Powers

The philosophical dispute about the nature of powers is best understood against the background of what has for some time been the dominant view of properties generally. Armstrong calls it the ‘British empiricist’ or ‘British analytic’ view (2005: 312), but I will call it the modern analytic view of properties (MAP) because it belongs to the same conceptual framework as the modern analytic view of substance that I introduced in Chapter 7. According to MAP the determinate state of reality is grounded—on the most fundamental level—in causally inert and self-contained qualities (Black 2000), while powers are, at best, second-order properties that either supervene directly on regularities in the pattern of fundamental qualities, or have their basis in regularities determined by laws of nature. The idea that properties divide into two mutually exclusive types—non-dispositional qualities (sometimes called ‘categorical properties’) vs. non-qualitative dispositions—of which the qualities are more fundamental than dispositions, is what is known as the categorical/ dispositional distinction (C/D distinction).

Today, neo-Aristotelians are challenging MAP, arguing that powers can be fundamental but disagreeing about whether or not to reject the C/D distinction. Some friends of powers indeed insist that ‘any decent theory of dispositions should preserve this fundamental distinction’ (Ellis & Lierse 1994: 34) and many enough find the view that properties can be both quality and power ‘totally incredible’ (Armstrong 2005: 315). My goal is to explain why the distinction should not be preserved, and why the identity of quality and power is totally believable.

Preliminary Remarks About My Treatment of Powers

I have so far avoided any discussion about the nature of powers, even though powers are fundamental to the view I propose. This is because my discussion about causation doesn’t really hinge on any particular conception of powers, but also because a discussion of the nature of powers requires a book-length study of its own. In fact, I doubt a discussion of powers really adds much at all to what this book has already said, but it would be an omission not to say at least what kind of powers I think fits with the view of causation I advocate. However, my discussion won’t really engage in the subtler details such as you find in Molnar (2003), Bird (2007«), and Livanios (2017).

In fact, perhaps the main reason I discuss powers is that I think it would be a missed opportunity not to strike the iron while it is hot and continue my illustration of how neo-Humean thinking has influenced contemporary causal realism, not only with respect to the nature of causation but also the nature of powers. For instance, the reason so many friends of powers stick to the dispositional analysis of powers is to a great extent due to the empiricist conviction that the nature of unobservable powers must be accounted for in terms of how they indirectly turn up in experience, in the form of observable changes in observable/measurable qualities, or in our everyday lived experience. I believe that once those influences are laid bare, they will no longer appeal (as much) to the causal realist as reasons to maintain the categorical/dispositional distinction and it will be easier to accept that properties can be both qualities and powers; i.e. powerful qualities. Now, I have no hopes about proving that properties actually are both qualities and powers, but only to strengthen my previous claim that we can think of them in that way (Ingthorsson 2013).

 
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