Philosophy Dispositions
by
Jennifer McKitrick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0136

Introduction

Many philosophers consider dispositions (a.k.a. powers, capacities, tendencies, etc.) to be a major ontological category, on a par with objects, properties, events, and causes. Even those who would diminish their metaphysical significance must admit dispositional concepts play a large role in ordinary life, science, and philosophy. This entry is focused largely on contemporary discussions about how to analyze or understand dispositions and their relations to conditionals, properties, and laws.

General Overviews

Prior, et al. 1982 provides clear and concise arguments for a certain picture of dispositions and serves as the jumping-off point for much subsequent literature. Prior 1985 is a sustained treatment of dispositions, focusing on analyzing dispositional concepts and defending a functional or second-order property account of dispositions, according to which having a disposition is a matter of having some other property that can play a certain causal role. Tim Crane edits a debate about dispositions among three noteworthy metaphysicians/philosophers of mind in Armstrong, et al. 1996. In this debate, Armstrong defends the reduction of dispositions to non-dispositional properties and laws; Martin develops the view that all properties have dispositional and qualitative aspects; while Place’s nominalism leads him to deny that dispositionality has anything to do with properties. Mumford 1998 synthesizes the major issues about dispositions that had been discussed up to that point, and Mumford pushes the conversation forward with his “conditional conditional” account of disposition ascriptions and a “token-token” identity view of dispositions and the causal bases. Molnar 2003 makes a case for ontologically basic, irreducible powers. Heil 2005 presents a view of dispositionality according to which it is on a continuum with qualitativeness. Finally, Fara 2006 summarizes previous work on major topics in the dispositions literature.

  • Armstrong, David Malet, Charles Burton Martin, and Ullin Thomas Place. Dispositions: A Debate. London: Routledge, 1996.

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    An extended dialogue between three philosophers, showing how dispositions are interrelated with other issues, such as the nature of properties, causation, and laws. Includes helpful introduction to the topic by Tim Crane.

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    • Fara, Michael. “Dispositions.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2006.

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      Surveys major issues in the dispositions literature, including the dispositional/categorical distinction, causal bases, intrinsicness, and causal efficacy.

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      • Heil, John. “Dispositions.” Synthese 144.3 (2005): 343–356.

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        Defends several theses about dispositions, including the idea that all properties are both dispositional and qualitative, as well as the idea that dispositions have “mutual manifestation partners,” or other dispositions that jointly trigger a manifestation.

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        • Molnar, George. Powers: A Study in Metaphysics. Edited by Stephen Mumford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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          Realist account of powers, directed toward their manifestations via physical intentionality. Offers a persuasive case for there being some basic and ungrounded powers, thus ruling out the reducibility of the dispositional to the nondispositional. Allows for nonpower properties as well. Foreword by David Armstrong.

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          • Mumford, Stephen. Dispositions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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            Comprehensive study, notable for “conditional conditional” account of disposition and ascriptions, and “token-token” identity of dispositions and categorical bases.

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            • Prior, Elizabeth. Dispositions. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1985.

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              Includes a good discussion of the issues involved with analyzing dispositional concepts, arguing that disposition predicates are incomplete.

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              • Prior, Elizabeth, Robert Pargetter, and Frank Jackson. “Three Theses about Dispositions.” American Philosophical Quarterly 19.3 (1982): 251–257.

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                Argues for (1) the causal thesis, stating that all dispositions have causal bases; (2) the distinctness thesis, that all dispositions are distinct from their causal bases; and (3) the impotence thesis, that dispositions are causally inert.

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                Anthologies

                Several anthologies about dispositions and related topics have recently been published, many of them stemming from conferences organized around the topic. Kistler and Gnassounou 2007 presents metaphysical accounts of dispositions and demonstrates their relevance to science. Handfield 2009 explores interconnections between dispositions and causes, counterfactuals, laws, and chance. Damschen, et al. 2009 discusses historical and contemporary accounts of dispositions and their role in scientific thinking. Marmodoro 2010 focuses on metaphysical issues about the bases, or “grounds,” of dispositions, as well as the nature of their manifestations.

                • Damschen, Gregor, Robert Schnepf, and Karsten Stueber, eds. Debating Dispositions: Issues in Metaphysics, Epistemology and Philosophy of Mind. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2009.

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                  Analyzes ancient foundations of the discussion about disposition, examines the problem of dispositions within the context of the foundation of modern science, analyzes this dispute up to the 20th century, and explores the contemporary theories.

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                  • Handfield, Toby, ed. Dispositions and Causes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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                    Connects accounts of dispositions to causation literature, as well as counterfactual conditionals and other modal phenomena such as objective chance.

