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Sunday, February 02, 2020


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Dr. BV,

as I'm sure you know, there is enthusiastic debate surrounding many aspects of grounding. I'm all for metaphysical explanation, but it's a fair question whether it is a dialectical step forward to subsume various phenomena, all of which exhibit important differences, under the label of 'grounding'. Phenomena such as truth making, moral/natural cases, logical cases, the determinate/determinable relation, etc. Specifically, I think it is Kit Fine who has noted that the relata of truth making are different from those of other alleged cases of grounding. So how could all these cases be cases of a single relation of grounding? What is your view on this matter?


Ahh, finally I’m published! Thank you kindly for responding Bill.

(apologies if what I write is too long. I’ve read too much, and understood too little)

Let me start in an odd place by highlighting that Peter van Inwagen professes not to understand tropes/modes (you wrote on this); though he endorses universals (of sorts) in his favoured ontology. John Heil is adamant that he doesn’t understand universals, though he endorses tropes/modes in his favoured ontology. He says: ‘I don’t “get” universals. In saying this, I am not being coy. I am admitting failure. I am admitting that, although I have learned to talk the talk, I really have no idea what I am talking about when the talk concerns universals’ (Heil 2002, 108). E.J. seems to understand perfectly well what universals are and what trope/modes are, and he endorses both in his favoured ontology. Is he smarter than the others?

Most often, such theoretical posits (properties, however construed), are put forward to explain some feature of the world: character, or character agreement say - Tom, the red tomato. But in what way does the provision of such posits within a theoretical framework explain the target phenomenon: that Tom is red, for example, and perhaps even shares this redness with other concrete objects? I don’t think we’re looking for what grounds predicates, or licences their application. There’s an intimate relation between predicates and properties, but predicates aren’t properties; they’re linguistic items as you say. Presumably, properties have a closer connection to the objects that "possess" them than to our linguistic devices used to refer to them?

What kind of explanation is being sought to explain Tom’s being red? As you say, most likely not causal. Perhaps a grounding relation (though perhaps there’s nothing new in this as Lowe suspects). But here we reach an ambiguity: is an explanation ontic or epistemic? I find the term “metaphysical” explanation confuses matters. Isn’t explanation fundamentally epistemic? And why restrict metaphysical explanation to grounding or some kind of dependence or determination relation; isn’t causation too a metaphysical notion? Causal, grounding, whatever, are each kinds of determination or dependency relations and are, presumably, part of the world. Explanation, surely, is an epistemic matter; a cognitive achievement perhaps – not part of the world in the same sense.

Jaegwon Kim declares: ‘I think it should be granted on all hands that explanation is epistemic (what else could it be?); the proper question to raise is whether there is something “ontic”, out there in the world, that grounds or underwrites (“corresponds to”, if you prefer) the explanatory relation’ (Kim XXXX). And as Ruben writes: ‘explanation is an epistemological concept, but one which requires a metaphysical “backing”’ (Ruben XXXX). More substantially, he claims:

Whether the explanation relation relates those real objects or events directly, or only relates statements or facts about them, the basis for explanation is in metaphysics. Objects or events in the world must really stand in some appropriate “structural” relation before explanation is possible. Explanations work, when they do, only in virtue of underlying determinative or dependency structural relations in the world’ (Ruben XXXX).

Okay. So the question is, can ontology track certain kinds of relations/structures/entities in the world and in so doing, are the accounts of these items explanatory or merely descriptive? Does the invocation of ontological formal relations like instantiation or exemplification, transcendent or immanent universals, modes with a substratum or bundled together, actually explain anything? If I'm told that Tom is red because he instantiates the property red - I feel non the wiser, and less so if this property is an entity that is then shared with other objects.

Explanation understood epistemically surely can’t be divorced from understanding. So, if the various accounts of universals and modes explain phenomena in the world (even poorly), what is it that two high-profile philosophers (John and Peter) don’t understand? And how has my understanding been enhanced when I read their respective accounts?

It seems to me (tentatively) that van Inwagen is correct in saying that ontology doesn’t explain if one is employing Quine’s criterion of ontological commitment, and all it entails. The explaining may happen in the fields we take our theories from – science say; the ontologist just regiments, paraphrases, reads off the commitments etc.

In saying that, I see no reason why ontology should be restricted to all the limitations of this approach. I see how Lowe, for example uses his four-category ontology to try to solve other philosophical problems (laws of nature for example). But I'm unsure if his complex theoretical machinery really "explains" in any substantial way the redness of Tom, the tomato.


Thanks for the rich response.

It would be really helpful to me if you could supply me with complete bibiographical data on the people you are referring to.

