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Philosophy Supervenience
by
Jesper Kallestrup

Introduction

Supervenience is a topic-neutral, dependency relation that typically holds between facts or sets of properties. For instance, to say that aesthetic properties supervene on nonaesthetic properties means that the former depend on the latter. If one painting is beautiful but another is ugly, then there must be some difference between them in how the colors and shapes are arranged on the canvas. If the other painting is a perfect forgery, then it may lack an aesthetic property that the genuine painting has, but all that shows is that having been painted by a certain artist is part of the set of properties on which that aesthetic property supervenes. In general, a set of properties A supervenes on a set of properties B if and only if any two objects x and y that differ in their A-properties (= the supervenient properties in A) must also differ in their B-properties (= the subvenient properties in B). That is to say, A-properties supervene on B-properties if and only if x and y cannot differ in regard to their A-properties without also differing in regard to their B-properties. In slogan, no A-difference without a B-difference.

General Overviews

Unlike other philosophical terms such as “causation” or “explanation,” “supervenience” has little vernacular use. Its meaning is basically given by philosophical stipulation. Consequently, the current literature contains a plethora of technical definitions of various supervenience relations. Apart from the independent importance of scrutinizing these notions so as to pronounce on their pair-wise logical equivalence, many of them serve crucial roles in characterizing those substantial philosophical views that claim that one set of properties depends on another set of properties. Combining technical rigor with intriguing philosophical implications makes for a highly relevant debate across many subdisciplines of contemporary philosophy. The best survey article on supervenience is Bennett and McLaughlin 2008, which covers all the technical details as well as the most important philosophical implications. Leuenberger 2008 is more concise and less comprehensive but still an excellent starting point. Kim 1993 and Kim 2003 are also extremely clear and very useful survey articles.

Anthologies

While there are by now many first-rate collections of articles on key topics in contemporary metaphysics, few anthologies focus on supervenience. One collection stands out, namely Savellos and Yalçin 1995 which reflects a variety of approaches to supervenience as well as a helpful introduction. Worth mentioning is also Kim’s 1993 collection of his hugely influential articles on supervenience, mostly in philosophy of mind. Kim and Sosa 1999 is a stellar collection of articles on various topics in metaphysics broadly construed, including supervenience. Finally, Campbell 2003 is devoted to various topics concerning the metaphysics of mind, such as psychophysical supervenienece.

Historical Works

Historically, “supervenience” and the philosophical idea behind it can be traced back to Leibniz 1895, Moore 1922, and Morgan 1923. All three are important albeit demanding monographs not specifically on supervenience. Later, Hare 1952 and Davidson 2001 were the first philosophers to deploy that notion in moral philosophy and philosophy of mind, respectively. Both of these influential works have set the stage for much current debate in these areas of philosophy. During the last three decades the supervenience relation itself has been subject to intense scrutiny. It has played an important role in various branches of analytic philosophy. For instance, contemporary philosophers dispute whether moral properties supervene on natural or descriptive properties, whether mental properties supervene on neurophysiological properties, whether modal properties supervene on nonmodal properties, and whether epistemic properties supervene on reflectively accessible properties.

  • Davidson, Donald. “Mental Events.” In Essays on Actions and Events. By Donald Davidson, 207–225. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    Originally published in 1970. Davidson was the first to introduce the term “supervenience” into contemporary philosophy of mind by claiming that “mental characteristics are in some sense dependent, or supervenient, on physical characteristics.” For more on this article see Nonreductive Physicalism.

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  • Hare, R. M. The Language of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.

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    Hare is customarily regarded as having introduced the term “supervene” in its current philosophical sense. The claim was that moral properties or predicates supervene on nonmoral, descriptive properties or predicates.

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  • Leibniz, G. W. Die Leibniz-Handschriften der könighlichen öffentlichenBibliothek zu Hannover. Edited by E. Bodemann. Hannover, Germany: Hand’sche Buchhandlung, 1895, VII, c, 74.

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    Arguably the first philosophical text to use the Latin term supervenit. Leibniz can be interpreted as claiming that relations supervene on the intrinsic properties of their relata.

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  • Moore, G. E. Philosophical Studies. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1922.

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    Although Moore did not use the term “supervene,” he was one of the first to claim that the intrinsic value of something supervenes on its nonevaluative properties.

