Materialist Idealism

In the history of philosophy materialism and idealism are regularly opposed to each other: they are conceived as rival metaphysical systems. Each is thought to have its appeal, with oscillation between them, but it is assumed that you cannot be both. They are logically incompatible doctrines. The world is either completely material or it is completely mental—it cannot be completely both.[1] But on reflection things are not so simple; it is possible to combine materialism and idealism. There can be a coherent materialist idealism and also coherent idealist materialism. You can be a materialist and an idealist. How is this possible?

Suppose you are attracted to an identity theory of mind and body: you think that mental states are identical to brain states. You think this for the usual reasons (parsimony, causation, anti-dualism, etc.) and you subscribe to the view that reality is generally material (consisting of atoms in the void, say). What is to stop you conjoining this materialist viewpoint with the proposition that so-called material nature is really mental? Suppose you agree with Berkeley about material objects—they are really ideas in the mind of God with counterpart ideas in human minds. Then you accept that brains and their states are mental objects too, along with other material objects. So you hold that the brain states with which mental states are identical are themselves mental entities, ultimately ideas in God’s mind. Thus mental states are identical with ideas in the mind of God (ideas of brain states). Ideas are identical with other ideas. Pain, for example, is identical to an idea in God’s mind, since C-fiber firing is an idea in God’s mind. You reduce the mental to the physical and then you reduce the physical to the mental. You are a global idealist who is a materialist about the mind. Or you might hold, with Eddington and Russell, that the world of physics is ultimately a world of conscious experience (“neutral monism”) while at the same time believing that minds reduce to brains (which themselves reduce to ripples in the mental substratum). You are a materialist about the mind but an idealist about reality in general—an idealist materialist. You are certainly more of a materialist than someone who holds that the mind is quite independent of the brain and also that reality is generally mental. You hold that everything mental is physical (atoms in the void) but that everything physical is ultimately mental (those atoms are really mental in nature).

Now suppose that you attracted to the doctrine that material objects are bundles of dispositions to appear a certain way—you would call yourself a phenomenalist. Perhaps you think this is a good way to avoid skepticism, or that it is the only hope of preserving naïve realism. Objects have no being independent of the mind: idealism is true of them. What is to stop you conjoining this belief with the claim that experiences are really material processes occurring in brains? You are a materialist about sense experience and all other mental phenomena. Your position is like that of someone who believes that colors are dispositions to produce color experiences but also believes that color experiences are brain processes. This seems like a perfectly consistent position: colors could be dispositions to elicit brain processes, these being what color experiences are. And the same is true for a general idealism about the objects of perception: this doctrine might be combined with a materialist view of experience. The brain itself is a bundle of dispositions to produce sense experiences, but sense experiences are states of the brain (and hence themselves dispositions to produce experiences). You are an idealist about material objects (so-called) but a materialist generally: you think objects depend on minds for their existence, but you also think that minds are physical things. You are a materialist idealist. You are certainly much more of an idealist than someone who holds that objects are mind-independent: for you hold to a central tenet of traditional idealism while rejecting the claim that reality is ultimately mental.

We might describe the first sort of metaphysician as a global idealist who holds to a local materialism and the second as a global materialist who holds to a local idealism. It would be misleading to label either an idealist or a materialist tout court, since they differ from a theorist who rejects those local claims. We need to make room for these mixed positions, since they exist in logical space and have their own attractions. We thus require an expanded terminology. But now I want to complicate matters further by introducing an additional ontological layer. Suppose you hold that reality consists of ideas in God’s mind in the style of Berkeley, while also accepting the mind-brain identity theory: you are a global idealist and a local materialist, as described above. But suppose also that you believe that God is a corporeal being (as Hobbes apparently did)—you are a materialist about God. So you believe that the world consists of ideas in God’s mind but also that God’s mind is material. Then you are a global materialist global idealist local materialist (because you accept the identity theory of human and animal minds). You think that everything is ultimately material because God is material and God’s ideas form the basis of all reality—while also accepting that mortal minds are reducible to brains. Are you a materialist or an idealist? There is no answer to that question, because your position combines elements from each doctrine—you believe a mishmash of idealist and materialist elements. Likewise, you might hold that materialism is generally true in the sense that everything reduces to physics while also holding that physics is ultimately about a world of conscious experience (following Eddington and Russell). Thus you might hold that objects reduce to dispositions to produce experiences, experiences reduce to brain states, and brain states reduce to the conscious stuff that makes up the world in general. You think that everything is material but that the material is ultimately mental. Are you a materialist or an idealist? Again there is no answer to that dichotomous question: you are a global idealist global materialist local idealist. You think that everything is ultimately mental but that everything reduces to physics and that objects are mind-dependent. You simply don’t fit into the traditional dichotomy of materialism versus idealism.

If that sounds complicated, consider what happens if we add a further wrinkle: suppose we introduce the idea of a neutral substance that is neither mental nor physical, as in neutral monism. Now we can say things like, “God is neither mental nor material but something in between” or, “Mind and matter are the result of a neutral substance that is neither”. This produces a further range of possible positions that refuse to fall into the usual categories. I won’t elaborate further, but it is clear that the metaphysical landscape is now populated with a startlingly large array of options. The traditional dichotomy is woefully inadequate to capture this range. But even without adding the notion of a neutral stuff we can generate positions that can’t be slotted into the usual two categories. And this is not just a logical nicety but corresponds to positions with intrinsic appeal—positions someone might conceivably adopt. Hobbes might agree with Berkeley’s critique of traditional theories of perception but still insist that everything is material because God is; or an idealist might wish to maintain that mind and brain are identical as a way to avoid epiphenomenalism. Couldn’t Eddington believe that everything is ultimately mental in nature while maintaining that all the sciences reduce to physics? What about the idea that mental states reduce to brain states but brain states are constituted by an alien type of experiential state? That would give us an identity theory between one kind of mental state and another, mediated by a physical state of the brain. Pain is identical to C-fiber firing; C-fiber firing is identical to alien experiential state E: so pain is identical with E, whatever E is. Is this a materialist theory of pain or an idealist theory? Both and neither: it contains elements of both. Being red is a disposition to produce experiences of red, but experiences of red are states of the brain, but states of the brain are really experiential in nature, but these experiences are ultimately grounded in an unknown type of physical property–what kind of theory is that? It is a complicated combination of materialist and idealist elements. Metaphysics is not as simple as we have been led to believe by the old division between materialism and idealism. In principle, nothing prevents us from contemplating indefinitely many layers of mental and physical reality, each giving way to the other: a mental layer rests on a physical layer, which rests on a further mental layer, which rests on yet another physical layer, and so on.[2] Would someone who thinks this layering can go on infinitely many times be a materialist or an idealist? Neither: they would be a materialist idealist and an idealist materialist.



[1] I won’t consider the question of whether the terms “mental” and “material” (or “physical”) can bear the weight placed on them in these metaphysical controversies, assuming that they have enough content to form coherent theories. My question is whether a simple dichotomy is adequate to the philosophical landscape. Of course, there is also metaphysical dualism, which holds that there are both mental and material facts at the basic level; I am only considering the monistic theories of materialism and idealism.

[2] Compare particles: it has turned out that there are far more layers of particles than we first thought—from molecules to atoms to electrons and protons to quarks, etc. And it may be that we are not yet at the end of the line—or maybe there is no end of line and there exists an infinitely descending series of particles. Similarly, it might be supposed that mental and physical layers alternate multiple times before bedrock is reached—or maybe it is never reached and we have infinite alternation. Nature is not generally averse to infinity.