Your first para illustrates why philosophy is such a miserable subject. The three philosophers you mention are all highly intelligent. No, Lowe is not smarter than the others. PvI seems to me sometimes to 'Peter out,' i.e. to feign incomprehension. Heil says he is not doing that; we should take him at his word. I'm with Lowe: I understand what a trope is and what a universal is. Suppose you have two tomatoes, both of the same shade of red. Does each tomato have its own particular redness? Or is one and the same redness common to both? Now you tell me: Is this issue (suitably unpacked and explained) intelligible to you or not? I say it is. Of course, as we go deeper and deeper, puzzles surface, some of them insoluble. So maybe ultimately tropes and universals are unintelligible. But facially (prima facie) they are intelligible enough. A trope is a property assayed as a particular, an unrepeatable. What's so hard to understand about that?

May I make an off-topic comment? I was stuck by your casual introduction of the concept of grounding, which is not reducible to other concepts, but instead has to be described and pointed at, relying on the reader's intuition to grasp what you are talking about. You have done this several times in the past year, and it makes me wonder about the number of such irreducible concepts.

To clarify what I'm talking about, consider the concept of morality, which is also (I claim) irreducible in the sense that you can't define or even adequately describe morality without using some concept such as good, evil, duty, or the like, which are all part of a set of concepts that are interdependent in this sense and all irreducible to terms that are not in this set. (When I say you can't "describe" it, I mean you can't describe it without some sort of pointing at or examples to bolster your description.)

Another example is the set of concepts including time, being earlier than, being at the same time as, etc. I claim you can't adequately define any of these concepts without using other concepts in the set.

There are various other examples of such irreducible concept sets including spatial concepts, concepts of matter, concepts of physical causality, concepts of value, concepts of metaphysical necessity, etc.

I've always assumed that the number of such irreducible concept sets was small--perhaps ten or twenty--but I'm beginning to wonder if the number is actually very large. If it's very large, that poses a real challenge for empiricists to explain language acquisition and the acquisition of the concepts themselves.

Another thought: several of the concept sets I listed were listed by Kant as pure intuitions. Is there a relationship between irreducible concepts and pure intuitions?

In response to the comments about failure to comprehend various concepts: I have sometimes claimed to not comprehend metaphysical necessity, but I'm not sure I'm properly expressing my attitude when I say this. What I mean is a collection of relatively vague dissatisfaction that might more fully be expressed like this:

1. I don't grasp how necessity satisfies anyone when used in an explanation of something else, because it doesn't satisfy me.

2. Necessity seems like the sort of thing that needs to be explained, but I can't imagine what sort of thing could possibly explain it.

3. I have a very strong intuition that there is something else underlying what we are talking about when we use the word the "necessity" but I don't know what that something is.


Intelligibility = understandability. A proposition can be intelligible even if it is not true.

Now tell me whether you find the following two propositions intelligible:

1. Everything that exists is such that it might never have existed. (Everything is metaphysically contingent.)

2. Something exists such that its nonexistence is impossible. (Something is metaphysically necessary,)

Hey Bill. Sorry for the sloppy references; I wasn’t sure you wanted the blog entry clogged up. Here they are (not formatted perfectly)

Heil J., “Are Four Categories Too Many”, P. 109 in Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics, ed. Tahko T., Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Jaegwon, K., “Explanatory Knowledge and Metaphysical Dependence”, Fn 8, P.58, Philosophical Issues 5 (1994): 51–69. https://doi.org/10.2307/1522873.

Ruben, D.H., Explaining Explanation, P. 210, 1st edition. London: Routledge, 1992.

I was of course being a little facetious regarding whether Lowe is “smarter” than the others. But still. I trust that Heil doesn’t understand universals; not really. I can get into that mindset. And, while Peter peters-out, if we’re to trust Heil, perhaps we can trust van Inwagen on this matter. I’m unsure of whether we can be said to understand that which is false, and cautious of making understanding synonymous with intelligibility. Though it was intelligible, did scientists of old understand how fire burned when phlogiston was appealed to, or what phlogiston actually was? Lots of issues in here, but that’s not quite the focus I was looking to highlight.

I’ve surveyed the usual culprits regarding the nature of explanation – Aristotle, Mill, Hempel, Salmon, Kitcher, Ruben, van Fraassen, etc., and then those in who write about it in the context of metaphysics, Schaffer, Kim, Maurin, etc. It seems impossible and therefore fruitless to find some unifying theory of explanation. Appreciating that there may be particular areas of the world, the most general, unique to the interest of metaphysicians, in what sense do their theories really explain anything? Of course they provide accounts, but what makes those accounts explanatory rather than, as van Inwagen would have it, merely descriptive? The matter seems even more conspicuous in ontology.

I understand that the nature of laws may be illuminated by positing theoretical entities called “universals”, and I may even be willing to consider such an account explanatory, even if false, if there can be false explanations. But, when it comes to the existence and nature of properties, the posits that may be employed to “explain” laws of nature, I’m unsure how these posits explain the character of an object, or character-agreement, if the property is shared by other objects.