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  • Morgan, Lloyd. Emergent Evolution. London: Williams and Norgate, 1923.

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    Morgan and other British emergentists used “supervenient” to pick out an emergent property, which is a novel kind of property of a whole consisting of parts of an old kind that arises in some unpredictable way when and only when those parts are put together in the right kind of way.

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Reflexivity and Transitivity

To say that A-properties supervene on B-properties is consistent with B-properties not supervening on A-properties. Indeed supervenience is typically taken to be an asymmetric dependency relation as in Papineau 1990, although, as Kim 1993 remarks, strictly speaking the relation is reflexive. An example of a reflexive relation is: being married to. If Tom is married to Neve, then Neve is married to Tom. Supervenience holds not only in asymmetric cases, but also in symmetric cases. Trivially, A-properties supervene on A-properties. If A-properties supervene on B-properties in asymmetric cases, two objects can happen to instantiate the same A-property in virtue of different B-properties, hence that A-property is variably or multiply realizable by the B-properties. Kim 1993 and Leuenberger 2009 also note that supervenience is a transitive relation: if A-properties supervene on B-properties, and B-properties supervene on C-properties, then A-properties supervene on C-properties. An example of a transitive relation is: being richer than. If Tim is richer than Tom and Tom is richer than Tue then Tim is richer than Tue.

Modality

When supervenience was introduced in the Introduction, locutions such as “must” and “cannot” indicated that the supervenience relation has a certain modal force. Modality has to do with necessity and possibility. Metaphysical necessity is typically stronger than nomologicial necessity in that all metaphysical necessities (e.g., water is H2O) are nomological necessities, but not all nomological necessities (e.g., metals expand when heated) are metaphysical necessities. An important distinction is that between supervenience with nomological necessity and supervenience with metaphysical necessity. For instance, an important debate in philosophy of mind is whether (positive, non-indexical) mental properties supervene on physical properties with nomological or metaphysical necessity. While physicalists accept the stronger metaphysical claim, opponents such as Van Cleve 1990 and Chalmers 1996 rest content with the weaker nomological claim. Wilson 2005 is skeptical about the prospects of capturing physicalism using the stronger claim. None of the participants in this dispute deny that such mental properties supervene on physical properties in all possible worlds consistent with the laws of nature, and so everyone agrees that zombie worlds are nomologically impossible. A possible world is roughly speaking a way things might have been. The contentious question is whether some metaphysically possible worlds are physically indiscernible from our world yet devoid of phenomenal consciousness. For more details see Chalmers 1996.

Weak and Strong Supervenience

Some supervenience claims pertain to the instantiation of properties by particular individuals. Kim 1993 drew a much-debated distinction between two individual supervenience claims. Weak individual supervenience says that necessarily, for any object x and any property F in A, if x has F, then there exists a property G in B such that x has G, and if any y has G, it has F. In contrast, strong individual supervenience says that necessarily, for any object x and any property F in A, if x has F, then there exists a property G in B such that x has G, and necessarily if any y has G, it has F. Individual supervenience claims can also be understood in terms of quantification over possible worlds rather than in terms of modal operators such as “necessarily.” In that case, the weak individual supervenience thesis entails that there is no possible world within which objects x and y are B-indiscernible but A-discernible. And the strong individual supervenience thesis entails that no two objects x and y are B-indiscernible but A-discernible, whether they are in the same possible world or in different possible worlds. For further technical details on these two formulations see McLaughlin 1995. To say that two objects are B-indiscernible means that they share all their B-properties, and to say that two objects are A-discernible means that they do not share all their A-properties. Just as supervenience in general can be formulated in terms of there being no A-difference without a B-difference, the relation can equivalently be put in terms of there being no B-indiscernibility without A-indiscernibility. More precisely, A-properties supervene on B-properties if and only if x and y must be A-indiscernible if they are B-indiscernible.

  • Kim, Jaegwon. “‘Strong’ and ‘Global’ Supervenience Revisited.” In Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays. Edited by Ernest Sosa, 79–91. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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    Originally published in 1987. Provides a clear statement of the distinction between weak and strong individual supervenience and then discuses their comparative merits. For more on this article see Defining Physicalism.