Family Resemblance

Wittgenstein concludes his famous section in Philosophical Investigations on games (66) with these words: “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail”. This he opposes to the idea that games have a single characteristic that defines them. He follows up this discussion by saying, “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblance’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.—And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.” (67) This is a rather casual introduction of the idea of family resemblance with very little elucidation offered, and Wittgenstein does not use the phrase again in the course of the Investigations; nevertheless, it has achieved canonical status in commentaries on Wittgenstein and analytical philosophy more broadly. I shall suggest that it is a misconceived idea best dropped. I don’t mean that Wittgenstein is wrong to claim that games are united only by various similarities and have no collective definition—though I believe that to be the case; I mean that, even accepting his view of the concept of a game, it is not helpful to compare the case to resemblances among family members.[1] Games don’t have family resemblances in any significant sense.

Let me start with a crude point: football does not have the same nose or mouth or eyes or gait as rugby. Games are not people with various observable bodily traits, so they cannot be similar in the way family members can be. They are not even individuals but rule-governed activities. They can be similar or dissimilar, to be sure, but not in the way family members can be: there is resemblance but not family resemblance. So the concept of a family is here at best metaphorical: games do not literally form a family. There is no genetic linkage and family structure, no birth and child rearing, no brothers and sisters. It might be thought that there is still a specific type of similarity peculiar to family similarity that carries over to games (and perhaps to other things), but this is a confused idea: similarity is just similarity whether between family members or types of car or animals or works of art. Different objects are involved in these cases, but there is no relation of “family-similarity” that differs intrinsically from other types of similarity. Objects are similar or dissimilar in certain respects, depending on the type of object they are, but there is no notion of family-similarity that singles this case out; it is not that family similarity is a special kind of similarity of some peculiarly profound or subtle kind. Wittgenstein could have inverted his explanation and claimed that family similarity is like game similarity: just as games overlap and criss-cross, so family members overlap and criss-cross. The two involve similarities, but it isn’t that family similarity is somehow unique and that games happen to mimic it. In the only way that family resemblance is unique it fails to generalize to games, viz. that it involves having the same nose or mouth or eyes, etc.

Second, the kind of resemblance between people that Wittgenstein is referring to is not confined to families. In fact, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for family membership since some members of a family can be quite unlike other members (perhaps because of some genetic accident) and people outside a family can strongly resemble people in the family (people can have unrelated lookalikes). People can look alike in all sorts of ways whether they are members of the same family or not (and does Wittgenstein intend extended families as well as nuclear families—how extended?). They can have a sort of physical resemblance that is not the result of family membership in the narrow sense. For example, Finns have a characteristic appearance that distinguishes them from other national groups; and racial groups also exhibit physical similarities. So Wittgenstein’s point about family resemblance holds also for larger social groupings; it has nothing specifically to do with families. He could therefore have compared games to nationalities or ethnic groups. Come to think of it, he could have cited animal groups—families or breeds or species. The class consisting of all mammals exhibits various kinds of similarity and dissimilarity, with no observable feature shared by all: there is phenotypic similarity as well as dissimilarity. Again, families are not germane; they are just one instance of human and animal resemblance (think how different mice are from giraffes). In all these cases we have the same logical pattern: a can be similar to b in respect R1 and b can be similar to c in respect R2, but a might not be similar to c in any respect. I can be similar to my brother in respect of nose and mouth, and he may be similar to our father in respect of eyes and chin, but I may share no features with our father. The same is true for many social groups; this is not a point about families as such. Indeed, the same pattern occurs quite generally: musical instruments, say, exhibit various similarities and differences with no common thread—that is, no observable trait shared by all (taut strings, a mouthpiece, a particular type of sound). Selecting family similarity seems random and arbitrary; a great many types of similarity would have done just as well. And the case of families is misleading in at least one important respect: families are natural biological groupings, united by genetics and inheritance, whereas games are united in no such ways. An obvious reply to Wittgenstein is that games are quite unlike families in that families have another principle of unity apart from overt appearance, namely genetic overlap and connection. His point about games (whether right or wrong) is that games have no unity apart from overt similarities, but that is precisely not the case with biological families. Family resemblance is thus a poor choice to illustrate his claim about games. In fact, trait similarities within families are the result of underlying facts that create family unity: they rest upon a shared genetic endowment. No such thing is true of games, and Wittgenstein would certainly reject any analogous claim for games.

What is true is that games can resemble each other in multiple ways, as well as differ in multiple ways: not all games have the same form. They can also vary widely in the kinds of rules they adopt. They don’t all involve a ball or running or keeping score. That is fine as far as it goes, but the analogy with family resemblance is unhelpful and misleading. That is just one instance of resemblance among many (the kind that involves individual humans and their physical appearance), but there is nothing unique about it, nothing that allows it to shed light on games that other cases can’t shed. The case of musical instruments, say, would have done just as well, and better in some ways. All instruments are played, as all games are played, and there are purposes that unite the members of each class; it is just that the physical make-up and form of the objects deployed are very various (compare drums and violin). Wittgenstein says he “can think of nothing better” to characterize the case of games than the expression “family resemblance”, but it seems that there are many better analogies and that this one is quite unapt. To use Wittgenstein’s own concept of a language game, the language game of talking about games is quite unlike the language game of talking about families: we never remark, upon first encountering the game of rugby, “Oh, you look just like football”, as if we have noticed a striking visual feature common to both. Nor do we offer comments like, “Football and rugby look like they belong to the same family, but curling looks like it belongs to a different family altogether”. We don’t think about game resemblance as if it is comparable to physiognomic resemblance between people; how games look is not the main point of judgments of resemblance and difference between them.[2]


[1] I accept that Bernard Suits satisfactorily defines the concept of a game in The Grasshopper (1978), but I am not discussing that question here. I am merely considering the question of whether similarities among games are aptly characterized by the phrase “family resemblance”—whether or not these are all there is to the concept of a game.

[2] Wittgenstein also claims that different kinds of number are linked by family resemblance (67); the points made in this paper apply a fortiori to that suggestion. Numbers, being abstract, don’t even have perceptible characteristics, and their similarities and differences are really nothing like those between family members. At this point the phrase “family resemblance” has lost any real content beyond simply “similar in some way”. That is an extraordinarily weak relation, logically speaking.


Colors and Powers

According to Locke, colors are nothing but powers in objects to produce ideas in our minds. He writes: “What I have said concerning colours and smells, may be understood also of tastes, and sounds, and other the like sensible qualities; which, whatever reality we by mistake, attribute to them, are in truth nothing in the objects themselves, but powers to produce various sensations in us, and depend on those primary qualities, viz. bulk, figure, texture, and motion of parts; as I have said.” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter VIII, section 14) There is, he tells us, no “resemblance” between these sensations or ideas and the objective ground of the power, as there is in the case of primary qualities, and without minds to interact with the powers there would be no color (etc.) in the world. To say that an object is red is just to say that it has the power to produce sensations of red in us: that is, colorless objects made of colorless minute particles happen to cause in us a certain type of sensation, and that is all there is to color—it has no mind-independent existence.

