Is Instantiation a Relation?

Is Instantiation a Relation?

I propose to address a question of high obscurity, hoping at least to make some clear points. As philosophers we are accustomed to using the word “instantiate” to describe what is involved when an object has a property—say, a ball is red. We say that the ball instantiates the property of being red (or the quality redness or the universal RED). We thereby speak of a relation between objects and properties (qualities, universals). We may even refer to something called “the instantiation relation”. But is this really a relation? Are objects related to properties in the way they are related to other objects when they stand in relations to them? Is a ball being red a relational matter? One object being to the left of another is a relational fact, but is an object being red a relational fact?

            In the case of objects and their relations we can say that the objects have a nature that is independent of their relations to other objects: if x is to the left of yx and y both have intrinsic properties in addition to their relational properties, typically predating the obtaining of the latter. The objects don’t have only relational properties. They are constituted as the objects they are by their intrinsic properties, and they are only subsequently able to enter into relations with other objects. The relations are metaphysically dependent on the properties: x can’t be R to y unless it is already possessed of a relation-independent nature constituted by properties. For what would it be that stands in these relations if there were nothing but the relations? There would be no well-defined object to stand in relations to other objects. There would just be some sort of bare substance that is related thus and so to other bare substances. Relations alone cannot add up to well-defined objects. Thus we find that objects in spatial relations have non-relational properties too, such as size, shape, material composition, and color. Traditionally these are referred to as primary qualities (I will include color here, assuming it not to be a relation to other objects). The relations are added to the qualities and cannot obtain without them. But in the case of the instantiation relation this basic principle is violated: for the primary qualities themselves are taken to be possessed relationally. The object stands in that relation to the qualities conceived as extrinsic entities (we picture them as occupying their own realm). Objects have no nature independently of standing in the instantiation relation, since that is what it is to have any nature at all. Logically, the object has a nature only by standing in the instantiation relation to properties extrinsic to it, so it has no relation-independent being. The situation is precisely not like relations between objects and objects, so that model fails at a crucial point. At best we picture the objects as bare particulars awaiting the possession of properties in virtue of standing in the instantiation relation to them, but this notion is metaphysically incoherent—it is the bogus notion of the property-less particular. The relational conception converts objects into bare particulars, but there are no such things; and anyway they are not what we signed up for when we entertained the idea of the instantiation relation.

            Second, there is surely something very odd in the idea that objects stand in no other relation to properties. When objects stand in relations to each other they stand in many such relations: if x is to the left of y, it will also be (say) larger than y or of a different shape or color or heavier than y. But when an object instantiates a property it doesn’t also stand in other relations to that property such as being heavier than the property or to the left of it or a different color from it. The only relation objects ever have to properties is that of instantiating them (or failing to); there isn’t the usual panoply of other relations. What kind of relation is it that precludes the holding of other relations? It seems like a very jealous sort of relation! Properties have relations among themselves, such as inclusion or incompatibility, but they only relate to objects via the instantiation relation—otherwise they have nothing to do with them. Is it perhaps that there is no relation there to begin with and hence no concomitant package of other relations? That suspicion turns to conviction when we note another peculiarity of the so-called instantiation relation: when the ball instantiates redness we can re-state this fact by saying simply that the ball is red. The relation drops out under paraphrase, as if a mere redundant flourish (or device of generalization). But no such thing is true of relations in general: if x is to the left of y, we can’t re-state this fact by dropping the relational term—if we try, we get the nonsensical “x y’s” (“Fred Albert’s”). Relation words are not redundant at all; we need them in order to capture all the facts. But the word “instantiates” (like the word “true”) vanishes under paraphrase: we can truly say, “x instantiates P if and only if is P”. There is no relation here that cries out for inclusion in our list of Indispensable Terms. And indeed who has ever witnessed the instantiation relation holding? Do objects look like they enter into relations with properties extrinsic to them? The idea is a philosopher’s invention not a piece of robust common sense. We talk that way sometimes, but to harden this into a theory of objects and their properties seems like metaphysical fancy.