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  • McLaughlin, Brian. “Varieties of Supervenience.” In Supervenience: New Essays. Edited by Elias Savellos and Ümit Yalcin, 16–59. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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    Offers different logically nonequivalent modal operator and possible worlds notions of strong and weak individual supervenience. A fairly demanding article but highly recommendable.

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Global Supervenience

Other supervenience claims pertain to the distribution of properties across entire possible worlds. Global supervenience says that any two possible worlds that are indiscernible with respect to B-properties are indiscernible with respect to A-properties. In other words, for any two possible worlds, if the way in which the B-properties are distributed across one world is identical to the way in which the B-properties are distributed across the other world, then they also have the same worldwide distributions of A-properties. Global supervenience was taken by Kim 1993 (originally published 1984) to be logically equivalent to strong individual supervenience, but first Petrie 1987 and then Paull and Sider 1992 produced counterexamples. As in the case of individual supervenience theses, there are several distinct global supervenience theses. Take Stalnaker’s 1996 strong global supervenience that says that any two possible worlds that are indiscernible with respect to B-properties relative to a mapping from the domain of one onto the domain of the other are also A-indiscernible relative to the same mapping. Following Stalnaker two possible worlds, w and z, are B-indiscernible relative to a function of the domain of w onto the domain of z if and only if the function is 1:1 and each individual in the domain of w has the same B-properties in w that the corresponding individual has in z. McLaughlin 1997 and Sider 1999 have deployed such global supervenience claims to resolve various issues in metaphysics such as vagueness or identity over time

  • Kim, Jaegwon. “Concepts of Supervenience.” In Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays. Edited by Ernest Sosa, 53–78. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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    Originally published in 1984. Claims that global supervenience is logically equivalent to strong individual supervenience. Observes that since strong individual supervenience contains two occurrences of “necessary,” these are subject to different interpretations pertaining to nomological or metaphysical necessity. For more on this article see Reflexivity and Transitivity and Nonreductive Physicalism.

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  • McLaughlin, Brian. “Supervenience, Vagueness, and Determination.” Philosophical Perspectives 11 (1997): 209–230.

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    The first part of this article critically discusses the pair-wise logical equivalences of various formulations of global supervenience.

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  • Paull, Cranston., and Sider, Ted. “In Defense of Global Supervenience.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 32 (1992): 830–845.

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    Criticizes Petrie’s argument and then provides a new argument that global supervenience and strong individual supervenience are logically nonequivalent.

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  • Petrie, Bradford. “Global Supervenience and Reduction.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 48 (1987): 119–130.

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    Aims to provide a counterexample to a strong individual supervenience thesis that is not a counterexample to the weak global supervenience thesis. For more on this article see Content Internalism.

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  • Sider, Ted. “Global Supervenience and Identity Across Times and Worlds.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59 (1999): 913–937.

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    Uses a distinction between weak and strong global supervenience in discussion of identity over time and across worlds.

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  • Stalnaker, Robert. “Varieties of Supervenience.” Philosophical Perspectives 10 (1996): 221–241.

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    Provides clear statements of distinctions between weak and strong individual and global supervenience theses, and then demonstrates that independently of any metaphysical assumptions, every strong global supervenience thesis is logically equivalent to some strong individual supervenience thesis.

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Further Logical Equivalences

There are further intriguing questions about the pair-wise logical equivalences of these supervenience relations when additional assumptions are made about which kind of properties are permitted in the relevant property sets, or about which property-forming operations are legitimate. Thus Kim 1993 claims that if the subvenient property set is closed under the (not uncontroversial) Boolean property forming operations plus those operations involving quantification and identity, then strong global supervenience entails strong individual supervenience. To give an example, from the property of being rich and the property of being Russian, one can use conjunction to form the property of being a rich Russian. And Shagrir 2002 and Bennett 2004 argue that strong individual supervenience is logically equivalent to strong global supervenience when both the subvenient and supervenient property sets are restricted to intrinsic properties. An intrinsic property is, roughly speaking, a property an object has solely in virtue of the way that object is, independently of which properties other objects have. Shagrir 2002 and Bennett 2004 also introduce intermediate notions of global supervenience, and discuss whether they entail weaker or stronger versions of global supervenience.