But two questions may be raised about this doctrine, appealing though it is. The first is that a given object has several such powers: it may produce sensations of red in one set of perceivers and sensations of green in another set (and so on for the other colors). It doesn’t have a unique idea-producing power but many such powers (it could even produce ideas like those produced by the other senses). Yet there is only one set of primary qualities underlying this multiplicity of powers. This prevents us from identifying the color with the primary quality basis, on pain of identifying the colors with each other (same basis for each power and hence sameness of color). It isn’t the power in the object that is fixing the color of the object but its relation to the minds of perceivers. Second, how could a colorless object have the power to produce sensations of color? Nothing about the object itself explains the power it has to excite color sensations, let alone specific color sensations. It is, we might say, chromatically impotent. It would be a type of miracle if primary qualities had the power to produce sensations of quite different qualities. The only sense in which objects have such powers is that minds have corresponding powers: the mind has the power, when interacting with colorless objects, to generate sensations of color—the power comes from it not the external object as such. The power of which Locke speaks is really a relational power not an intrinsic power. Intrinsically the object is powerless to produce color sensations; whatever power it possesses is conferred on it by perceiving minds. Locke should have said that colors consist in the power of our mind to impose colors on the world—powers in the mind not powers in objects. Does a square object have the power to produce sensations of a round object? Well, it can produce such a sensation if the perceptual system misfires, but it has no intrinsic power to do any such thing—as it has to produce a sensation of a square object. It just happens to cause (partially) a sensation of roundness; the real work is done by the perceiving mind—it has the power to respond with roundness perceptions to a square object. Similarly, colorless objects can elicit sensations of color, but only because minds are so set up that they can generate sensations of color in the presence of things that have no color. The external primary qualities play a minimal causal role, and considered in themselves have no power to produce sensations at all. Indeed, it is conceivable that there be no such objects and yet the mind has the power to generate the full panoply of colors from within its own resources (color sensations in a vat). In fact, we are already in a situation close to this in that we have colored mental imagery that is elicited by no external object—no primary qualities are triggering this kind of “perception”. The external object in the perceptual case merely triggers a pre-existing power of the mind; it is not the locus of the power to bring color sensations into the world.[1]

If we say that water has the power to dissolve salt, we mean that water has objective properties that explain how the power is exercised; but if we say objects have the power to cause color sensations, we can’t provide any such explanation. This is because objects are powerless in this regard; the mind is the origin of the power in question. Imagine a world in which there are simple objects having just two properties and yet these objects are perceived by minds as being rich and complex, endowed with (say) a thousand properties. It would be bizarre to suggest that the objects have the power to produce the full range of sensations available in this world—that power properly resides in the minds that exist in it. It would be quite wrong to say that the properties perceived are nothing but powers in the objects to produce sensations, with their impoverished two-property profiles. The objects have no such intrinsic power, though they have the weak relational power of being able to interact with minds that do have the power to perceive the full range of a thousand properties. In a way Locke undersells his own subjectivist position, which is that the mind is the origin of secondary qualities not the external world. At the least he should have distinguished between the weak sense of power and the strong sense, maintaining only that objects have only a weak power to cause sensations. Primary qualities, by contrast, have a strong power to produce sensations because of that “resemblance” he mentions, but secondary qualities are only weakly connected to the objective nature of external objects. They are connected in roughly the sense in which sugar has the power to taste bitter if the taster’s sense organs are deranged in some way, or in which red objects have the power to appear yellow if there is something wrong with your eyes. The relation expressed by “x can trigger y” is much weaker than that expressed by “x has the power to y”.

This matters because it affects the strength of subjectivity of Locke’s basic doctrine. If we identify colors with powers-in-objects, then we accord them a degree of objectivity not intended by the basic metaphysics; but if instead we identify colors with powers-in-the-mind, then we fully endorse the fundamental thesis that colors are purely subjective, i.e. originate in the mind and are then imposed or projected onto external things. Here is Locke in full flight: “The particular bulk, number, figure, and motion of the parts of fire, or snow, are really in them, whether anyone’s senses perceive them or no: and therefore they may be called real qualities, because they really exist in those bodies. But light, heat, whiteness, or coldness, are no more really in them, than sickness or pain is in manna. Take away the sensation of them; let not the eyes see light, or colors, nor the ears hear sounds; let the palate not taste, nor the nose smell, and all colours, tastes, odours, and sounds, as they are such particular ideas, vanish and cease, and are reduced to their causes, i.e. bulk, figure, and motion of parts.” (ibid, section 17). That use of “reduced” is perhaps ill advised, suggesting as it does that secondary qualities, and ideas of them, are reducible to primary qualities of external things, which would make them as real as primary qualities in general. But it is clear that Locke intends to maintain that colors (etc.) are mere subjective projections not at all inseparable from matter—they arise from powers of the mind not from powers of matter. It is only in a very weak sense that we can say that objects have the power to produce ideas of secondary qualities, as weak as saying that manna has the power to produce sickness and pain, or a spear has the power to be thrown. The truth is (according to Locke) that colorless particles interact with our colorless sense organs in such a way as to activate the latent power of the mind to generate colors in all their glory. The power to produce color sensations is a mental power not a power of material objects considered in their own right. Perhaps Locke was subliminally influenced by his opposition to innate ideas: for if colors originate in the mind, how can ideas of them be derived from perception of external objects? At any rate, one who sympathizes with Locke’s metaphysics of color has reason to dislike his official object-centered formulation of the doctrine. The powers that give rise to colors are in the mind not in the external world.[2]


[1] Much the same can be said about the dispositional formulation of color subjectivism: objects have many color dispositions and no object has such a disposition intrinsically. Rather, minds have dispositions to see the world as manifesting various colors—that is where the disposition originates. Objects are merely disposed to trigger such mental dispositions in the sense that they can trigger them in certain conditions. The ontological work is done by the mind not the world.

[2] None of this is to deny that matter might be the origin of the mind’s power to produce colors; it is just that the material objects of perception are not the locus of the power to bring colors into being. Put broadly, Locke (and his followers) are putting too much emphasis on the powers of objects and neglecting the vital contribution made by the mind.


Causal Universals

Causation implies laws. A singular causal statement entails a general causal statement. If a caused b, we know that events like a will cause events like b. Thus universality is built into causation—the particular implies the universal.[1] This puts causation in a very special class of relations: it is not generally true that a singular relational statement entails a general one. If a is to the left of b, it does not follow that everything like a will be the left of something like b: an apple can be to the left of a pear, but not all apples are to the left of pears. The same is true of all spatial relations: no general spatial proposition follows from the truth of a singular spatial proposition. Similarly for temporal relations: if a happens before b, it doesn’t follow that everything like a will happen before something like b—you might have dinner before going to a play, but it is not generally the case that dinners are followed by plays.  Ditto for family relations: it doesn’t follow from my having a brother that everyone like me has a brother like mine. And the same seems true generally; only causal relations give rise to the kind of generality in question. This is because all singular causal relations are necessarily instances of general laws, whereas that is not the case for the other relations mentioned. The law need not be framed in the same terms as the singular causal statement, but some sort of description will exist under which the instance exemplifies a law. Everything happens by law; therefore all causal relations imply underlying laws.

We should view this as more surprising than we do. For how is it possible for the particular case to have implications beyond itself, covering indefinitely many other cases? How can we derive a universal statement from a singular statement? We can derive an existential statement from a singular statement, but how can we move from what is true in a particular instance to what is true in all instances? The causal relation between particulars seems to encompass causal relations between quite distinct and often remote particulars: if a certain causal relation holds on earth, we can infer that it generalizes to other galaxies. This gives us amazing powers of knowledge: we just need to know that this caused that and we thereby know that everything like the former causes something like the latter. Imagine if knowing that this cup is on the table enabled us to know that every cup is on a table! Yet causation seems somehow to condense the universal into the particular: if a really did cause b, then no matter where you go, whenever you have something like a it will cause something like b. Causation is not just the cement of the universe; it is a cement that repeats itself endlessly, holding things together in the same recurring pattern. Once you know one part of the pattern you know them all. The puzzle is how an individual instance of a relation can “contain” all the other instances. Generally, if a relation R relates individuals a and b, we can infer nothing about whether other similar individuals are related by R; but in the case of the causal relation, we can infer a universal proposition from a specific one. This is because every particular case is necessarily an instance of something more general. And that seems puzzling, almost miraculous, as if great tracts of the universe are coiled inside a particular localized case.[2]

