The Limits of Predication





The Limits of Predication



A realist will hold that there may be properties of objects we don’t know about, even can’t know about. Kant holds that the noumenal world consists of just such instantiated properties.[1]Human knowledge is limited and doesn’t necessarily extend to every property of objects. But it is not typically maintained that reality may contain facts that fail to consist in the instantiation of properties of anykind. Indeed, this looks contradictory given that we equate facts with instantiations of properties—and what else could they be? How could reality contain anything that wasn’t the instantiation of a property by an object? From an epistemological point of view, how could there be a conceptual scheme that wasn’t predicative? Surely any representation of a fact will consist of the identification of some object and the ascription to it of a predicate. Even unknown properties are logically ascribable by means of a suitable predicate—perhaps wielded only by God. How can thought be anything other than predicative? So there doesn’t seem room for a position that finds the object-property distinction or the subject-predicate distinction parochial:allof reality must conform to these linked distinctions. Granted we don’t know all properties, but whatever we don’t know is at least a property of somesort; and similarly for objects. Put differently, when Plato discovered the distinction between particulars and universals (or logicians discovered the subject-predicate distinction) he discovered a necessary non-negotiable truth about all possible reality. Every possible world must consist of particulars instantiating properties, however peculiar those particulars are and however alien their properties. The world may be very different from how we think of it in terms of its objects and properties, but that it contains objects and properties is not disputable; here skepticism reaches its limit. It couldn’t turn out that the real world fails to consist of objects and properties (particulars and universals). Similarly, there could not be a conceptual scheme in which nothing is predicated of any object: Eskimos may have ten words for snow and the Hopi have a different concept of time, but in both cases they employ predicative concepts directed towards individual things. Every conceivable conceptual scheme consists of concepts, i.e. mental entities that express general features of objects. So there are no limits to predication, as there are no limits to the object-property distinction. These are as solid and universal as any logical law. The structure of reality is given by the object-property structure and the structure of thought is given by the subject-predicate structure—nothing else is possible or conceivable. There can’t be sectors of reality that fail to conform to these structures. Reality necessarily consists of predicable properties.

That seems like a compelling position, and it puts a limit on how dramatically reality may diverge from the way we normally think of it. The structureof our thought is adequate to every conceivable state of affairs even if the contentof our thought is restricted. Reality can only be constituted in one way, and we possess that way. Things are not so dire as skeptics sometimes make them seem. But on reflection this comforting conclusion begins to look overly optimistic, indeed unacceptably anthropocentric. For how could the contingent facts of human psychology, characteristic of a particular species at a particular point of evolutionary history, manage to encompass every possible configuration that objective reality may assume? Do we think that the minds of other animals possess such universal logical penetration? If we agree that human language evolved quite recently in evolutionary time, and that it forms the foundation of our cognitive abilities, how could it be that it is adequate for every layer or type of reality, reaching across all possible worlds? Isn’t the subject-predicate structure just a feature of our biologically given language faculty, hardly indicative of the way everything must eternally and necessarily be? Why should it apply to the world of subatomic particles even? It didn’t evolve with this part of reality in view. Isn’t it enormous hubris to identify the structure of our thought with the structure of all possible reality? Thus it may be said that reality might well consist of facts, states of affairs, things, or stuff that flout our cognitive structure—that don’t fit the predicative form. This form may apply to the world of the senses, but why should it apply to every part of reality, no matter how noumenal? Why should our concept of a property have such universal sweep? Maybe it is just a hopelessly anthropocentric way to conceive of reality, bequeathed by Plato and imposed on Western thought uncritically. Of course, we can’t say what this reality might be like, since we are limited to the cognitive resources we have, but that is no bar to accepting that our resources may be partial or even skewed. Perhaps all we can do is speak of “the thing in itself” or “the ultimate stuff of the world” or “being as such”, admitting that there is no requirement for the designation of these phrases to fall neatly under the structure embedded in the distinction between objects and what can be predicated of them. This structure may be artificial or superficial or simply not applicable to everything.