Determination, Dependence, and Entailment

Supervenience is meant to explicate some commonsensical concept. Philosophers disagree about how best to elucidate that target concept. Lewis 1999a says that although the A-properties genuinely exist, they are nothing over and above the B-properties. Kim 2003 cashes out the target concept in terms of determination or dependence: an object’s B-properties determine its A-properties, or conversely, an object’s A-properties depend on its B-properties. It is doubtful whether any of the specific definitions in Weak and Strong Supervenience and Global Supervenience succeed in articulating the target concept. Wilson 2005 argues that no account of supervenience is sufficient for A-properties to be nothing over and above B-properties. And if A-properties are dependent on B-properties, the latter are ontologically prior to the former, but supervenience relations are typically silent about any such priority. In particular, whether any distinctive global supervenience thesis constitutes a determination or dependency relation is, as Shagrir 2002 and Bennett 2004 argue, doubtful. Funkhouser 2006 uses “determination” more discriminately to pick out the special relationship between color properties. Such determinates entail their determinables in the sense of metaphysical necessitation, for example, it is metaphysically necessary that everything crimson is red. But supervenience is distinct from entailment. Since A-properties can supervene on B-properties with nomological necessity, B-properties need not entail A-properties. And red does not supervene on crimson: a scarlet object and a blue object differ in their redness without differing in whether they are crimson. Or take the fact that all emeralds are green, which, as Lewis 1999b argues, supervenes with metaphysical necessity on facts about the colors of existing emeralds. Yet particular facts do not entail general facts. In this case, the property set is not closed under quantification: the supervenient property set contains the property of being such that all emeralds are green which is formed by quantification. As the subvenient property set contains no such properties, entailment fails. For further discussion of similar metaphysical implications of the closure under various logical operations of the property set see Glanzberg 2001.

Superdupervenience

What the various supervenience theses have in common is a denial of independent variation between the supervenient set of properties and the subvenient set of properties due to some tight modal connection between them. All they state are patterns of necessary covariation between these two sets of properties. They furnish no explanation of what make these covariations hold. But the pertinent relations are supposedly not brute or inexplicable. To use Horgan’s 1993 expression, what is called for is not supervenience, but “superdupervenience”—a supervenience relation that is robustly explainable. This point has also been stressed forcefully by Kim 1993 who goes on to suggest that empirically discoverable, lawlike correlations between specific properties provide explanations of why general supervenience relations hold. While some appeal to a metaphysical relation, e.g., constitution, others take the missing explanatory connection to be merely epistemic, e.g., a priori entailment. Take the argument in Blackburn 1993 against nonreductive, moral realism. Moral truths (weakly) supervene on nonmoral truths, but the former do not necessitate the latter. Only the moral projectivist or expressivist can provide a satisfactory explanation, namely in terms of consistency requirements on the formation of moral attitudes. According to the moral projectivist, moral judgments express attitudes of approval/disapproval that are spread onto the world. Importantly, as Ridge 2007 observes, their explanatory tasks differ. Whereas the nonreductive realist must account for a metaphysical relationship between distinct sets of properties short of identity, the moral expressivist need only explain how a supervenience constraint can govern a practice of moral judgments. Thus Shafer-Landau 2003 argues that moral facts supervene on particular concatenations of descriptive facts, because the latter facts realize the moral property in question, where facts are property instantiations. For recent critical discussion of Blackburn’s argument see Shafer-Landau 2006 and Ridge 2007. Finally, take the physicalist’s claim that all (positive, non-indexical) facts metaphysically supervene on the physical facts. Jackson 2007 claims to provide an explanation in terms of the a priori deducibility of all such facts from enough physical facts. Jackson’s so-called a priori physicalism has recently come under heavy criticism by McLaughlin 2007 and others.

  • Blackburn, Simon. “Supervenience Revisited.” In Essays in Quasi-Realism. By Simon Blackburn, 130–148. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Originally published in 1985. Argues in effect that denying strong individual supervenience but maintaining weak individual supervenience demands an explanation of why there is a “ban on mixed possible worlds.”

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  • Horgan, Terence. “From Supervenience to Superdupervenience: Meeting the Demands of a Material World.” Mind 102 (1993): 555–586.

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    Argues that if physicalists deploy a supervenience claim to state their view, then they must provide some robust and physicalistically respectable explanation of that claim.