Consider two other relations that have generality built into them: logical and deontic relations. If a particular statement entails another particular statement, this is always an instance of something more general: the proposition expressed by the first statement entails the proposition expressed by the second, so that every individual statement will stand in the entailment relation. Similarly, if one person has a moral duty with respect to another, this implies that anyone relevantly like the first will have just such a duty to someone relevantly like the second. As Kant would say, particular moral maxims can be universalized. Is there a puzzle about how this is possible? If there is, it is surely superficial, since logical and deontic relations primarily hold between types not tokens—types of statement, types of person. Conjunctive propositions, say, have certain logical implications, which are inherited by particular expressions of them; and fathers and sons as general categories have certain duties to each other, which then apply to specific people. That is, the relations in question hold in the first instance between something other than concrete particulars and are understood as such. It is not a matter of inferring the universal from the particular but recognizing the universal in the particular. We know those relations to hold without having to inspect the empirical world of particulars. It might even be said, by way of emphasis, that logical and deontic relations don’t strictly hold between particulars at all—this is just a manner of speaking about more abstract relations, harmless enough if we don’t let it mislead us as to the true ontological situation.

This suggests an approach to the puzzle of causation that has some reassuringly familiar elements. What if we say that the causal relation holds primarily between types not tokens? Then generality will be built into it from the start. When token events causally interact this is an instance of a type-event interaction; the former is derivative from the latter. Thus universality is guaranteed because it is built into the nature of the basic causal relation: causation is a relation between event-types in somewhat the way logical and deontic relations are relations between types. This is familiar because it is commonly accepted that token events stand in causal relations in virtue of the properties they instantiate: it is not events tout court that stand in causal relations but events “under descriptions”, i.e. inasmuch as they instantiate causally relevant properties.[3] It is the electric charge of a battery that causes an electrical device to work not the color of the battery, and events have causal powers in virtue of some of their properties though not all (being an event recorded in the history books, for example). Spatial and temporal relations relate things irrespective of their intrinsic properties, but causal relations between things depend entirely on their intrinsic properties (i.e. their nature). Thus the primary locus of causation is properties, which are inherently general. The puzzle arises when we think of cause and effect as particulars and then wonder how the particular can contain the general, but in fact causation is inherently general because of the essential role of properties in causation—they are the primary bearers of causal powers. Laws relate properties, and causation consists of laws in action. The universal is already present in the particular case. The form of a singular causal statement is, “a being F caused b to be G”, where the causally relevant properties figure essentially in the fact; so the singular instance already includes general properties as causal agents. The causal structure of the universe accordingly relates properties not just particulars. This is what makes the causal relation different from other relations, and solves the puzzle of causation. Causal structure is not the sum of isolated instances of causation between particulars but of general causal principles linking properties.[4]

[1] There is an extensive literature on this question, with notable contributions from Davidson, Anscombe, and others; but I won’t get into this and simply assume a well-known position.

[2] Here we might think of Wittgenstein’s discussion of the way meaning seems magically to contain future use in Philosophical Investigations.

[3] It may be true that singular causal statements are referentially transparent statements about token events, but it doesn’t follow that causation itself works without reliance on selected causally relevant properties. No event has causal powers just by being that event.

[4] In a world of bare particulars, if such there could be, there could be no causation, because there would be no exemplified properties to do the work of causation. Bare particulars would have to be causally idle. In a slogan: no causation without exemplification.


An Argument Against Materialism

If materialism were true, we should be able to know about matter by introspection; but we don’t, so it isn’t. For materialism is a theory of the nature of mind—what constitutes mental states—and so we ought to know this nature by knowing about the things that have it; but we don’t. If it is the nature of pain to be C-fiber firing, then knowing what pain is should give us knowledge of that nature; yet we know nothing about C-fiber firing by knowing our own pains. Introspection should reveal pain to be fibrous and staccato, because that is what the neural correlate of pain is; but it is blind to these cerebral facts. We don’t even know that the correlate is extended just by knowing our pains, or indeed that there is such a correlate. Shouldn’t the nature of pain communicate itself to us through our faculty of introspecting pain? Why the epistemic cut-off? There isn’t even a hint of the nature of pain in our introspective knowledge of it, as materialism views this nature; but that is puzzling and unexplained. The most obvious explanation of this lack of physical knowledge is that materialism is not true. Contrast two other theories of mind: behaviorism and functionalism. Our ordinary knowledge of mind incorporates information about the behavioral and functional aspects of mental states: we know that pain leads to withdrawal behavior and that it has a certain functional role vis-à-vis belief and desire. The nature of mental states, according to these theories, is not cut off from our self-knowledge, just as one might expect—we know quite a bit about this nature just by having and knowing about mental states. But in the case of central-state materialism we appear completely in the dark about what really constitutes our mental states, as if behind a brick wall. Thus the theory strikes us as startling, surprising, thrilling even (also rebarbative). It seems like a departure from common sense not a continuation of it.

There doesn’t seem to be any logical necessity about introspective ignorance of the brain: people could know their brain states (conceived as such) by inner sense. Consider a possible world in which people have sensations of pain and also introspective intimations of the cerebral correlates of pain. The pain is felt but so is the corresponding brain activity. In such a world the materialist doctrine would not seem far-fetched or counter-intuitive because ordinary knowledge of pain would include facts about its material nature (according to materialism). People would think, “Oh, that’s why I feel my brain that way when I have a pain, because pain is a state of my brain!” And maybe in that world materialism is in fact true: thus its truth conveys itself to the introspective faculty. The case would be like that of behaviorism and functionalism. There would be nothing puzzling in people’s epistemic situation with respect to the mind. But in our world there is no such knowledge of the real nature of mental states, as materialism conceives that nature; and that is puzzling. The dualist will insist that this is exactly what we should expect, since mental states have no such physical nature. The materialist thus faces a challenge—how to explain our ignorance of the nature of our minds given the materialist doctrine. How can introspection be so blind to the truth?[1] Opponents of materialism will conclude that this is not the nature of mind, which is precisely why we don’t introspect minds in the way we should if materialism were true. The relation between mind and brain naturally strikes us as extrinsic, contingent, correlative, not as a relation of identity or constitution: why, if that is what it is? What the materialist cannot do is point to some aspect of our introspective knowledge that anticipates the truth of materialism—as behaviorism, functionalism, and dualism can with respect to their own theories.

It would be wrong to object that the same is true for other kinds of theoretical identification, as with water and H2O or heat and molecular motion, because here ordinary perceptual knowledge does anticipate the theories in question. That is, our ordinary knowledge of water and heat already represents them as material phenomena of some sort, even if the theoretical details remain to be discovered—they clearly belong with other recognizably material things. But in the case of mental states that is precisely not the case: we don’t already conceive them as material and simply await further information about their material nature. No one thinks that materialism about water and heat is a surprising discovery. Thus there is a crucial distinction between the two cases: our ordinary conception of the mental does not already represent it as material in some way yet to be determined, while for water and heat their material nature is a given. This is because introspection tells us nothing of the mind’s (alleged) material nature, not even of the most general kind. So the question remains: how can the materialist explain our lack of knowledge of the real nature of our own minds? Maybe he can, but the question poses a serious challenge. One would think we have an inkling at least of the real nature of our minds via introspection, but according to materialism we could go through our whole lives and never even think of it.[2]


[1] One possible explanation might look like this: there is no biological payoff in knowing the material nature of our mental states, so we are not set up to have such knowledge—it’s just a question of whether the knowledge would be useful. I take it the problems with this kind of explanation are obvious (we know lots of useless things, etc.).