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                    • Kistler, Max, and Bruno Gnassounou, eds. Dispositions and Causal Powers. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

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                      Includes an excellent introduction on the history of debates about dispositions, with the first half devoted to metaphysical accounts and the second half devoted to scientific applications.

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                      • Marmodoro, Anna, ed. The Metaphysics of Powers: Their Grounding and Their Manifestations. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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                        Focuses on questions concerning the metaphysics of powers that cut across subfields, investigating the metaphysical structure of powers, the nature of the manifestation of powers, the necessity or contingency of a power’s relation to its manifestations, as well as Humean and neo-Humean treatments of causation.

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                        Conditional Analyses of Disposition Ascriptions

                        One of the major issues discussed in the dispositions literature is the prospect of analyzing disposition ascriptions in terms of conditional statements; that is, whether saying that something has a certain disposition is to say that a certain counterfactual is true of it. Malzkorn 2001 provides a historical survey of attempts to define dispositional concepts. Smith 1977, Martin 1994, and Bird 1998 are noteworthy for particular kinds of counterexamples to conditional analyses: mimics, finks, and antidotes, respectively. Despite these challenges, conditional analyses of disposition ascriptions have defenders. Some (Gunderson 2002, Choi 2008) defend a simple conditional analysis against the alleged counterexamples, while others (Lewis 1997, Manley and Wasserman 2008) respond by amending the account, resulting in a more sophisticated conditional analysis.

                        • Bird, Alexander. “Dispositions and Antidotes.” Philosophical Quarterly 48.191 (1998): 227–234.

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                          Considers counterexamples to conditional analyses where something (a “mask” or “antidote”) interferes with a disposition manifesting.

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                          • Choi, Sungho. “Dispositional Properties and Counterfactual Conditionals.” Mind 117 (2008): 795–841.

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                            Argues that reports of the demise of the simple conditional analysis are premature.

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                            • Gundersen, Lars. “In Defence of the Conditional Account of Dispositions.” Synthese 130.3 (2002): 389–411.

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                              Defends a simple conditional analysis.

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                              • Lewis, David. “Finkish Dispositions.” Philosophical Quarterly 47.187 (1997): 143–158.

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                                Lewis develops his sophisticated conditional analysis, responding to Martin’s finkish counterexamples. Lewis’s account entails that dispositions must have intrinsic causal bases.

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                                • Malzkorn, Wolfgang. “Defining Disposition Concepts: A Brief History of the Problem.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 32.2 (2001): 335–353.

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                                  Historical survey of the debate regarding conceptual analysis of dispositions.

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                                  • Manley, David, and Ryan Wasserman. “On Linking Dispositions and Conditionals.” Mind 117 (2008): 59–84.

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                                    Identifies five problems for conditional analyses and develops an account that aims to avoid them.

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                                    • Martin, C. B. “Dispositions and Conditionals.” Philosophical Quarterly 44.174 (1994): 1–8.

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                                      Argues against conditional analyses of disposition ascriptions, presenting the “electro-fink” example, in which a disposition’s stimulus condition would cause something to gain that very disposition.

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                                      • Smith, A. D. “Dispositional Properties.” Mind 86 (1977): 439–445.

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                                        Presents the example of “mimickers,” a case where odd circumstances result in a certain counterfactual being true of something that nevertheless fails to instantiate the requisite disposition.

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                                        Dispositional and Categorical Properties

                                        Dispositions are sometimes explained via a contrast with non-dispositional properties, often called “categorical properties.” However, as Cross 2005 illustrates, giving a clear explanation of the nature of this distinction has proved difficult. Some have claimed that the difference between dispositions and categorical properties is that disposition ascriptions entail counterfactual conditionals, while ascriptions of categorical properties do not. However, this is much debated (see Mellor 1974, Prior 1982, and Choi 2005). Even assuming some conceptual distinction can be made, some philosophers claim there is no real distinction to be found among actual properties. Categorical monists have claimed that all properties are categorical, while dispositional monists have claimed that all properties are dispositional. Still others take a mixed view, according to which properties are categorical and/or dispositional.

                                        • Choi, Sungho. “Do Categorical Ascriptions Entail Counterfactual Conditionals?” Philosophical Quarterly 55.220 (2005): 495–503.

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                                          Defends Mumford’s “conditional conditional” account as a way to distinguish dispositions from categorical properties.

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                                          • Cross, Troy. “What Is a Disposition?” Synthese 144.3 (2005): 321–341.

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                                            Considers and critiques various attempts to distinguish dispositions from nondispositional properties.