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  • Jackson, Frank. “A Priori Physicalism.” In Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Mind. Edited by Brian P. McLaughlin and Jonathan Cohen, 185–199. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

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    Argues for the a priori deducibility of (nearly) all facts, including phenomenal facts, from enough physical facts.

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  • Kim, Jaegwon. “Supervenience as a Philosophical Concept.” In Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays. Edited by Ernest Sosa, 131–160. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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    Provides historical evidence that supervenience is best seen as a relation of necessary covariance between sets of properties, and then argues that neither strong nor weak covariance yields an explanatory or grounding dependency relation. For more on this article see General Overviews.

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  • McLaughlin, Brian. P. “On the Limits of A Priori Physicalism.” In Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Mind. Edited by Brian P. McLaughlin and Jonathan Cohen, 200–224. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

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    Contains critical discussion of a priori physicalism as in Jackson 2007.

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  • Ridge, Michael. “Anti-Reductionism and Supervenience.” Journal of Moral Philosophy 4 (2007): 330–348.

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    Discusses recent attempts by nonreductive, normative realists such as Shafer-Landau to meet the challenge of explaining how normative properties can supervene and yet be irreducible to non-normative properties.

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  • Shafer-Landau, Russ. Moral Realism: A Defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Argues that the way in which descriptive facts realize moral properties is analogous to the way in which physical facts realize mental properties. Since realization can explain supervenience in philosophy of mind, it can therefore also explain supervenience in moral philosophy or meta-ethics.

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  • Shafer-Landau, Russ. “Supervenience and Moral Realism.” Ratio 7.2 (2006): 145–152.

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    Offers three responses on behalf of moral realism to Blackburn’s supervenience argument.

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Nonreductive Physicalism

Previous sections highlighted how various supervenience theses were intended to capture the idea that one set of properties depend on another set of properties. The last four sections offer further examples from the philosophical literature. Whether these theses are ultimately fit for purpose remains a vexed issue. The first is nonreductive physicalism in philosophy of mind: the view that (nearly all) mental properties supervene on numerically distinct physical properties with metaphysical necessity. If two individuals differ mentally, they (or their environment) must also differ physically, but that is consistent with the possibility of two mentally indiscernible individuals differing in their physical properties. Nonreductive physicalism, as in Fodor 1974, is supposedly attractive in that psychophysical supervenience but not psychophysical identity, permits that mental properties be multiply realizable by physical properties. Relatedly, Davidson 2001 (originally published 1970) and Davidson 1993 advocated anomalous monism, the view that although causally efficacious, mental event-tokens are identical with physical event-tokens, there cannot be any strict psychophysical laws because of the autonomy of the mental, and so mental event-types are distinct from physical event-types. Still, that is consistent with psychophysical dependence or supervenience. Kim famously (Kim 1993a; Kim 1993b) attacked these distinct stripes of nonreductive physicalism. First, weak individual supervenience is too weak to ground an adequate dependency of the mental properties on physical properties, since it permits a possible world in which a physical duplicate of me lacks consciousness. See Seager 1988 for a case in point. Second, consider strong individual supervenience. If we assume that the conjunction of sufficiently rich logical resources and necessary coextensiveness of distinct predicates is sufficient for property-identity, then strong individual supervenience implies psychophysical reduction. A further objection leveled against nonreductive physicalism is that this view cannot discharge the explanatory burden of facilitating psychophysical superdupervenience. For a recent succinct statement see Lynch and Glasgow 2003. Beckermann, et al. 1992 contains several fine articles that debate further aspects of nonreductive physicalism.

  • Beckermann, Ansgar, H. Flohr, and Jaegwon Kim, eds. Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of Nonreductive Physicalism. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1992.

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    Contains a number of excellent articles on nonreductive physicalism and its discontents.

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  • Davidson, Donald. “Thinking Causes.” In Mental Causation. Edited by John Heil and Alfred R. Mele, 259–282. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Responds to Kim’s criticism (Kim 1993a; Kim 1993b) that anomalous monism renders the mental causally inert and that psychophysical supervenience cannot articulate a kind of dependence of the mental on the physical.

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  • Davidson, Donald. “Mental Events.” In Essays on Actions and Events. By Donald Davidson, 207–225. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    Originally published in 1970. Famously argues for the compatibility of three claims: some mental events causally interact with physical events, a nomological conception of causation, and the absence of strict laws on the basis of which mental events can be predicted and explained. For more on this article see Historical Works.