[2] An analogy: an idealist might contend that the real nature of material objects consists in dispositions to cause sensory experiences, but she wouldn’t maintain that this nature is closed to our knowledge, since we are well aware that material objects are associated with dispositions to bring about sense experience. But in the case of materialism the constitutive facts are supposed to lie outside our ordinary awareness of our mental states. That asymmetry cries out for explanation. A dualist will certainly see it as confirmation of his position.


The Tragedy of Philosophy

A reasonable expectation of moral philosophy would be that it should identify the good and then characterize it in such a way that doing good is irresistible, or at least desirable. A reasonable expectation of epistemology would be that it should say what knowledge is and then propose an effective method for achieving it. A reasonable expectation of aesthetics would be that it should explain what beauty is and then provide a recipe for producing it. So it may have seemed at the dawn of the subject: goodness, truth, and beauty should be susceptible to this kind of insight.  The model would be geometry—specifying the possible geometrical forms and then providing proofs of various theorems about them. Thus we achieve clarity and completeness about our chosen subject matter—perspicuity, understanding. But it is fair to report that those reasonable expectations, those ideals and aspirations, have not been achieved—not at the beginning and not now. There is intractable controversy over what moral goodness is, and its motivational force remains obscure and undemonstrated. Why we should be moral is still not clear, and moral reasons seem to clash with other motivating reasons. Theories of knowledge are still wanting, and no systematic method for producing knowledge has yet been devised. Skepticism remains potent, inference is fallible, the senses may deceive us, and we don’t even have a convincing account of what knowledge is. Aesthetics is still struggling to define beauty, even to decide whether it is subjective or objective, and no recipe for producing beautiful objects has yet been proposed. The expectations in all three areas have been dashed or diminished or withdrawn altogether. Philosophy has not lived up to its initial promise, unlike geometry. And it is not for want of trying or because of insufficient talent: goodness, truth, and beauty have simply resisted our best efforts. We hoped for great things concerning important matters, but our hopes have not been fulfilled. This is why I say that philosophy is a tragic subject: its history is a long, drawn-out tragedy. It is not without high points, to be sure, but the hope of indisputable progress in achieving the goals I set out has not been fulfilled. In retrospect, the goals may seem excessive, even utterly unrealistic, but they were reasonable at the outset and it can only appear tragic that they have not been achieved.

In moral philosophy, the failure is especially grievous, because it is obviously a matter of grave importance that human beings should strive for the good. That way the evils of the world may be cured (many of them). But the difficulty of identifying the good, combined with the weak motivational force of moral reasons, have prevented the good from being universally realized. It is not as if some clever moral philosopher has discovered that being good is identical with possessing money and property (!), where these motives already have a stronghold on the human psyche. Altruism and maximizing general utility are not powerful motivating forces for most human beings, and attempts to demonstrate the logical inescapability of moral rules (Kant) have not been met with general acceptance (ditto the felicific calculus). Moral philosophy has not achieved the goal of a wholesale reshaping of human action in a moral direction, despite its early aspirations. Likewise, the goal of completing human knowledge by following an infallible procedure open to anybody has not met with success: not Descartes’ method of doubt, not strict empiricism, not logical deduction, not cleaving to ordinary language, not phenomenology, not mimicking science. There is no single method by following which we will acquire all the knowledge there is to acquire. Epistemology has not succeeded in its grandest aim—to put human knowledge on a firm (and complete) foundation. Error is always possible, skepticism threatens, and inference is shaky. And aesthetics has not delivered either: there is no set of rules the following of which will infallibly yield objects of beauty. There are no “laws of form” that define beauty and no special training that will reliably produce great artists. In all three areas we have psychological faculties that can be brought to bear, but they don’t amount to what we might reasonably have expected—methods, algorithms, effective procedures. I take it this is obvious; what is less obvious is the pall it casts over the subject. Imagine the first philosophers clarifying their interest in goodness, truth, and beauty, then seeking to develop theories that will achieve their promotion; but then as time wears on this result starts to seem increasingly remote, producing a sense of disappointment and futility. The subject begins to strike them as tragic, with all sorts of psychological mechanisms invoked to ward off the awful truth: they will never match the example of the geometers! We still have no practically effective theory of goodness, no infallible route to truth, and no surefire scheme for creating beauty. We, therefore, cannot advertise philosophy as a set of learnable techniques for making the world a better place, producing knowledge, and maximizing beauty. The reason this is tragic is that these are highly desirable goals, and it is not obvious ahead of time that they cannot be achieved; indeed, there may still be people who think they can be achieved. It would be wonderful if they were achieved (especially the first), but it seems increasingly unlikely that they ever will be.

As far as I can see, philosophy is the only tragic subject in this sense. In fact, part of philosophy is not tragic, namely logic: this subject achieves its aim of guaranteeing valid reasoning (at least within a limited domain). And other subjects—physics, chemistry, biology, history, psychology, etc.—can reasonably claim to have met, or be meeting, their goals. There is not the same shortfall between goals and methods, aspirations and achievements. If you enroll in a university course designed to teach these subjects, you will leave with a mastery of techniques that yield the result you desire—knowledge of various kinds. But if you enroll in a philosophy program, you will not leave knowing how to make the world morally perfect, or how to acquire knowledge infallibly, or how to make beautiful objects at will. Indeed, such achievements will not even be offered to you, because that would be false advertising. But that is what philosophy ideally is, and what it might have promised to be to its early practitioners. I don’t mean that philosophy is not worth studying—quite the contrary—but I do mean that it is in a certain sense a failed discipline, one that does not live up to what we might hope of it. It has ambitions it cannot fulfill, limitations it cannot surmount. Perhaps these limitations are intrinsic to it, perhaps it was wrong to have such high hopes of the subject; but it is hard to deny that philosophers have had these hopes and tried to overcome those limitations. Intellectual honesty requires us to accept philosophy’s tragic status: this will give us a clearer conception of what we are doing and may even help with the inevitable frustrations of the subject. After all, the world is a tragic place, but that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) prevent us from living in it and doing the best we can; philosophy likewise falls short of a natural ideal and our best policy is to recognize that and do what we can within its limitations. It might also serve to mitigate the disillusionment people often feel when they realize that philosophy is not able to achieve what they hoped it will: it is not an effective method (in the logical sense) for achieving our highest ideals in morality, epistemology, and aesthetics. It is not a kind of agriculture of the sublime. This is why skepticism, moral nihilism, and aesthetic relativism survive in it—because philosophy has not found irrefutable methods for acquiring knowledge, bringing about the good, and producing beauty. We want to achieve those things, and philosophy is the subject that will do it if any can, but in fact it tragically fails to achieve them. That is just how things have turned out, however it may have seemed to early philosophers. Maybe there is virtue in persisting with the aim of overcoming the tragic state of philosophy, but it is well to accept that this is how things stand in the subject. There is no shame in tragedy; there may even be nobility in it.[1]


[1] Should we be sad about the tragic state of philosophy? That is a difficult question: should we be sad that there are probably parts of space to which we will never travel? Recognizing one’s limitations and living within them is not necessarily a cause for lamentation; on the other hand, it would have been nice to perfect human (and animal) life, vouchsafe knowledge, and beautify the world.


The Problem of Relations

Are relations real? There are reasons to think not, even though properties are agreed to be real. That would yield a metaphysics in which relations are regarded as mental constructions projected onto the world, while properties (or most of them) are treated as objective constituents of reality. That is, we embrace idealism about relations and realism about properties contrary to a standing tradition that treats them identically. Relations are reified fictions, while properties are found realities. What reasons might justify such a divided position?[1]

Here is one argument. Consider the relations expressed by “father of” and “son of”, and suppose that a is the father of b: is the fact stated by “a is the father of b” the same fact as that stated by “b is the son of a”? Apparently it is: the state of affairs that makes both propositions true is identical. But the relations in question are different, so the complex consisting of a, b, and these relations are different. Therefore relations are not constituents of facts. It is, intuitively, the same state of the world that corresponds to both propositions, but the relations expressed are not the same relations, so the relations are not objective features of the world. We have different relational concepts, but they don’t denote different objective traits of reality.

