Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Uninstantiated Properties and Semi-Platonist Aristotelianism

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Uninstantiated Properties and Semi-Platonist Aristotelianism

Article excerpt

PROPERTIES HAVE BEEN SUPPOSED to exist for several compelling reasons. (1)

They solve the problem of "the one over many": how different individuals can, objectively, resemble one another in some respect, such as color. Two pens may be of exactly the same shade of red, or two electrons may be of exactly the same mass. That is explained by there being something, a universal, that is exactly the same and wholly present in both particulars. It is not just a matter of falling under the same concept: two objects could both be truly "not green" without there being a universal "not-green." Only where there is a genuine shared reality is there a universal in common. (2)

Admitting the reality of properties allows direct and literal talk about them, as seems to be needed to make sense of statements like "Red resembles orange more than blue." (3) That is a statement about colors, not about the particular things that have the colors--or if it is about the things, it is only about them in respect of their color, red things resemble orange things but not blue things in respect of their color. There is no way to avoid reference to the colors themselves.

And in science we quantify over properties (again in ways very hard to paraphrase away) when we say, for example, "No acquired characteristics are inherited," or "Arguments from analogy involve the inference that individuals sharing some properties are likely to share others." Scientific laws are typically expressed as relations between properties, such as the proportionality of gravitational force to mass. Philosophy too often speaks, it seems literally, of a complex realm of first-order and higher-order properties and relations and the relations among those, such as the range of determinates of a determinable. (4)

It was once common to postulate properties also for semantic reasons, to provide person-independent meanings for words. That would make the existence of properties subject to human acts and would result in a huge number of them, as any increase in vocabulary would create more. That is contrary to the sparse conception of properties that arises from a scientific perspective, and for that reason arguments for properties that begin with language have receded into the background. On the other hand, language is part of nature and intended to convey knowledge about nature, so it could still be speculated that, for example, the subject-predicate structure of basic sentences is useful for communication because it reflects the particular-property structure of reality.

Nominalism denies the reality of properties, holding that they are merely words, or concepts, or classes. Arguments against it are well developed and will not be repeated here. (5)

Once the reality of properties is admitted, there are two fundamentally different realist theories of properties. Platonist or transcendent realism holds that properties are abstract objects in the (post-Fregeanly) classical sense, of being nonmental, nonspatial, and causally inefficacious. (6) For present purposes, the Platonism meant is the "extreme" or "full-blooded" Platonism normally discussed in the philosophy of mathematics, (7) according to which Platonic forms are strictly denizens of an acausal and abstract world outside of space and time. (Plato's own Platonism may have been more nuanced.) We could know about that world, if at all, only by some kind of inference to the best explanation or by a nonperceptual intellectual faculty. (8) Arguments against Platonism have had over two millennia to mature and are also well developed. (9)

By contrast, Aristotelian or moderate realism takes properties to be literally instantiated in things (physical particulars or whatever other particular things may exist). An apple's color and shape are as real and physical as the apple itself.

The most direct reason for taking an Aristotelian realist view of properties is that we perceive them. …

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