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  • Fodor, J. “Special Sciences (or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis).” Synthese 28.2 (1974): 97–115.

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    This seminal article contains one of the earliest versions of nonreductive physicalism.

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  • Kim, Jaegwon. “Concepts of Supervenience.” In Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays. Edited by Ernest Sosa, 53–78. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993a.

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    Argues that nonreductive physicalism is an unstable position that is bound to collapse into either reductionism or eliminativism. For more on this article see Reflexivity and Transitivity and Global Supervenience.

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  • Kim, Jaegwon. “The Myth of Nonreductive Materialism.” In Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays. Edited by Ernest Sosa, 265–284. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993b.

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    Argues that anomalous monism is essentially a form of eliminativism in that within Davidson’s framework anomalous properties are causally and explanatorily impotent. Also maintains that global supervenience is to no avail when formulating nonreductive physicalism.

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  • Lynch, Michael. P., and Glasgow, Joshua. I. “The Impossibility of Superdupervenience.” Philosophical Studies 113.3 (2003): 201–221.

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    Argues persuasively that nonreductive physicalism cannot meet Horgan’s superdupervenience challenge.

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  • Seager, William. “Weak Supervenience and Materialism.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 48.4 (1988): 697–709.

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    Defends a version of materialism according to which mental properties merely weakly supervene on physical properties.

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Defining Physicalism

The second example is related to but more general than the first. Lewis 1994, Chalmers 1996, and Jackson 1998 have defined minimal physicalism as a global supervenience thesis. Thus according to Jackson 1998, physicalism is true at our world if and only if any world that is a minimal physical duplicate of our world is a duplicate of our world simpliciter. The idea is that if you duplicate all the physical facts of our world and stop right there, then you duplicate all the facts of our world. As worlds containing alien fundamental properties, for example, epiphenomenal ectoplasm, are excluded from quantification this is a restricted supervenience claim. Kim 1993 argues that global supervenience–based definitions of physicalism are too permissive. Imagine a world that differs physically from our world only by containing an extra ammonium molecule on Saturn’s rings, or where one lone hydrogen atom on Saturn’s rings is slightly displaced relative to its position in our world. Physicalism thus defined leaves open the possibility that the distribution of mental properties in that world is radically different from the actual distribution. Consequently, global supervenience fails to ground an adequate dependency of the mental facts on the physical facts. See Post 1995 for discussion of Kim’s objection. Wilson 2005 argues against the Lewis-Chalmers-Jackson definition that any such global supervenience claim needs superdupervenience, that is, a robust and physicalistically respectable explanation. Hawthorne 2002 offers different kinds of counterexamples to such supervenience-based definitions of physicalism.

  • Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    Defines physicalism as being true at our world if and only if any possible world that is a physical duplicate of our world is a positive duplicate of our world, where a positive duplicate is a possible world that instantiates all the positive properties of the actual world. For more on this book see Modality.

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  • Hawthorne, John. “Blocking Definitions of Materialism.” Philosophical Studies 110 (2002): 103–113.

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    Presents a compelling case that blockers—facts that block the entailment from the physical facts to the mental facts—pose a problem for Jackson’s supervenience-based definition of physicalism.

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  • Jackson, Frank. From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defense of Conceptual Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Defends physicalism as a minimal global supervenience thesis against various objections such as the putative compatibility with the existence of a necessary being which is essentially nonphysical.

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  • Kim, Jaegwon. “‘Strong’ and ‘Global’ Supervenience Revisited.” In Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays. Edited by Ernest Sosa, 79–91. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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    Argues that formulations of physicalism in terms of global supervenience have counterintuitive consequences when we envisage worlds that are physically exactly like our world except in some most trifling respect. For more on this article see Weak and Strong Supervenience.

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  • Lewis, David. “Reduction of Mind.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind. Edited by Samuel Guttenplan, 412–431. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

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    Takes minimal physicalism to amount to the claim that if two possible worlds are physically isomorphic, and if no fundamental properties alien to our world occurred in either, then they are exactly alike simpliciter.