Here is another argument: we don’t have impressions of relations in the way we have impressions of properties. I see the properties of being red and square—they form distinct constituents of my visual field—but I don’t see the relation of being next-to or on. I see objects standing in these relations, but I don’t see the relations themselves. I have no sense datum of these relations, no phenomenal element corresponding to them. Rather, I infer their presence from what I see of the properties of things. Hume famously argued that we don’t see the causal relation; well, we don’t actually see any relation, even simple spatial relations. That is why relations strike us as abstract and curiously attenuated: they don’t produce sensory effects comparable to those produced by properties. And a fortiori for such relations as fatherhood or being-brighter-than or identity: these correspond to no distinguishable sensory content.

We can imagine someone who is “relation-blind” but not someone who is “property-blind”.  This individual has no sense of relations between things but sees shapes and colors: she never describes anything as next to something or related in any way, sticking to monadic predications. There is no perceptual awareness of relations and no cognitive competence in relation concepts. But it is not possible to be aware solely of relations without any awareness of properties: for that would preclude awareness of objects altogether. Relations are added to perception of objects, but properties are constitutive of it. You can be color-blind and still see, and you can be relation-blind and still see; but you can’t be property-blind and still see.

Relations never constitute the nature of an object (they are always “external”), but properties do. Objects can have natures without relations existing, but not so for properties. Relations are extrinsic to the nature of an object. Thought about objects can thus dispense with relations. Describing the nature of a thing never involves specifying its relations.[2]

It is notable that no one ever cites relations as paradigms of universals: they don’t strike us as ontologically robust in the way properties do. Plato never talks about the form of left-ness, say. It is easier to be a nominalist about relations than about properties because relations seem wispy and word-like.[3] What causal powers do they possess? Can we form mental images of them? If you ask me to form an image of red, I can do so; but if you ask me to form an image of adjacency, the best I can do is picture a pair of adjacent objects. This is why it seems intuitively natural to conceive of relations as sets of ordered pairs (or triples in some cases): we have no solid conception of them as existing over and above their extensions. Relations have domains and ranges, and these seem to exhaust their nature; but we don’t likewise fall in with the idea that properties are identical with their extensions—that there is nothing more to redness, say, than a set of objects falling under the predicate “red”. We are natural realists about properties, but not about relations.[4]

Relations provide principles of grouping—they bring separate objects together. This is made vivid by Gestalt figures in which it is clear that perceived relations act to create visual totalities. This suggests a functional basis for the perception of relations: we perceive (or impute) relations because it is useful to do so. Thus relational cognition is an interest-relative phenomenon: it is useful to know that the computer is on the table when you are looking for the computer, or that this person is the father of that person. We would traffic in relations even if the world objectively contained none. A social species needs to be sensitive to family relations, say, regardless of the metaphysics of relations.[5] Reifying relations is biologically advantageous. Relational cognition is a useful heuristic whether or not relations are objectively real. It operates like a grid we place over things in order to aid action. Its origin is our needs not pre-existing reality.

And here we reach the nub: there is something like a relation of supervenience between monadic facts and relational propositions. Relations are not part of the ultimate fabric of reality; they depend upon more basic features. For example, we say that the computer is on the table—that these objects stand in the relation so expressed—but the hard facts are that the computer is at a certain place and the table at another place. We could specify the spatial coordinates of these objects and never mention the relation in question. That relation indeed follows from these more basic facts, but they can be specified without invoking the relation. Or consider the parenting relation: the hard facts are that certain copulation activity takes place, a process of gestation occurs, and offspring are born. These facts are sufficient to ensure that the relation expressed by “parent of” holds, but they can be specified without employing that relational notion. This is something we add to the basic facts—a useful heuristic, a convenient fiction. The hard-line anti-relational metaphysician will insist that objective reality consists of nothing but non-relational facts that we dress up as relations to serve our own purposes. This austere theorist countenances only monadic propositions at the basic level, with relational propositions allowed only as supervenient on these. The picture is that the world consists of objects with monadic properties, each endowed with an intrinsic nature, and that any talk of relations between them is imposed by us. It is not false to say that objects stand in relations, but they do so only in the sense that objects have colors—both are essentially mind-dependent aspects of things. Neither colors nor relations belong in the “absolute conception”. They are phenomenal not noumenal, subjective not objective. This is why philosophers don’t traditionally list relations as among the primary qualities of things: they don’t carry the same weight of objectivity. They are not constitutive of the substance of things.

We operate with the idea of natural kinds according to which we discover real essences not expressed in our ordinary words for the kind. These are cases in which properties possess hidden depths. But relations never seem to qualify for this status: we don’t pick out a relation by ostensive pointing (“that relation”) and then discover its hidden essence. There is no illuminating empirical theory of what constitutes (say) being-on-top-of or being-the-father-of comparable to the theory that water is H2O or heat is molecular motion. This suggests that we are not dealing with objective kinds found in nature but with classifications manufactured by the mind for its own ends. Not every part of our conceptual scheme is geared to reflecting antecedent facts of nature, and it looks as if relational concepts have another raison d’etre more akin to our ideas of secondary qualities. It is true that the relational scheme is closely tied to the underlying monadic facts, but it is something superadded, imposed from without.

Here is another point, intuitively suggestive though hard to convert into an actual argument. There are just too many relations in the universe; they come too cheaply. Every single grain of sand has endless spatial relations to other physical objects in the universe, some millions of light-years away—not to speak of such odd relations as “being part of a beach I am particularly fond of”. Why would nature create such pointless plenty? What purpose do these multitudes of relations serve? They seem gratuitous, de trop. If God created the world, why did he so stuff it with reams of redundant and tedious relations? But if relations are essentially fictional, we avoid this supernumerary abundance—as we avoid populating the world with the endless armies and mythical beasts of fiction. When we are first told of the profligacy of relations we react with surprise—“I never thought of that, but I suppose it must be so”—but in fact our initial instincts are sound: it is all projection and fancy. We pick out (or invent) the relations that matter to us; the rest we ignore—there is no point in imposing them. They are like a mist into which we decline to gaze: that is, their endless plurality is an indication of insubstantiality. The grain of sand has its hard inner nature, but its limitless penumbra of relations is so much airy nothingness.

We can conceptualize the anti-realist position about relations by using the familiar apparatus of skeptical problems and skeptical solutions in the manner of Hume.[6] Relations are not perceptible facts like properties—they are not part of the primitive data of experience. Nor are they reducible to anything else more palpable. All we ever see of the world is objects having monadic properties; we never see relations naked, so to speak (cf. causal necessity). They are neither physical nor mental. They are not things. Yet we talk about them, and this talk seems useful. Why do we do this if relations don’t objectively exist? Because they serve a biological purpose: they allow us to group things, finding collections in addition to individuals. We then project them onto the world—we reify them. We treat them as more real than they are. In this we are encouraged by language, since there are relational predicates as well as monadic ones. We have relational concepts, but they don’t correspond to objective traits of the universe—they don’t refer to anything that exists independently of the human standpoint. Or more cautiously, the way we tend to conceive of relations has no objective counterpart—though they do supervene on the genuinely objective. We thus misconstrue our relational concepts, treating them as if they are just like our property concepts, which do mirror an antecedent reality. This is the skeptical solution to the skeptical problem. We could even put it as the thesis that relation words have assertion conditions but not truth conditions—criteria of use but not correspondence to fact. We have an “intuition of impalpability” with regard to relations and this reflects their lack of objective existence, but relation talk has its own interest-relative rationale. Accordingly, strict ontology forbids their inclusion in the basic furniture of the world, but we need not dispense with them altogether. We must recognize their true status and not succumb to the perils of reification. Only philosophical confusion can come from regarding our talk of relations as a reflection of objectively real facts, as if further knowledge of their nature could vouchsafe important information about reality. Realism about relations is to be shunned, difficult as that may be given our mental make-up.