This type of radical position is familiar from the philosophical tradition and is not without romantic associations (it is up to us to make reality in our own image!). The world consists of undifferentiated stuff and we impose structure on it by exploiting out predicative cognitive apparatus. Reality is not objectively divided into particulars and properties; we project that structure onto it according to our own interests. The real world is like amorphous dough or a formless cloud or a blank slate or the empty sky; all individuating structure derives from us. The trouble with these metaphors is that they concede the point at issue while claiming to deny it: for dough, clouds, blank slates, and the sky all have constitutive properties that make them what they are. They are not somehow pre-predicative or property-less—those mythical “bare particulars”. We know of nothing in reality like that. There is no infinitely plastic substratum we can point to. But the underlying metaphysical claim is not refuted by the inadequacy of these examples–the claim, namely, that it seems a bit of a stretch (to put it mildly) to suppose that all reality must conform to contingent human modes of thought, even deep-seated ones. Is there a better way to articulate the position? Might there be signs of its correctness already existing within our conceptual scheme? An obvious first thought takes its rise from feature-placing sentences like “It’s cold”. It may be suggested that such sentences fail to predicate a property of any particular, so are counterexamples to the subject-predicate hegemony. That may be true as a matter of grammar, but the point doesn’t cut deep: there is still the property of being cold, and clearly the state of affairs in question involves assorted cold objects. However, the idea that some statements could locate a quality rather than ascribe it to a distinguished object is not without value in the present connection, because it loosens the grip of the paradigm supplied by statements about perceived material objects. Couldn’t there be a world of spatially distributed features?

A different kind of argument might be extracted from quantum physics. Here it may be said that the ontology of discrete locatable particulars instantiating determinate properties is put under pressure. This line of argument is only as persuasive as the underlying physics that it presupposes, and we all know how controversial that is. Still, again, the case provides some inkling of what an alternative view of reality might be like, in so far as we can really understand what is being maintained. And even if we can’t understand it, there is the possibility that reality might not fit the neat structure we habitually bring to bear on it: everything might be a lot messier down there, blurrier, weirder. Do particles really haveproperties in the way macroscopic objects do? Similarly, it might be said that field theory in physics violates the particular-property distinction: fields take intensity values at certain points but there is no objectthat instantiates a certain property. Fields are not locatable particulars, but are spread out indefinitely through space. Again, there are going to be questions about the ontology of fields, but at least this case provides a possible way to think about an alternative conception of the structure of reality.  Then again, we have the view, espoused by Russell, that the subject-predicate form is a relic of the old substance metaphysics, which should be replaced by an event-based ontology. In this ontology we don’t speak of objects (substances) instantiating properties but rather of the exemplification of event types in space-time.[2]This might be thought an alternative to the old Platonic model of a continuing object being hooked up to a shareable universal. Again, there is a question about how far this position departs from the basic object-property distinction and subject-predicate grammar, but it at least purports to offer an alternative conceptual structure. And what about the mind—does it really fit the predicative form? That form surely has its home in the material world of perceived particulars, but it has always seemed strained when applied to the contents of mind. We feel like we are forcing consciousness into a mold not designed for it: hence the metaphors of ghost or stream or steam or halo or genie. We want to say that the mind isn’t an object, thus indicating that facts about it are not divided up as material objects and their properties are. There is even some strain in the notion of a mental property (see Wittgenstein on “mental state”). Finally, it might be wondered whether vagueness puts a dent in the usual conception, because it undermines the picture of discrete bounded properties, and what it is to possess them. What kind of property is baldness? Frege didn’t think it was a property at all.[3]

