In This Article Tropes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • History
  • Causation
  • Semantics

Philosophy Tropes
Anna-Sofia Maurin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0234


Trope theory is the view that the world is (wholly or partly) constituted by so-called tropes, and that the tropes which thus characterize reality are abstract particulars or, as some say, particular properties. Very little is uncontroversial when it comes to tropes and the theory or theories in which tropes are taken to figure. Among other things, this means that even to characterize the trope as an abstract particular or as a particular property may not be accepted by all trope theorists. What attracts many to the theory is that, in occupying a sort of middle position between classical nominalism (according to which all there is in particular) and classical realism (according to which there is a separate and fundamental category of properties), it appears to avoid some of the troubles befalling either of those views. By accepting the existence of entities that are, or that at least behave like, properties, the trope theorist avoids the charge, often made against classical nominalists, of positing entities that are somehow too unstructured to be able to fulfill all of our explanatory needs. Further, by not accepting the existence of universals, the trope theorist avoids having to accept the existence of a kind of entity many find mysterious, counterintuitive, and “unscientific.” Apart from its very thin core assumption—that there are tropes—different trope theories need not have very much in common. Most trope theorists (but not all) believe that there is nothing but tropes. Most of these one-category trope theorists (but, again, not all) hold that distinct concrete particulars (which are understood by most, but again not all, as bundles of tropes) are the same—for example, have the same color—when (some of) the tropes that characterize them are members of the same (exact) similarity class. And most (but not all) hold that resemblance between tropes is determined by their individual, intrinsic nature, where this nature is not understood in terms of anything else but is, rather, taken as a primitive. And so on. Tropes and trope theory, so-called, have been debated at least since the 1950s, which makes this a comparatively “young” discussion. The literature is growing, however, and growing fast. In this article, the most important texts relating to the most important debates on the topic are listed.

General Overviews

Comprehensive introductions to contemporary debates in metaphysics (as well as in philosophy generally) can be found in various Internet encyclopedias. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides excellent and, for the most part, very much updated in-depth overviews of almost any subject in philosophy, written by the foremost experts in their respective fields. This is always a good place to start if one is interested in the current state-of-the art of any area in philosophy. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, although the overviews it offers are not quite as ambitious and comprehensive as those provided by The Stanford Encyclopedia, nevertheless provides short and accessible introductions to almost any area in analytic philosophy, again written by professional academics. Entries in The Stanford Encyclopedia are written primarily for people with a background in (professional) philosophy. Entries in The Internet Encyclopedia, on the other hand, are for the most part more accessible, and hence suitable for a less philosophically experienced audience. Entries of relevance to the student of tropes and trope theory include (but are not limited to) Bacon 2011, which provides an updated introduction to the most important debates on tropes; McLeod and Rubenstein 2005; and Swoyer and Orilia 2011, which relate the debate on tropes to the more general debate on the nature of properties (that tropes are a kind of property is the received view, but see the section on Simplicity); and Rodriguez-Pereyra 2011, which explains the sense in which trope theory can be categorized as a kind of nominalism. A common view among critics of trope theory is that tropes are, or collapse into, states of affairs (again, see Simplicity). Mulligan and Correia 2013 and Textor 2012 provide relevant background information (on the nature of facts and of states of affairs) for anyone especially interested in that discussion.

  • Bacon, John. “Tropes.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2011.

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    A general introduction to most topics of relevance to the discussion concerning tropes and trope theory.

  • McLeod, Mary C., and Eric M. Rubenstein. “Universals.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2005.

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    A short and very accessible introduction to the “problem of universals,” as well as to the trope-theoretical solution to that problem. A good place to start for someone with no or very little knowledge of the field.

  • Mulligan, Kevin, and Fabrice Correia. “Facts.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2013.

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    Among many other things, this entry introduces the idea of facts as truth-makers, and, most relevantly, it discusses the question of whether facts must be complex or not (which is basically the same question as the question of whether tropes, which are simple, can be facts to whether simple tropes can be facts.

  • Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo. “Nominalism in Metaphysics.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2011.

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    Entry that nicely summarizes what reasons one might have not to accept the existence of either abstract universals or abstract objects. Explains where trope theory fits into the nominalist scheme (and how it differs from more traditional forms of that theory).

  • Swoyer, Chris, and Francesco Orilia. “Properties.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2011.

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    A very good overview of the debates in analytic philosophy (and, in particular, in analytic metaphysics) concerning properties, including some of the debates concerning properties considered as tropes. Indispensable reading if one wants to understand the theoretical background against which tropes are introduced.

  • Textor, Mark. “States of Affairs.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2012.

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    Most importantly for our present purposes, this text distinguishes what are called “states of affairs” from “facts” (confusingly enough also called states of affairs by some philosophers in metaphysics) and from what are called “thoughts.” Introduces the (quite common) idea that facts can function both as truth-makers and as regress-stoppers.

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