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                                            • Mellor, D. H. “In Defense of Dispositions.” Philosophical Review 83.2 (1974): 157–181.

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                                              Argues that ascriptions of apparent categorical properties, such as “triangularity,” entail counterfactuals as much as disposition ascriptions do.

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                                              • Prior, Elizabeth. “The Dispositional/Categorical Distinction.” Analysis 42 (1982): 93–96.

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                                                Criticizes Mellor’s argument and tries to defend the dispositional/categorical distinction on the basis of entailment of counterfactuals.

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                                                Property Monism

                                                Shoemaker 1980 and Bird 2007 develop views according to which all (natural) properties have dispositional essences. Objections to dispositional monism include examples of apparent nondispositional properties and threats of vicious regress (Swinburne 1980). While Bird 2007 attempts to deal with regress objections, Lowe 2010 argues that Bird’s strategy is doomed to fail. Categorical monism is criticized on the grounds that it posits mysterious quiddities as the essences of properties (Black 2000). Schaffer 2005 defends quiddities against the charge that they are unknowable.

                                                • Bird, Alexander. Nature’s Metaphysics: Laws and Properties. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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                                                  Develops and defends dispositional monism against the claim that it cannot accommodate structural properties like triangularity and other challenges. Considers various regress arguments, and replies.

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                                                  • Black, Robert. “Against Quidditism.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 78.1 (2000): 87–104.

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                                                    Criticizes categoricalist view of properties for its commitment to quiddities.

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                                                    • Lowe, E. J. “On the Individuation of Powers.” In The Metaphysics of Powers: Their Grounding and Their Manifestations. Edited by Anna Marmodoro. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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                                                      Argues that a structural account of powers and their manifestations will not save dispositional monism from regress and circularity objections.

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                                                      • Schaffer, Jonathan. “Quiddistic Knowledge.” Philosophical Studies 123 (2005): 1–32.

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                                                        Argues, contra Shoemaker, that quiddities do not have disastrous epistemic consequences.

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                                                        • Shoemaker, Sydney. “Causality and Properties.” In Time and Cause: Essays Presented to Richard Taylor. Edited by Peter Van Inwagen, 109–135. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Reidel, 1980.

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                                                          Argues that properties should be individuated by the causal powers they bestow upon objects that have them. Often interpreted as: All properties are powers (or clusters of powers). Also argues that the contrary position has disastrous epistemic implications.

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                                                          • Swinburne, Richard. “Properties, Causation, and Projectibility: Reply to Shoemaker.” In Applications of Inductive Logic: Proceedings of a Conference at the Queen’s College, Oxford, August 21–4, 1978. Edited by L. Jonathan Cohen and Mary Hesse, 313–320. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

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                                                            Presents epistemic regress argument against Shoemaker’s dispositional monism.

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                                                            Mixed Views

                                                            Molnar’s Powers: A Study in Metaphysics (Molnar 2003, cited under General Overviews) and Ellis and Lierse 1994 maintain that some properties are essentially dispositional, but that others, most notably spatio-temporal properties, are not. Mumford’s Dispositions (Mumford 1998, also cited under General Overviews) advocates a neutral monism which asserts that, while all properties are of a single type, the dispositional/categorical distinction corresponds to two different ways of denoting them. Similarly, Martin and Heil 1998 argues that all properties have both dispositional and qualitative aspects, or “sides.”

                                                            • Ellis, Brian, and Caroline Lierse. “Dispositional Essentialism.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 72 (1994): 27–45.

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                                                              Argues that members of natural kinds have dispositional properties, without which they would not be members of that kind. However, they allow for nondispositional properties.

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                                                              • Martin, C. B., and John Heil. “Rules and Powers.” Philosophical Perspectives 12 (1998): 238–312.

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                                                                Presents the “limit” view, according to which dispositionality and qualitativeness are extremes or limits on a spectrum, and all properties have some degree of dispositionality in addition to their qualitative character.

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                                                                Dispositions and Causal Bases

                                                                In “Three Theses about Dispositions” (Prior, et al 1982, cited under General Overviews) Prior, Pargetter, and Jackson argue that all dispositions must have a “basis” or grounds in some other property. This basis is sometimes called a categorical basis, on the assumption that this ground must be a categorical property or properties. More neutrally, the property in virtue of which an object has a disposition can be called the disposition’s “causal basis.” Blackburn 1990 argues against the idea that dispositions could all be based in other dispositions, while Holton 1999 suggests a coherent picture of this possibility. There are various views about how a disposition is related to its causal basis, analogous to various views about the mind-body relationship in the philosophy of mind: Mackie 1977 and Armstrong, et al. 1996 (cited under General Overviews) advocate a type-identity theory; Mumford 1998 (cited under General Overviews) defends a “token-identity theory”; and Prior, Pargetter, and Jackson defend a “functionalist theory,” according to which a disposition is a second-order property of having some causal-basis property or other. However, not everyone accepts all dispositions must have a causal basis, and some defend the possibility of ungrounded or “bare” dispositions (McKitrick 2003, Mumford 2006). Smith and Stoljar 1998 and Psillos 2006 argue against ungrounded dispositions. Hauska 2008 argues in favor of the idea that dispositions must have causal bases.

