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


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.

    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.

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

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

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

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

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

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

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

    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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