I find van Inwagen’s discussion of the “ontology room” problematic (See the introduction to his book Existence (2014) P.1-14), but to your point about understanding the particular redness of the tomato, or the shared redness of the tomato – sure; on the face of it, outside the “ontology room”, it’s evidently clear. But van Inwagen claims that the only explanation of such particular colour or shared colour is physical/cognitive and that we should look only to the sciences concerned – physics, biology, optics etc., to understand why this is so. Ontology offers nothing more. And as far as I understand his “vacuous” theory of properties, his “lightweight” platonic theory of universals are simply things we say about such tomatoes (unsaturated assertibles) – so, well – just a kind of proposition; not much ontology going on there and at most, I think, could be descriptive if it even deserves that honour.
So, even if we want to account for “ways” objects are, or ontological constituents of objects such as shape or colour (if endorsing a constituent ontology), I’m unsure if positing the various theoretical entities and all the various theoretical machinery “explains” what it sets out to.

I’m not trying to be a dullard. I find myself as sympathetic as I am sceptical to too many sides of the debate. But van Inwagen puts forth a challenge. Does ontology explain? And reading Lowe, or any metaphysician for that matter, I’m left asking: presuming explanation ought not to be completely divorced from understanding, when I read an account of a four-category ontology that is neither constituent nor relational (it’s a neo-Aristotelian substance ontology) that houses universals (that shouldn’t be hypostasized), modes (that shouldn’t be hypostasized), formal ontological relations that aren’t “relations”, categories that are “of” being but that don’t exist – how does all that enhance my understanding where Tom, the red tomato, is concerned?

That is – when someone asks me, why Tom is red, the natural response is to appeal to the physical factors/sciences mentioned above. That’s the only prima facie relevant account. As soon as I start telling someone of repeatable entities that “exist” separate to, etc… matters get less obvious.

Anyway. Again, when I first read Plato’s account of the Forms, I had almost a mystical experience. I’m not being a dullard here. Only – is ontology best construed as providing a descriptive account of the most general features of the world, or does it “explain” those features. Glass is fragile. It’s molecular structure accounts for its fragility (keeping in mind fragile is a relative term etc.) and does not “cause” its fragility. Okay. We have some kind of determination/dependency relation here; call it what you will. That seems to describe part of the world at a very general level. The “because of” seems to respond to a curiosity and seems ripe to serve as an explanation. But. I find myself with doubts in appealing to such a relation as being explanatory. It’s a less convincing kind of case than causation.

My doubts are reinforced much more so when the instantiation of universals by modes in concrete particulars (in Lowe’s account) is meant to explain Tom’s redness.

Anyway. Your thoughts would again be appreciated.


Shorter comments are better. I note you didn't answer the question I asked you: "Suppose you have two tomatoes, both of the same shade of red. Does each tomato have its own particular redness? Or is one and the same redness common to both? Now you tell me: Is this issue (suitably unpacked and explained) intelligible to you or not?"

>> I’m unsure of whether we can be said to understand that which is false, and cautious of making understanding synonymous with intelligibility.<<

That the Moon is inhabited is a proposition you understand even though it is false. It strikes me as self-evident that we can understand that which is false. What I said was that understandability = intelligibility. The only difference is that between Latin and Anglo-Saxon.

'I don't understand how a needle can float on a glass of water' features a different sense of 'understand.'

Bill I didn't really want to start a conversation about necessity; I long ago accepted that this is an intuition that certain others have and that I don't but I'm a sort of transcendental idealist and I accept the reality of objects of intuition even if I personally don't have the intuition. A blind man, for example, might not have the same sort of intuition of space that people with eyes do, but he should accept that the space of their intuition is real.

To answer your question, I don't think I find those propositions intelligible. I think that I could carry on a conversation with you about them, but I would in my own mind be changing

1a. Everything that exists is such that it might never have existed.


1b. Everything x that exists is such that there is a proposition P such that x would not have existed if P.

However, 1b is not really equivalent to 1a. Consider for example that P could be "if the law of identity did not hold". So, I just assume there is some domain of quantification for P that would make 1b roughly equivalent to 1a. I have no real idea what that domain would be, but it lets me more-or-less communicate.

I don’t know Bill. It’s all about the unpacking. The issue only arises when there are attempts to unpack it. “what do you mean its OWN PARTICULAR REDNESS?”; “what do you mean A REDNESS COMMON TO BOTH?” With just a little unpacking, on the face of it, Lowe is right. It has both a particular redness and a shared redness.

I think the issue is intelligible, as in, I grasp what the discussion is about. But I understand Heil who says, though he uses the unpacked term “universal” he doesn’t really get them. And if he doesn’t really get them, he doesn’t understand them, and finds it hard to see what is explained invoking them.

There are different senses to understanding to be sure. I’m less interested in whether philosophers feign or not, and more interested if there’s a relevant sense of understanding that is enhanced by the theories of properties, and in what respect such theories may count as explanatory.

Is understanding the propositions involved the same as understanding the phenomena? You understand the proposition that the needle floats on water. You don't understand the theory how (let's say). There's an explanation you don't understand because of a lack of knowledge of physics. I don't think it's the same issue for Heil and universals.

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