstracta. And both distinctions aren’t set-in-stone, crisp canon - which opens them up to attempts at dissolving the distinctions in the first place.


The following diagram shows how these two distinctions are commonly set up in analytic metaphysics:


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As we’ll see, there are more questions related to properties than the problem of universals. There are questions related to the abundance of properties, the "natural-ness" of properties, our knowledge of properties, the nature of the relationship between properties and objects (theories of object-hood), the nature of the instantiation relation (or similar relations), the role of properties in causality (and the existence of dispositions and quiddities), the relationship between properties and essentialism, the grounding relation of properties, the different kinds of properties (if applicable), and properties under a metaphysical anti-realist framework. The prevalence of property-related question goes to show just how important a coherent framework of properties is for a metaphysical framework in general, and I hope to cover most or all of these topics in future posts.


Every metaphysical theory of properties has its strengths and weaknesses - and most of the time they end up being empirically equivalent, or equivalently useful, at least in the way analytic metaphysics is practiced today (I will address this concern much later). Decisive moves against other competitor metaphysical theories will typically not be claims of incoherence, but rather a lack of coherence with other tangentially-related claims, such as continuity with science, or feasibility within epistemology. I personally do not find theoretical virtues to be reliable indicators of truth, but I also think they can often be used to eliminate outrageous theories. A theory may be internally-consistent, but if it comes across as ad hoc or irrevocably bulky, that is a reason to raise suspicion.

Thus ends the introduction to my series on properties. As I write new posts on property-related issues, I will update this page accordingly to act as a table of contents.

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