States of Affairs
The form of words “state of affairs” is a very odd phrase, and yet it is used primitively in metaphysical theories. What is an “affair” and what is a “state” of one of these? People talk of their financial and romantic affairs, but do ordinary objects have affairs that are in a certain state? I might say that my affairs are in a terrible state, but does a tree or rock have affairs that are in a terrible state? Not in the usual sense, but philosophers speak of trees and rocks as “constituents” of states of affairs. The phrase is metaphorical, so what would be a literal paraphrase? Here we run into trouble—nothing satisfactory comes to mind. We might try “situation” or “circumstances”, but these don’t really help; again, these words are tied to human contexts (“He is in a bad situation”, “My circumstances are adequate”). We might hope for clarity from the words “object” and “property”: is a state of affairs an object having a property? But this is too confining: what about events and higher-order properties and general states of affairs and the weather (“It’s raining”)? And what is this thing called “an object’s having a property”—isn’t it just something being red, say? There is an object, a property, and the instantiation relation; but there is nothing further denoted by “a’s being F”. There is no “complex object” here other than the object referred to. Is a state of affairs to be defined as “the way things are”? But ways are properties and things are objects, so that doesn’t get us any further. The phrase “state of affairs” is supposed to take us to another ontological level, over and above objects and properties, but we haven’t yet found that level. The usual synonyms, “situation” and “circumstances”, don’t improve matters, having the same defects as “state of affairs”. And does anyone want to say that the world consists of situations or circumstances? Is truth correctly defined as “denoting an existing situation” or “denoting the actual circumstances”? Is “snow is white” true in virtue of the existing situation that snow is white or the circumstance that snow is white? These formulations are arch and artificial; so, we prefer to use the opaque and technical expression “state of affairs”, because its meaning is more nebulous and hence open to charitable interpretation. We are trying to generalize but we mouth only metaphor and circumlocution. We really have no other way of saying what that phrase attempts to say, but it resists clear interpretation. The idea that each proposition “corresponds” to a state of affairs that makes it true or false receives so adequate elucidation. And what is this concept of obtaining that is often used in conjunction with the phrase? What is it for a state of affairs to “obtain”? It is meant as the worldly counterpart to “true”, but little is said to clarify it: does it mean the same as “actual” or “existing”? Then we have the complex phrases “actual state of affairs” and “existing state of affairs”? What do these add to the original phrase? Don’t we have, “The state of affairs of snow being white obtains if and only if snow is white”? We are just spinning our wheels, manufacturing verbiage. How about, “The situation of snow being white obtains/is actual/exists”—isn’t that just a cumbersome way to say that snow is white? There is no real ontology corresponding to these forced locutions; they are easily paraphrased away. The phrase “state of affairs” is metaphorical, incapable of literal paraphrase, and theoretically useless. I suspect that its philosophical use springs from a misguided desire to achieve metaphysical generality (“Reality consists of states of affairs”), but we should not succumb to this “craving for generality” (Wittgenstein’s phrase). Reality consists of many types of things. Talk of states of affairs is an empty and futile way of trying to capture the idea of a perfectly general category of things that includes everything there is—a metaphysical myth.
 We have the phrase “affairs of state”, which makes perfect sense, but “state of affairs” appears to refer to a state of some activity or concern (an “affair”). What is that activity or concern supposed to be? Notice that we can’t say “an affair’s state”, as we can say “a state’s affairs”: and it would be bizarre to speak of the world as consisting of a totality of “affair’s states”. The phrase is semantically peculiar. Affairs in the ordinary sense don’t come into it. The OED defines “affair” as “an event or sequence of events of a specified kind” and “a matter that is a particular person’s concern or responsibility”—which have nothing to do with the philosopher’s use of the term.
 The OED defines “situation” as “the set of circumstances in which one finds oneself”: what has this got to do with the nature of reality generally? Can we say the world is composed of situations in this sense? Try substituting the dictionary definition of “situation” in “situation semantics”. For “circumstance” we have “a fact or condition connected with or relevant to an event or action”—again, quite useless for the purposes intended by “state of affairs”. It appears that the phrase’s meaning is not a function of the meaning of its parts as they are usually meant. So, what exactly is its meaning?
 I haven’t gone into the usual ontological critique of states of affairs, but restricted myself to the meaning of the phrase “state of affairs”, which is usually left to its own devices. But we can add such questions as whether there are negative and disjunctive states of affairs (e.g., is there a state of affairs of either snow being white or 2 + 2 not equaling 4?), or whether states of affairs are denoted by whole sentences, or how they are to be individuated, or whether they weigh anything, or whether they can act as causes, or whether they can be perceived, or divided, or bottled, or destroyed, or whether there are fictional states of affairs, or ethical ones, etc.