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  • Post, John F. “‘Global’ Supervenient Determination: Too Permissive?” In Supervenience: New Essays. Edited by Elias E. Savellos and Ümit D. Yalçin, 73–100. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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    Concedes that global supervenience–based formulations of physicalism fail to restrict the determining conditions to those specific physical conditions that determine given mental or other non-physical properties.

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  • Wilson, Jessica M. “Supervenience-Based Formulations of Physicalism.” Noûs 39.3 (2005): 426–459.

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    Argues that the Lewis-Chalmers-Jackson definition of physicalism is consistent with the existence of metaphysically necessary connections between emergent and physical properties, provided the latter are essentially individuated by the laws of nature that actually govern them. For more on this article see Modality and Determination, Dependence, and Entailment.

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Content Internalism

The third example is from philosophy of language or thought. Content internalism says that semantic or intentional properties supervene on intrinsic, physical properties of individuals. The Twin Earth thought experiment (Putnam 1996) and the Arthritis thought experiment (Burge 2007) are designed to constitute counterexamples to these supervenience claims. If Putnam’s natural kind externalism is true, which semantic contents S expresses by utterances of “water”-sentences are dependent on microphysical facts about her environment. A semantic content is one that has truth-conditions. If Burge’s social externalism is true, which representational states S is in when she utters “arthritis”-sentences are dependent on socio-linguistic facts. A representational state is one that takes things to be a certain way. See Kallestrup 2011 for an up-to-date exposition and discussion of natural kind externalism and social externalism. As Jackson and Pettit 1993 and Stalnaker 1999 have noted, content internalism is committed to weak individual supervenience. Narrow content states are intraworld narrow, wherein a property P of x is intra-world narrow if and only if in every world where x has P any doppelganger of x has P. Internal duplicates share narrow content states only if located within the same possible world. Narrow content thus has a general world-dependency: it pertains to how internal nature governs interactions with actual and possible environments given the laws of nature. Contrast with, on the one hand, such intrinsic properties as squareness that have no world-dependency. These are inter-world narrow, wherein a property P of x is inter-world narrow if and only if in every possible world any doppelganger of x has P. On the other hand, wide content has a particular world-dependency, and is therefore not even intra-world narrow. Elaborating on Petrie 1987, Shagrir 2002 proposes that content externalism is best expressed as the view that semantic or intentional properties strongly globally supervene on intrinsic and extrinsic physical properties. This is equivalent to the claim that such properties strongly individually supervene on the physical maximal properties of individuals, wherein maximal properties are those properties of objects that are not shared by their large proper parts. For instance, being a rock is such a property in that large parts of rocks are not rocks.

  • Burge, Tyler. “Individualism and the Mental.” In Foundations of Mind. By Tyler Burge, 100–150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    A hugely influential article, originally published in 1979, that extends Putnam’s 1975 argument to include mental states, social kind terms, and dependency for individuation on socio-linguistic facts.

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  • Jackson, Frank, and Philip Pettit. “Some Content is Narrow.” In Mental Causation. Edited by John Heil and Alfred R. Mele, 259–282. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Argues that the property of being in a narrow content state is more akin to the property of being water-soluble by way of being intra-world narrow than the inter-world narrow property of being square.

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  • Kallestrup, Jesper. Semantic Externalism. London: Routledge, 2011.

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    Comprehensive, accessible exposition and critical discussion of semantic externalism and its discontents. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with supervenience-based definitions of content internalism and externalism.

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  • Petrie, Bradford. “Global Supervenience and Reduction.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 48 (1987): 119–130.

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    Points out that content externalism is best articulated in terms of global supervenience, because such a thesis allows what subvenient properties are possessed by other objects to play a role in determining what supervenient properties are possessed by any particular object. For more on this article see Global Supervenience.

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  • Putnam, Hilary. “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’.” In The Twin Earth Chronicles. Edited by Andrew Pessin and Sandford Goldberg, 3–52. New York: M. E. Sharp, 1996.

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    This seminal article, first published in 1975, provides a twin-earth counterexample to the claim that the truth-conditional content as expressed by “water” supervenes on intrinsic physical properties of individuals.

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  • Shagrir, Oron. “Global Supervenience, Coincident Entities and Anti-individualism.” Philosophical Studies 109 (2002): 171–196.

