Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Guest post by Ruth Groff on causal powers

Ruth Groff is Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Louis University. She specializes in the philosophical underpinnings of Western social and political thought. She is author of Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism (2012, with John Greco), Ontology Revisited: Metaphysics in Social and Political Philosophy (Ontological Explorations) (2012), and Revitalizing Causality: Realism about Causality in Philosophy and Social Science (2007). Here is her webpage at SLU. This contribution is a response to my prior post on her views of the status of causal powers in Ontology Revisited and to my post treating causality and metaphysics. Thanks for contributing, Ruth.

Do You Have to Be an Aristotelian to Believe in Powers?
By Ruth Groff

Dan Little asked me recently if I think that one has to be an Aristotelian in order to believe in powers. The question could be posed the other way around, too: Does believing in causal powers automatically make one be an Aristotelian? I think that the answer is probably “No,” but I also think that it might not be quite as clear-cut as it might seem. I’d like to use this guest blog post to set out the longer version of the response.

Before I do, though, let me say, especially for those readers who may be versed in contemporary analytic metaphysics, that the question that I took Dan to be asking is about real, live powers. Do you have to be an Aristotelian to believe that the world is full of activity, of dynamism – that it contains things (“things” broadly construed) that can engage in all manner of doing? By “power” I don’t mean “the fact of constant conjunction, plus a feeling of expectation,” as Hume explicitly said that he did.[i] Nor do I mean “counterfactual dependency.” Or “a sparse property equivalent to a neo-Humean disposition, except that it has a fixed identity (such that it is necessarily related to other such properties),” as my friend Alexander Bird means.[ii]  

One can attach the term “power” to anything, really, and then claim a belief in the existence of powers (as one has defined them) in virtue of one’s belief in the stipulated referent, or truth-maker. But the issue is not whether passivists are prepared to re-brand. The issue is what the world is like.

Arbitrarily, even, if need be, we can stipulate for the purposes of discussion that the term “power” denotes what it does for a competent English speaker. Nothing hangs upon the definition being correct, though it may well be; we just need one that’s fixed, relative to which we can locate different positions. A power, then, let’s say, is an ability to do. Passivists, Humean or otherwise, contend that there are no such things as powers construed in this normal, every-day way. (Hume actually says that the concept is meaningless.) It follows that the question that Dan Little posed cannot be whether or not a non-Aristotelian passivist is entitled to believe in powers conceived as an ability to do. (Though, for the record: no. One cannot both deny and affirm the existence of real causal powers. Also, counterfactual dependency is a particular sort of necessary relation. It is not any type of “doing.”) Rather, the question – and it’s an interesting one – is whether or not one is necessarily an Aristotelian if one is an anti-passivist.

Since Aristotle himself believed in powers, one way to think about the question might be to ask how much overlap one should have with Aristotle period, before one is either permitted or obliged to label oneself an Aristotelian. In my own case, I would want to agree with Aristotle on the following five points, at an absolute minimum, before counting myself an Aristotelian: (1) materialism; (2) potentiality; (3) the idea that things have essential properties; (4) emergence; and (5) the existence of powers. I think that if I were committed only to any one of these points, it would be inaccurate to describe me as an Aristotelian. Others might have a longer or more fine-grained list. That’s fine. I’m happy to consider these five points necessary but not sufficient for counting as an Aristotelian.

Next we will need to know if these commitments come as a package deal. If it’s all or nothing, then it does look as though believing in powers is going to get one at least a good bit of the way towards being an Aristotelian. And here too let me be as clear as possible about how I am understanding the key ideas, since philosophers do often attach terms that they want to retain to unlikely referents, or truth-makers. (John Stuart Mill, for example, says that if by “matter” what we mean is “the permanent possibility of sensation” – as we should, he thinks – then yes, by all means, he believes in the existence of matter.[iii]  

But that’s not likely to be what his interlocutor would have meant.) What I mean by (1) materialism is the view that that which exists is not exhausted by (or reducible to), the abstract, the conceptual or the perceptual. By belief in (2) potentiality, I mean a belief in existent but unexpressed phenomena (including but not necessarily limited to existent but unexpressed properties). By (3) an essence (or essential property or set of properties), I mean those ways that a thing is, in virtue of which it is the particular that it is and/or the kind of thing that it is, and not something else and/or of a different kind. By (4) emergence I mean the view that wholes exist, and that, unlike pluralities, they are more than the sum of their parts. (5) powers, finally, I have already defined in terms of capacities for doing.

So the question is whether or not (5) brings (1)-(4) along with it necessarily. One might think that the answer is an obvious no, rather than more careful one. Locke certainly seems to have powers in his ontology, and Locke isn’t an Aristotelian. Leibniz too. But simply pointing to people who assert (5), while denying (1) – (4) won’t be enough to decide the issue, since the mere fact that someone could or does hold that combination of beliefs doesn’t render the combination coherent. It will be better to assume (5), and then look to see what the situation is with each of (1) – (4).

