Two Different Aproaches to Ontology
Uncontroversially, ordinary material particulars such as cats and cups have parts, material parts. Equally uncontroversial is that they have properties and stand in relations. That things have properties and stand in relations is a plain Moorean fact. After all, my cat is black and he is sleeping next to my blue coffee cup. So far we are at the 'datanic,' pre-philosophical level. We start philosophizing when we ask what properties are and what it is for a thing to have a property. So the philosophical question is not whether there are properties -- of course there are! -- but what they are. Neither is it a philosophical question whether things have properties -- of course they do! The question concerns how this having is to be understood.
For example, is the blueness of my cup a universal or a particular (e.g.,a trope)? That is one of several questions one can ask about properties. A second is whether the cup has the property by standing in a relation to it -- the relation of exemplification -- or by containing it as an ontological or metaphysical part or constituent. Can property-possession be understood quasi-mereologically?
It is this second question that will exercise me in this post.
At a first approximation, the issue that divides constituent ontologists (C-ontologists) and those that N. Wolterstorff rather infelicitously calls 'relational ontologists' (R-ontologists) is whether or not ordinary particulars have ontological or metaphysical parts. C-ontologists maintain that ordinary particulars have such parts, and that among these parts are (some of) the properties of the ordinary particular. R-ontologists deny that ordinary particulars have ontological parts, and consequently deny that ordinary particulars have any of their properties by having them as parts.
Bundle theories are clear examples of C-ontology. If my cup is nothing more than a bundle of compresent properties, then (i) it has parts that are not ordinary physical parts, and (ii) its properties are these parts. The properties could be either universals or particulars (tropes, say). Either way you have a constituent ontology.
Suppose you think that there has to be more to an ordinary particular than its properties suitably bundled. You might reason as follows. If properties are universals, and it is possible that there be two numerically distinct particulars that share all property consituents, then there must be an additional constituent that accounts for their numerical difference. Enter bare or thin particulars. Such substratum theories also count as C-ontologies.
Hylomorphic theories are also examples of C-ontology. The form of a thing is not a property external to it to which the thing is related by exemplification or instantiation, and this is a fortiori true of its matter, whether proximate or prime. It follows that form and matter are ontological constituents of ordinary particulars.
The notion that ordinary particulars have ontological parts in addition to their commonsense parts is admittedly not the clearest. 'Part' in exactly what sense? So it is no surprise that many of the best analytic metaphysicians are R-ontologists. These philosophers think of properties as abstract objects residing in a realm apart. Having decided on that view of properties, they naturally conclude that it makes no sense to maintain that a coffee cup, say, could have causally inert, nonspatiotemporal abstract objects as constituents. So they maintain that for a concrete thing to have a property is for it to stand in a exemplification relation or tie or nexus to an abstract property. According to Michael J. Loux, relational ontologists
. . . restrict the parts of ordinary objects to their commonsense parts. Nonetheless, they insist that ordinary objects stand in a variety of significant nonmereological connexions or ties to things that have character kath auto or nonderivatively; and they tell us that in virtue of doing so those objects have whatever character they do. ("What is Constituent Ontology?" in Novak et al. eds. Metaphysics: Aristotelian, Scholastic, Analytic, Ontos Verlag 2012, p. 44, emphasis added)
Why I am Inclined to Reject Relational Ontology
What follows is a sketch of argumentation more rigorously presented, with the standard scholarly apparatus, in my A Paradigm Theory of Existence, Kluwer 2002, pp. 170 -176, "Rejection of Nonconstituent Realism."
1. The 'Nude Particular' Objection
Relational ontologists don't deny that things have properties; what they deny is that those properties are at or in the things that have them in a way that would justify talk of properties being special metaphysical parts of ordinary concrete things. They maintain that properties are abstracta in a realm apart, and that things are related to them. Hence the phrase 'relational ontology.' It seems to me, however, that on this view of properties and property-possession, ordinary particulars turn out to be what I will call 'nude particulars.'
Nude particulars are similar to, but not to be confused with, Gustav Bergmann's bare particulars or David Armstrong's thin particulars. Bare and thin particulars are constituents of ordinary or thick particulars. Nude particulars are not ontological constituents of anything. A nude particular is an ordinary particular all of whose properties are abstracta. Like bare particulars, nude particulars lack natures. Lacking natures, there is nothing about them that dictates which properties they have. This won't stop an R-ontologist from speaking of essential properties. He will say that an essential property of x is a property x has in every possible world in which it exists. He cannot say, however, that what grounds this circumstance is that ordinary particulars as he conceives them have natures in them or at them.
I maintain that (i) R-ontologists are committed to nude particulars, but that (ii) there are no such critters. Certainly, the meso-particulars that surround me now are not nude. My trusty coffee cup, for example, is blue at this time and in this place.
The cup is blue, and I see (with my eyes) that it is blue. This seeing is not a visio intellectualis, after all, a 'seeing' wth the 'eye of the mind,' as would befit the inspection of some colorless, atemporal, nonspatial, abstract Platonic object in a realm insulated from the flux and shove of the real order. It is a seeing with the eyes of the head. When I see the cup's being blue, I am not seeing a state of affairs that spans the abyss separating concreta from abstracta; I am seeing a state of affairs that is itself concrete.
Moreover, I see blue (or blueness), again with my eyes. (How could I see that the cup is blue without seeing blue?) It is therefore phenomenologically evident that at least some of the properties of my trusty cup are empirically detectable via ordinary outer perception. But they wouldn't be empirically detectable if they were abstract objects in a realm apart, a Platonic or quasi-Platonic topos ouranos. Empirical detection involves causation; abstracta, however, are causally inert. Therefore, at least some of a thing's properties are at it or in it, and in this sense ontological constituents of it. If so, R-ontology is mistaken.
The empirically detectable properties of an ordinary particular cannot be stripped from it and installed in a realm of abstracta. For then what you would have here below would be a nude particular.
You might object that I have made a travesty of the R-ontologist's position. After all, doesn't Loux in the bolded passage above imply that ordinary particulars have "character" where they are, namely, in the sensible world and that they are therefore not nude? If this is the response that is made to my first objection, then it triggers my
2. Duplication Objection
Suppose the R-ontologist grants that my cup has the character blue (or blueness) and other empirical features at the cup, and that this character can be seen with the eyes of the head, and is therefore not a denizen of a realm of abstracta separated by an ontological chasm from the realm of concreta. I will then ask what work abstract properties do. Why do we need them if the blueness and hardness and so on of the cup are already right here at or in the cup? What is the point of positing 'duplicates' of these empirical characters in a realm of abstracta? They are explanatorily otiose.
The R-ontologist appears to face a dilemma. Either he must say that my coffee cup is a nude particular in denial of the plain fact that the blueness of the cup is an empirically detectable feature at the cup and not a colorless abstract object in a realm apart; or, denying that the cup is nude, he must admit that his abstract properties are explanatorily idle and fit candidates for Occam's Razor.
Can we infer that C-ontology is in the clear? Not so fast! Loux brings powerful arguments against it, arguments to be considered in a separate post. My suspicion is that that both styles of ontology lead to insurmountable aporiai.