I now want to switch gears and consider the bearing of the foregoing on a seemingly unrelated question, namely the nature and origin of philosophical problems. And at this point we are about to get even more radical, not to say shocking: for the question is whether a false view of relations is at the heart of many, if not all, philosophical problems. Be warned, then: things are going to get gnarly. The first and paramount point to note is that a great many philosophical problems are overtly concerned with understanding certain allegedly problematic relations. Here is a list: the relation of mind to body (or brain); the relation between knowledge and reality; the relation of intentionality; the relation of reference; the relation between an object and its properties; the relation of personal identity; the relation between desire and free action; the relation between perceptual experience and external objects; the relation between God and the world; the causal relation; the relation between psychology and physics; the relation between ethical principles and human motivation; the relation between subjective states and aesthetic value; the relation between language and necessity; the relation of numerical identity. We think there is a relation between the paired items listed, but we find it hard to determine the nature of this relation; the relation seems inscrutable, open to different theories, essentially contestable. We try to peer into the relation, as if into a murky pool. We assume that there is a relation and that it has a determinate constitution; we don’t think the idea of such relations is a fiction, a mere useful cognitive heuristic. Philosophy is understood as the investigation of these real relations—for example, it investigates the nature of the emergence relation between brain and mind, or how desire relates to action in cases of free will, or how acts of reference relate to objects in the world. On the one hand, there is this; on the other hand, there is that; the question is how exactly the two are related. Is the relation in question causal (but what is that relation?) or a kind of isomorphism or identity or supervenience or analytic reduction or part-whole composition or complete independence? If we could just see more clearly into the relation, it would solve our philosophical problems! But the relation remains elusive.

But all this presupposes that relations are real—that they have an objective nature, discoverable or not. It all reifies relations, treating them as analogous to properties with an objective essence. What if relations are unreal, merely useful fictions for grouping things? What if relations simply don’t exist? Then there is no such thing as the relation of emergence or the reference relation or the relation between knowledge and reality or the relation of reduction or any of the other relations listed. So there is nothing that the philosophy of these relations is trying to discover the nature of. Philosophy reifies relations, just as we are prone to more generally, thus generating problems that don’t exist but for this reification. It attempts to do the impossible: reveal the nature of relations that have no nature because there are no such relations, just relational words and concepts—classificatory heuristics that have no corresponding real essence. If we could stop reifying the relational concepts that philosophy thrives upon, we could rid ourselves of its problems. In short, philosophical problems arise from the false reification of relations; there simply are no such relations to get philosophically perplexed about. For instance, there are mental states and there are brain states, and they co-evolve in certain ways; but there is no relation between them—specifically, no generative relation. Why? Because there is no relation between anything—not really, not objectively. We can study properties, either scientifically or philosophically, because properties are real and have a nature; but we can’t study relations in this way—and philosophy is up to its ears in relations. The form of a philosophical problem is, “How is x related to y?”: but then it is engaged on an impossible enterprise, destined for frustration and failure. We can ask how we relate one thing to another, as a cognitive act, but there is no such thing as how things are objectively related—not in the sense that philosophy presupposes and requires. Talk of relations has its roots in our practices of grouping, not in mind-independent reality, so we cannot set out to analyze relations as if they had a basis in the objective world. Given that there are no relations in reality sub specie aeternitatus, philosophy has to be wrong in trying to ascertain the objective nature of relations; at best it can enquire into our relational concepts, which are thin and interest-relative. Philosophy reifies relations and then finds that it can say nothing clear and convincing about their putative nature. So, at least, it may be maintained.

As promised, this is surprising and shocking. The shape of the position resembles Wittgenstein’s equally surprising and shocking contention that philosophy arises from reifying the forms of language (as I would loosely paraphrase his position)—also a type of misunderstanding. Both positions detect misconceptions of the real: taking relations to be like properties, and taking the forms of language to mirror reality. The question for Wittgenstein is whether philosophical problems really do arise in the way he suggests, and the question for the proponent of the anti-relational conception of philosophical problems is whether they really arise from the fallacious assimilation in question. Let us accept that relations are unreal and that philosophy is characteristically concerned with problematic-seeming relations; the question is whether it must take that form. Is it possible to formulate the standard philosophical problems without assuming that they concern the nature of real relations? Maybe this will work for some problems (e.g., the free will problem) but not for others (e.g., the mind-body problem); in any case, the question is not trivial. I really don’t know the answer to this question and will not pursue it here; what is clear is that traditionally that is the way philosophical problems have presented themselves—as puzzles about relations of certain kinds. For instance, we have the practice of predication, so we ask how what is predicated (a property) relates to the thing we predicate the property of (an object). Thus we conjure up the relation of instantiation and picture it as linking one kind of entity to another, perhaps as a kind of gripping relation. The question then becomes whether the instantiated entities are platonic universals or expressions of language or ideas in the mind; and whether the object is nothing but the properties it instantiates or somehow stands apart from them. It is difficult to see how we could formulate the problems that arise here without invoking the notion of an objective relation: that is the matrix through which we view the problem. We find it hard to imagine what it would be to think without this matrix and its reifying tendencies; our minds are suffused with relational concepts. But if we take seriously the anti-realist arguments against relations, we have to admit that the old way doing things has to be wrong. To a being not in the grip of relational thought, seeing reality for the totality of monadic facts that it is, these philosophical problems would seem artificial and misguided. Once the monadic facts have been listed and explained there is nothing more to say, no more questions to ask. There simply are no meaningful philosophical puzzles of the form “How is x related to y?” We can sensibly ask how we relate x to y, and for what purpose, but there is no sense in asking how the things are related, if that means asking after the real nature of the objective relations our grouping practices reflect. Relations, to repeat, are not constituents of facts (see the first argument above): facts are not made of pairs of objects and a further entity that links them, viz. the relation. When x loves y there isn’t x, y, and the loving relation, as an extra ingredient of reality, forming a complex entity of which the relation is one component; rather, x has various emotions and beliefs with a certain content, these being monadic properties of x. There is nothing more to the fact than these properties; speaking of a relation of loving between x and y is derivative talk, capable of misleading us into false reification. Relations resolve into a congeries of properties, or else are mental projections or mere words. Our language and thought play a trick on us: we perceive objects with properties laid out in a certain way and we proceed to group them according to predilection—but then we project the patterns of grouping and invest reality with objective relations. This is how we come to conceive of family relations when really the hard facts are just copulations and births arranged in time. Even spatial relations are just objects having properties at specific locations, objectively speaking; anything extra is human imposition. Thus anti-relational metaphysics cuts at the heart of traditional philosophy. Reality doesn’t have the relational form that philosophical questions presuppose. Maybe we can’t stop thinking in these terms, so that philosophical problems will always grip us; but that doesn’t mean that these problems have any basis in the objective nature of the world. They arise from our self-produced concepts not from reality as such.[7]


[1] I wish I could cite an obscure philosopher (Hegel maybe) whose writings suggested the position developed in this paper: not as an interpretation of that philosopher, and not as my own view, but as what occurred to me upon reading said obscure philosopher. I certainly find the view extraordinary and literally incredible, but I also think a case can be made for it (as well as against it). Let me say that the ideas occurred to me in a dream, on which I drowsily made notes in the middle of the night, and in the morning tried to decipher those notes, coming up with what follows. So this is an essay in philosophical dream interpretation directed at myself.