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    Argues that content externalists should avail themselves of strong global supervenience of mental properties on physical properties and relations since it entails that individuals with identical physical maximal properties share mental properties, while being consistent with intrinsic physical duplicates differing in their mental properties and in their physical relations with the external environment. For more on this article see Further Logical Equivalences and Determination, Dependence, and Entailment.

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  • Stalnaker, Robert. “On What’s in the Head.” In Context and Content: Essays on Intentionality in Speech and Thought. By Robert Stalnaker, 169–193. Oxford Cognitive Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    Originally published in 1989. Suggests that from the wide property of being a footprint, one can factor out the narrow property of being a foot-shaped imprint given that one qualifies the imprints to include only the shapes that feet make under normal conditions.

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Epistemic Supervenience

The fourth and last example is from epistemology. Epistemic supervenience is the thesis that epistemic properties supervene on non-epistemic properties. Being justified and having knowledge are examples of epistemic properties, and being reliably produced and being reflectively accessible are examples of (relevant) non-epistemic properties. Supervenience in epistemology tend to be strong individual theses wherein the modality is metaphysical necessity. See for instance Sosa 1991 and Van Cleve 1999. Prominent defenders of epistemic supervenience include Van Cleve (Van Cleve 1985; Van Cleve 1999), Sosa 1991, and Conee and Feldman 2001. Thus Conee and Feldman 2001 upholds so-called “mentalism” according to which justification strongly supervenes on the individual’s total mental condition: mental indiscernibility entails justificational indiscernibility. For instance, they argue from a range of paradigmatic cases that differences in justification between two individuals stem from differences in their mental states. Bear in mind that no epistemological internalist claims that knowledge in general supervenes on non-epistemic, internal features. Prominent opponents of epistemic supervenience include Lehrer. One of his arguments (Lehrer 2003) purports to show that epistemic properties cannot supervene on natural properties, because the former would be causally inert if that were so. Lehrer 1997 is also concerned that epistemic terms are indispensable in any satisfactory account of epistemic properties, but as Sosa 2003 notes, this seems to conflate epistemic supervenience with reductive analyses of epistemic concepts. For an excellent survey article on epistemic supervenience see Turri 2010 to which this section owes much.

  • Conee, Earl, and Feldman, Richard. “Internalism Defended.” American Philosophical Quarterly 38 (2001): 1–18.

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    Argues that truth-conducive justification consists in good reasons, and that such reasons are mental states, e.g., perceptual states. Therefore, some epistemic properties supervene on non-epistemic properties.

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  • Lehrer, Keith. Self-Trust: A Study of Reason, Knowledge, and Autonomy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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    Argues that the epistemic property of being trustworthy fails to supervene on natural or any other non-epistemic properties of an individual. Since all other epistemic properties depend on trustworthiness, no such property supervenes on non-epistemic properties.

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  • Lehrer, Keith. “Reply to Sosa.” In The Epistemology of Keith Lehrer. Edited by Erik J. Olsson, 317–320. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2003.

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    Offers further arguments against epistemic supervenience.

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  • Sosa, Ernest. Knowledge in Perspective: Selected Essays in Epistemology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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    Defends the supervenience claim that for every justified belief there is a non-normative and non-epistemic property of that belief such that necessarily if the belief has that property then it is justified.

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  • Sosa, Ernest. “Epistemology: Does It Depend On Independence?” In The Epistemology of Keith Lehrer. Edited by Erik J. Olsson, 23–30. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2003.

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    Discusses the place of supervenience in epistemology, and in particular Lehrer’s argument that coherentism comports better with the non-supervenience of the epistemic.

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  • Turri, John. “Epistemic Supervenience.” In A Companion to Epistemology. 2d ed. Edited by Jonathan Dancy, Ernest Sosa, and Matthias Steup, 340–343. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010.

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    A dense but very accessible survey of epistemic supervenience and its various applications.

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  • Van Cleve, James. “Epistemic Supervenience and the Circle of Belief.” The Monist 68 (1985): 90–104.

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    Provides an abstract argument that the epistemic supervenes on the natural.

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  • Van Cleve, James. “Epistemic Supervenience Revisited.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59 (1999): 1049–1055.

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    Responds to Lehrer’s 1999 argument that epistemic trustworthiness must be grounded by non-epistemic features of the individual or her environment.

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LAST MODIFIED: 06/29/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0117

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