            Do objects have properties? Not in the way you have a bicycle or a coin in your pocket. True, objects are red, square, heavy, etc., but this is not like ownership: you don’t possess your properties as you possess your books or furniture (you can give away your books but not your properties). So there is no support here for the relational picture of objects and properties. Why do we even talk this way? Why do we invoke such relational language when trying to understand what it is for a ball to be red? Because we really don’t understand what is going on when a ball is red: the metaphysics is obscure to us. So we reach for the first available analogy—objects standing in relations. Once we see that this analogy fails we are stymied—stuck, skewered. We find we have no real understanding of the most primitive fact of reality—objects being a certain way. We don’t want to say that objects are nothing but properties (“bundles of qualities”), but we also don’t want to think of them as removed from properties in the manner of the bare particular. We impose the relational model on them, but it quickly collapses, leaving nothing to put in its place. Balls are red but their being so strikes us as impenetrably obscure (as philosophers). Plato proposed a two-tier theory with particulars down here and universals up there, under which the relational conception seems inescapable: but we really have no idea of objects independently of properties and properties independently of objects. The two seem clearly distinct, but how they combine baffles the intellect. We thus have no positive idea what is going on when a ball is red (round, heavy, etc.), but resorting to something called the instantiation relation looks like the wrong way to go. It is trying to force one thing into a mold suitable only for another.[1]

[1] To put the matter intuitively, objects and their properties form a natural unity, but the instantiation relation imposes a duality that is false to the facts. Genuine relations between objects involve dualities (or more), so the relational view imposes this picture on simple monadic facts—with the object and its properties on opposite sides of a metaphysical divide. Recoiling from this, we start to blabber about “organic wholes” and suchlike things—no real theory offers itself. We thus fail to grasp what it is for an object to be a certain way, i.e. the most basic structure of reality.

2 replies
  1. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    “The mystery of the copula”: I think it is not an additional element of being in a’s being F or a’s having F; that is, there aren’t three entities involved but only two, viz. a and F. No relational extra entity is needed for the having because F is in itself not only a modifier or qualifier of an object, but also a one-place relator or connector relating or connecting itself to the object having it. So, formally, we have a)F, with “)F” referring to one self-connecting entity connected to a, rather than a)–(F, with “)–(” referring to an extra entity connecting a and F. (This corresponds to the Fregean argument-function interpretation of predication.)

    As for the very idea of the having or possessing (or exemplifying or instantiating) of a property by something, I think it’s ontologically primitive and unanalyzable. If it’s obscure, I’m afraid it cannot be helpfully illuminated in terms of other concepts which are less obscure.

    “And what is this relation I call (and all other speakers of English call) ‘having’? ‘Has’ is not a technical term, but a word that belongs to our ordinary speech. Of course, like most everyday words, it has many senses, and these must be distinguished in a philosophical discussion of the nature of universals (as the ‘true’ of ‘true friend’ and the ‘true’ of ‘true statement’ must be distinguished in a philosophical discussion of the nature of truth). Obviously, when we say that a thing has a certain property, we are not using ‘has’ in any of the senses of the word illustrated by the following examples: ‘Alice has a cold/has a grievance/has a Lexus/has a husband’. ‘Has’, like ‘can’ and ‘is’ is a very versatile word. But the sense of ‘had’ in the sentence ‘Solomon had the property wisdom’ (and in any sentence with the same semantical structure) is uniquely determined by, and is evident from an examination of, the sentence as a whole. The proposition expressed by this sentence, moreover, can be expressed by other sentences, sentences that make use of other everyday idioms. The following sentences of ordinary English all express the same proposition, or at least come as close to expressing the same proposition as do ‘The capital city of France is Paris’ and ‘Paris is the French capital’:

    Solomon had the property wisdom.
    Wisdom was one of Solomon’s properties.
    The property wisdom belonged to Solomon.
    Wisdom can be truly predicated of (or ‘ascribed to’) Solomon.

    This relation, I contend, the relation these sentences assert to hold between Solomon and wisdom, is as familiar and well-understood as it is hard to explain or give an account of. I would say that it was hard to explain because it was hard –
    impossible, in fact – to find simpler or better-understood ideas in terms of which to explain it.”

    (Van Inwagen, Peter. “In Defense of Transcendent Universals.” In Metaphysics and Scientific Realism: Essays in Honour of David Malet Armstrong, edited by Francesco F. Calemi, 51-70. Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. pp. 57-8)


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