                                                                • Blackburn, Simon. “Filling in Space.” Analysis 50.2 (1990): 62–65.

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                                                                  Argues that a worldview according to which it’s “dispositions all the way down” is incoherent, given a possible-worlds understanding of the counterfactuals involved.

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                                                                  • Hauska, Jan. “In Defence of Causal Bases.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86.1 (2008): 23–43.

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                                                                    Defends Lewis’s assumption that all dispositions have causal bases.

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                                                                    • Holton, Richard. “Dispositions All the Way Round.” Analysis 59 (1999): 9–14.

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                                                                      Describes relationships of possible worlds that could serve as the truth-makers for disposition claims without appeal to categorical properties.

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                                                                      • Mackie, J. L. “Dispositions, Grounds, and Causes.” Synthese 34.4 (1977): 361–370.

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                                                                        Defends a “type-identity theory” of dispositions and causal bases.

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                                                                        • McKitrick, Jennifer. “The Bare Metaphysical Possibility of Bare Dispositions.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66.2 (2003): 349–369.

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                                                                          Defends the possibility of dispositions that have no distinct causal bases.

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                                                                          • Mumford, Stephen. “The Ungrounded Argument.” Synthese 149.3 (2006): 471–489.

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                                                                            Argues that fundamental properties, such as spin and charge, are ungrounded dispositions.

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                                                                            • Psillos, Stathis. “What Do Powers Do When They Are Not Manifested?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 72.1 (2006): 137–156.

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                                                                              Argues that the evidence from science for ungrounded dispositions is inconclusive. Also, presents a new regress argument against dispositional monism.

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                                                                              • Smith, M., and D. Stoljar. “Global Response Dependence and Noumenal Realism.” Monist 81.1 (1998): 85–111.

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                                                                                Argues against a version of dispositional monism that posits dispositions with no causal basis.

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                                                                                Causal Efficacy of Dispositions

                                                                                Another debate in the dispositions literature is over whether dispositions do any causal work. If dispositions can be identified with categorical properties, then obviously dispositions and categorical properties are equally causally efficacious. Prior, Pargetter, and Jackson argue in “Three Theses about Dispositions” (Prior, et al 1982, cited under General Overviews) that all dispositions have distinct causal bases that do all of the causal work, and that, consequently, dispositions are causally inert. They in effect make an exclusion argument, not unlike those found in the philosophy of mind to threaten the causal relevance of the mental (Block 1990, Kim 1990). Block 1990 and Jackson 1995 also argue that the conceptual connection between a disposition and its manifestation tell against there being a causal relationship. Others (McKitrick 2005) respond to these arguments, defending the causal relevance of dispositions. Rives 2005 defends Prior, Pargetter, and Jackson’s distinctness and impotence theses against such attempts.

                                                                                • Block, Ned. “Can the Mind Change the World?” In Meaning and Method: Essays in Honor of Hilary Putnam. Edited by George S. Boolos, 137–170. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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                                                                                  Considers challenges to the efficacy of mental properties and dispositions generally, including the conceptual connection between a disposition and its manifestation, as well as exclusion arguments.

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                                                                                  • Jackson, Frank. “Essentialism, Mental Properties and Causation.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 95 (1995): 253–268.

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                                                                                    Argues against the causal efficacy of dispositions, and of mental properties in so far as they are like dispositions.

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                                                                                    • Kim, Jaegwon. “Explanatory Exclusion and the Problem of Mental Causation.” In Information, Semantics, and Epistemology. Edited by Enrique Villanueva, 36–56. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.

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                                                                                      Argues that physical properties fully explain behavior and do all the causal work, so that irreducible mental properties would be superfluous and inert.

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                                                                                      • McKitrick, Jennifer. “Are Dispositions Causally Relevant?” Synthese 144 (2005): 357–371.

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                                                                                        Defends the causal relevance of dispositions based on the best understanding of the nature of causal relevance.