But putting these possibly suggestive points aside, there is the deeper argument that there is just no good reason to suppose that reality must mirror the structure of human thinking. Even if we are stuck inside the subject-predicate cognitive structure, why should reality oblige us by conforming to it? Our concepts might not represent reality correctly, so why should our conceptual structurenecessarily represent it correctly? Our concepts occur not just in acts of predication but also exhibit other features: they compose to form complex concepts; they are subject to logical operations like conjunction, disjunction, and negation; they are subject to adverbial modification; they have intension and extension; and so on. Must the world answer to all these aspects? Must there be counterparts to them in reality? Our concepts serve our purposes, but those purposes don’t seem to include capturing the structure of reality in all its forms. So there seems room for a type of skepticism that questions whether predication can be read into reality, as it exists independently of us. It is hard to see what could quell such skepticism. And yet we have only the thinnest idea of what reality might be like if it doesn’t fit the object-property mold. I admit to having a split mind on the subject: the logician in me cleaves to the logical form supplied by the subject-predicate proposition, but the metaphysical realist in me acknowledges that reality is not compelled to mirror the human mind. Maybe reality is silently laughing at our subject-predicate obsession, our object-property hang-up, our particular-universal prejudice; but then doesn’t it have the property of laughing? Or is it that the word “property” is hopelessly undefined, a philosopher’s invention, stretched to breaking point beyond its tethering paradigms? And so we want to let out a philosophical scream–as Wittgenstein might put it. Back to the rough ground! In other words, we are caught in a classic philosophical dilemma: on the one hand, the world could not contain anything other than objects with properties; on the other hand, that looks like a prejudice born of familiarity and a lack of imagination.

How do we even possess these very abstract concepts of object and property, particular and universal, reality, fact, existence, being? They seem to reach far beyond anything we actually know about; and yet not quite so far as we seem able to contemplate when we think about absolutely everything. Our most general and capacious concept of reality seems hospitable even to worlds devoid of objects and properties–unless, of course, that is a metaphysical illusion.[4]


[1]At any rate, that’s a natural interpretation of his position: both the phenomenal world and the noumenal world consist of instantiated properties, the latter unknown by us. It would be possible, however, to hold that the noumenal world has another kind of reality, left unspecified.

[2]Time itself might be regarded as a counterexample to object-property ontology: are periods of time really objects that instantiate properties? If it rains over successive intervals, is this a case of temporal particulars (moments, eons) instantiating meteorological universals? Time seems like the wrong kind of thing to consist of discrete particulars. The subject-predicate form (“Today it’s raining”) here lacks ontological backing.

[3]Frege also didn’t think that existence is a property of objects, so an existential fact isn’t an object-property fact. Rather, it is a fact about concepts—a second-order fact. Thus not all facts consist in objects having properties—some consist in properties having properties. Are there possible worlds in which all facts consist in properties having properties instead of objects having properties?

[4]This is one of those vexing philosophical questions about which one seems able to slip in the blink of an eye from one position to another according to mood (and no doubt temperamental factors are involved). The romantic revels in the idea of a free and indeterminate world full of possibility, while the classicist prefers tried and true logical categories.

6 replies
  1. says:

    The exercise of effective practical intelligence seems to pre-suppose a correlation between an object-property world and a subject-predicate schema. Such as an amoeba, however, might rather contend that the application of the subject-predicate schema is only one way of successfully negotiating the world, absent an ability to conceive it (I seem to recall an acid trip in which an amoeba thus enlightened me). The exercise of theoretical intelligence can only question the seeming hegemony of an object-property world. I think your’e saying, however, that the very ability to question that hegemony indicates a potential to (more truthfully?) re-conceive it. Did I detect a bit of optimism, there? That would be very un-Chomskyian.

  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Thought provoking post.

    I wonder how much of our ability to create mental models (and in particular, our capacity to reify) has evolved – or coevolved – to survive as social animals. So were the driving environmental factors relationships, power dynamics, politics, etc rather than factors reflecting broader physical reality? For instance, it probably paid to be very sensitive to (and hence reify as inherently real) phenomena that from another perspective (say a highly evolved predatory creature like Alien) are not real inherent phenomena at all – just like foam.

    Aside: Were we able to split the atom primarily because of the specific mental modelling we are capable of, or because of our ability to cooperate, control, coordinate? Both were necessary. But is there greater lattititude on what’s required in the former than the latter?

  3. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Presumably at the root of subject-predicate schema (from an evolutionary perspective) are deeper and older processes – and maybe there is a hierarchy. For arguments sake, as you suggest in Prehension, let’s suppose the oldest is oral (engulfing something with a mouth) – the object is inside you, not yet part of you, but soon will be; then there’s grabbing something with one’s hand/paw – the object is in your direct control and soon to be inside you; then there are social relationships – a web of dynamic relations that require a richer sense of both one’s own and others potential/actual state and control.
    It is probably too much to hope for, but can we trace an associated hierarchy in an analysis of the concepts of object and property.


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