[2] Hegel’s idea that all relations are really “internal” might be seen as a tacit recognition that only properties are real, i.e. only what contributes to the nature of an object can be true of it. This naturally gives rise to a general monism. The alternative is to deny that relations are real; then objects can have natures constituted only by their monadic properties. The essence of reality is to be unrelated: it is we who imbue reality with relations; in itself reality consists of self-standing objects mutually ignoring each other.

[3] Here is a passage from Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy that expresses the kind of position I am articulating (not endorsing): “Suppose, for instance, that I am in my room. I exist, and my room exists; but does ‘in’ exist? Yet obviously the word ‘in’ has a meaning; it denotes a relation between me and my room. This relation is something, although we cannot say that it exists in the same sense in which I and my room exist. The relation ‘in’ is something which we can think about and understand, for, if we could not understand it, we could not understand the sentence ‘I am in my room’. Many philosophers, following Kant, have maintained that relations are the work of the mind, that things in themselves have no relations, but that the mind brings them together in one act of thought and thus produces the relations which it judges them to have.”

[4] Relations are typically expressed by verbs and prepositions (e.g. “at”), but it is a stretch to take these as referring to objective traits of the world—as if they are names of a certain kind of entity. In the case of nouns, this is far more natural (“red”, “man”). The idea that “at” denotes something seems fanciful, though it certainly has a meaning. Thus relation words are more like connectives such as “and” and “or”.

[5] We have a strong tendency to insist on social groupings of one kind or another, plausibly driven by genetic considerations, but for the anti-relational metaphysician this is just a matter of biological necessity not objective existence. Thus the reification of relational concepts is only to be expected: the concept of a family is likely to be elevated above what the objective facts warrant, as if written deep into the nature of things. But the only hard facts here are certain patterns of genetic transmission.

[6] See also Kripke’s development of this apparatus in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982).

[7] Let me emphasize that I am not advocating this position as true; I am rather articulating a line of argument that strikes me as worth pondering. It is certainly startling in its originality and sweep. I am in the grip of relational thinking as much as anyone, and not naturally inclined to suppose that philosophical problems are really pseudo-problems. On the other hand, the position has a certain grim appeal.



Consider a possible world in which the fundamental constituents of reality are mental in nature. Suppose a kind of mental atomism holds: there are basic elements that combine to form less basic elements. We thus have simple and complex mental entities. But suppose further that there is a special kind of emergence in this world whereby entities we would describe as physical emerge from mental elements. That is, ordinary physical objects, solid and extended in space, emerge from mental entities. This would pose a problem for the philosophers in this world: how is such a thing possible? Some may deny emergence, insisting that the physical entities have another origin altogether—maybe created by a deity enamored of all things physical. Others may declare the physical things to be illusory and offer to eliminate all talk of them. And there may be those who defend a reductionist view of the physical entities: they reduce to mental entities and their properties. Certainly the apparent emergence poses a theoretical challenge, because it seems impossible to understand how the physical could emerge from the mental. A few philosophers respond with a startling hypothesis: the emergence is possible because the underlying mental entities possess a hidden physical aspect, and this is what enables observable physical entities to come into being. They call this doctrine “pan-physicalism”—the doctrine that the mental entities of this world harbor a physical dimension. Evidently, it is a doctrine with the same general shape as pan-psychism, except inverted, and motivated in much the same way. Pan-psychism explains the emergence of mind from matter by crediting matter with mental properties, while pan-physicalism explains the emergence of matter from mind (in the possible world described) by crediting mind with physical properties.[1]

In the actual world there is no such emergence: physical things don’t emerge from combinations of mental things. There is no way to combine thoughts and sensations in such a way as to produce a table—you have to use atoms and molecules. So there is no argument for pan-physicalism based on the emergence of the physical from the mental in our world. But that doesn’t mean there might not be other arguments to the same conclusion, and indeed such arguments have been given. For instance, it has been held that the causal powers of mental states and events require that they have a physical aspect: the only way mental things can cause physical things is by the mental things having a physical nature. Thus we get different varieties of identity theory. The general thought is that the mind can only influence the body if it is not disconnected from the body—that is, if it has a physical nature too. That is the only way to capture the proximity required by causation: mental events can only exist in a causal sequence in space if they have a physical nature. Without this embedding in the physical world mental events would be deprived of causal efficacy. Such arguments lead to a pan-physicalist position: all mental events partake of the physical in some way—they have a physical aspect. It is not that they exist in a realm removed from that of the physical—that would preclude psychophysical interaction.

It is possible to combine pan-physicalism with pan-psychism. Everything mental has a physical aspect and everything physical has a mental aspect. Pan-physicalism explains mental causation and pan-psychism explains mental emergence. The two are logically compatible and each offers explanatory benefits. To be sure, neither doctrine is observably true—they are speculative hypotheses—but perhaps in some possible world they are part of perception-based common sense. In this world ordinary perception of physical reality reveals its mental aspect, while introspection reveals the physical dimension of the mind. Here the metaphysics will look very different to the inhabitants: there is no radical separation of the mental and the physical, though a division of aspects is accepted as common sense. The mind is experienced as partly physical and the world is experienced as partly mental. Mental causation is not a mystery and neither is the emergence of mind from matter. Everything is seen to have a dual nature; nothing is homogeneous through and through. Physics deals in mental properties as well as physical properties, and psychology is thoroughly psychophysical. No one is a materialist and no one is an idealist. Reality is regarded as always and inherently a mixture.

My purpose in describing this world is to make the metaphysical position in question visible. We are familiar with pan-psychist metaphysics and with pan-physicalist metaphysics, reflecting the old dualisms and monisms; but no one (that I know of[2]) ever talks about a view that combines both, and which has no established label. This is the idea that reality is an inextricable combination of two strands with neither having priority. It may not seem to us that this is so, given our epistemic predicament, but it could be the objective truth. Everything is mental and physical. If we like, we can relax the doctrine a bit by speaking of proto-mental and proto-physical properties, so as to avoid the assumption that the physical nature of the mind is captured in our current physical paradigms and that the mental nature of matter reflects the way existing minds are formed. Maybe the underlying properties are at some remove from current conceptions of the mental and the physical, though still recognizably distinct from each other. There is a fundamental dualism of aspects but the aspects are ubiquitous and intertwined: no mind without matter and no matter without mind—though the words “mind” and “matter” are freed from their current limitations. What we know is that there is something about physical things that allows minds to arise from them, and something about minds that allows them to interact with matter, but we are hazy about the details. We know there are two types of property at work, but we are only partially cognizant of the difference. The basic metaphysical picture is unaffected by this ignorance, namely that everything is partly physical and partly mental. As I say, my purpose is to make this position visible, not to endorse it[3]—though I think it has an attractive shape. It is simply the conjunction of pan-psychism and pan-physicalism (we might call it “pan-double aspect-ism”, or simply “pan-ism”). Nothing is either one thing or the other; everything is a bit of both.


[1] I will make free use of the words “mental” and “physical” here, fully aware of their lack of proper definition. To fix ideas, we can understand the physical as what is spatially extended and the mental as consciousness (however that is to be understood). I won’t discuss this difficult subject further.

[2] Spinoza maybe.

[3] Is it ever possible fully to endorse a metaphysical position on this scale? Doesn’t intellectual honesty require extreme caution? Of course, one can like a certain position very much.