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                                                                                        • Rives, Bradley. “Why Dispositions Are (Still) Distinct from Their Bases and Causally Impotent.” American Philosophical Quarterly 42.1 (2005): 19–31.

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                                                                                          Defends Prior, Pargetter, and Jackson’s theses (in Prior, et al. 1982, cited under General Overviews) against reactions spanning two decades.

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                                                                                          Dispositions and Laws

                                                                                          Views about dispositions have implications for laws of nature. Armstrong 1983 claims that laws are contingent relations between universals, and it is in virtue of these laws that things that instantiate these universals have the dispositions that they do. Mumford 2004 argues that the existence of dispositions obviates the need for laws. Other dispositionalists (Bird 2005, Ellis 2001) claim that their view that natural properties have dispositional essences entails that the laws of nature are metaphysically necessary.

                                                                                          • Armstrong, D. M. What Is a Law of Nature? Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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                                                                                            Argues against regularity accounts of laws, arguing instead that laws are contingent relations among universals. Dispositionality turns out to be a consequence of categorical properties following causal laws.

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                                                                                            • Mumford, Stephen. Laws in Nature. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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                                                                                              Presents an ontological view of a world moved by powers rather than governed by laws.

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                                                                                              • Ellis, Brian David. Scientific Essentialism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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                                                                                                Argues that natural kinds have essential dispositional properties, and that this entails that the laws of nature are metaphysically necessary.

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                                                                                                • Bird, Alexander. “The Dispositionalist Conception of Laws.” Foundations of Science 10.4 (2005): 353–370.

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                                                                                                  Argues for metaphysically necessary laws following from monistic dispositional essentialism.

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                                                                                                  Other Topics

                                                                                                  Other questions about the nature of dispositional properties include whether they are intrinsic or extrinsic properties (McKitrick 2003), and whether they can manifest in different ways, under different conditions (Ryle 1963, Bird 2009). Other topics of note include applications of dispositions to shed light on other philosophical issues, such as: mental causation (Ryle 1963; Block 1990, cited under Causal Efficacy of Dispositions), intentionality and consciousness (Heil 2003), color (Johnston 1992, Heil 2003), knowledge (Gunderson 2003), rule following (Martin and Heil 1998, cited under Mixed Views; Handfield and Bird 2008), and free will (Clarke 2009).

                                                                                                  • Bird, Alexander. “Structural Properties Revisited.” In Dispositions and Causes. Edited by Toby Handfield, 215–241. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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                                                                                                    Further defends dispositional monism against the idea that structural properties, such as spatial separation, are counterexamples. Also includes an argument for the claim that fundamental dispositions cannot be “multitrack.”

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                                                                                                    • Clarke, Randolph. “Dispositions, Abilities to Act, and Free Will: The New Dispositionalism.” Mind 118.470 (2009): 323–351.

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                                                                                                      Considers compatibilist accounts of free will, according to which have free will is a matter of having certain (possibly deterministic) dispositions.

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                                                                                                      • Gunderson, Lars Bo. Dispositional Theories of Knowledge: A Defence of Aetiological Foundationalism. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003.

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                                                                                                        Argues that cognitive skills are dispositional in nature.

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                                                                                                        • Handfield, Toby, and Alexander Bird. “Dispositions, Rules, and Finks.” Philosophical Studies 140 (2008): 285–298.

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                                                                                                          Considers whether behavioral dispositions to follow rules can be subject to finks, like Martin’s electro-fink, thus shedding some light on Wittgensteinian puzzles about rule following.

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                                                                                                          • Heil, John, ed. From an Ontological Point of View. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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                                                                                                            Takes up various metaphysical issues, including dispositions and powers, and argues that they can shed light on the nature of number of issues, including color, intentionality, and consciousness.

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                                                                                                            • Johnston, Mark. “How to Speak of the Colors.” Philosophical Studies 68.3 (1992): 221–263.

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                                                                                                              Considers different theories of color, including dispositional accounts, and consequently looks at many issues about dispositions, including masking and mimicking cases.

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                                                                                                              • McKitrick, Jennifer. “A Case for Extrinsic Dispositions.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 81.2 (2003): 155–174.

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                                                                                                                Challenges a widely held assumption that disposition must be intrinsic by presenting examples of properties that seem to be both dispositional and extrinsic.

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                                                                                                                • Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London: Penguin, 1963.

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                                                                                                                  Primarily arguing against substance dualism and in favor of behaviorism in the philosophy of mind, but also contains interesting discussion of dispositions, particularly the observation that many of them seem to be “multitrack”—having various manifestations in various circumstances. First published in 1949 (London: Hutchinson’s University Library).

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