(1) Materialism

It’s tricky, but I think that one can indeed believe in the existence of powers but not be a materialist. What one can’t do (for the record) is deny materialism and believe: (a) that powers exist; (b) that causation is the expression or display thereof; (c) that what we normally think of as material objects behave as we normally think they do – i.e., differently, as a kind, than non-material objects behave. If one believes (a) – (c), then the kind of objects that can bruise one’s shin (sticks and stones, for instance), can’t be impressions or possible sensations or abstract particulars or any other entity the being of which is entirely conceptual or internal to the experience of the subject. The reason for this is that the bar for being the cause of something physical goes up if causes have to actually do something, rather than just be what does or must regularly come first.

(2) Potentiality

I suppose that it is possible to distinguish the idea of activity from the idea of potentiality. One could imagine the world to be an environment in which all powers are “on” at all times, and only appear to be latent, in virtue of being cancelled out by other powers. Stephen Mumford and Rani Anjum sometimes talk this way.[iv] Still, it seems to me that both dynamism and the possibility of being unexpressed are essential to the concept of a power. A world in which all powers are “on” at all times, I want to say, is not just a world of powers, but a world of universally actualized powers. The fact that powers are the kind of thing (“thing”) that might not be expressed is what led Roy Bhaskar to describe them as tendencies. (With Mumford and Anjum, by contrast, it seems as though powers are tendencies only in that expected effects might be cancelled out by other actualized powers.) If this is right, then a belief in powers will indeed commit one to a belief in potentiality. But note: it won’t commit one to the idea (a) that it is good for things to express or actualize their powers, or (b) that doing so excellently is things’ ultimate purpose, or (c) that things in any sense “want” to do this.

(3) Essential properties

If one believes in powers, then one will think that what things can do is a function of what powers they (and other things) have, not a function of laws of nature that dictate their behavior. (Nor will it do to simply push the nomological story back a frame: which powers a thing has will not be a fact that is itself dictated by laws.) But I don’t know that one would have to think that the properties of things are essential to them just because one believes that at least some of the properties had by things are powers to do. It seems more likely that it is the regularity of behavior (conceived as powers-based activity) and/or the sheer inescapability of differentiation, that leads to the idea that there are ways that something can and cannot be and still be a thing of a given kind.

(4) I don’t see that a belief in powers entails a belief in emergence, though one who believes in both is likely to argue that emergent entities have powers not had by their parts or by pluralities of their parts.

So what should we conclude? Does one have to be an Aristotelian to believe in the existence of real causal powers? As I’ve said, my view is that the answer is a qualified “No.” Even if we make it very easy to count as an Aristotelian, it looks as though one doesn’t have to be one, in virtue of accepting (5). And the more restrictive the criteria, or course, the less qualified the answer will be. This said, I suspect that the closer one is to being an Aristotelian in the loose sense that I’ve defined here, the more coherent one’s position will be, if one does believe in powers.

I would imagine that for sociologists a ready concern about Aristotelianism might be the worry that a belief in essential properties entails errors of naturalization and universalization vis-à-vis particular, historically contingent sociological phenomena. While understandable, I think that the worry is a needless one. Aristotle himself, for example, thinks that the polis (as a representative sociological entity) is an essentially different kind of thing than the family, say. But this does not mean that all poleis are just the same. Not even all proper, non-perverted poleis need be the same, kind membership notwithstanding. Admittedly, Aristotle thinks that the polis is a natural phenomenon, in the sense that he thinks that, by nature, human beings need to be involved in such forms of association in order to flourish. The polis is both the expression of our essential powers, and the venue in which such powers can be fully actualized. This is not a type of naturalizing that does away with the social, but still, one might object. As Charlotte Witt has suggested, a good way to conceptualize sociological formations in Aristotelian terms is to think of them as being similar to artifacts.[v] Artifacts (i.e., entities made by human beings) do not lack essential properties in virtue of which they are what they are and not something else, just because they are made by us. And yet – shared essential properties notwithstanding – knives, to use Aristotle’s example, do not all look the same. Nor do all tools stay around forever. I haven’t smelled mimeograph ink since I was a kid. It is true that it’s not until Marx that we get a fully historicized, fully materialist Aristotelian apparatus. But – or perhaps I should say “and” – the reality of reified, alienated distinctively human powers is at the absolute core of Marx’s social science. 

Go ahead and believe in the existence of real causal powers. You don’t have to be an Aristotelian. And even if it turns out that you do a little bit, it’ll be okay.


[i] David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals; Reprinted from the 1777 edition, with Inroduction and Analytical Index by L. A. Selby-Bigge; 3rd edition, with text revised and notes by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1975), esp. Sections IV and VII of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
[ii] For fuller discussion, see my “Whose Powers? Which Agency?” in (eds., Ruth Groff and John Greco) Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism (New York: Routledge, 2012).
[iii] John Stuart Mill, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1872), Chapter XI and “Appendix to the Two Preceding Chapters.”
[iv] See, e.g., Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes from Powers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[v] Personal conversation, April 2013.  In addition to her work on Aristotle, readers might be interested in Witt’s recent The Metaphysics of Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2011.

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