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What is a Negative Property?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2013


This paper seeks to differentiate negative properties from positive properties, with the aim of providing the groundwork for further discussion about whether there is anything that corresponds to either of these notions. We differentiate negative and positive properties in terms of their functional role, before drawing out the metaphysical implications of proceeding in this fashion. We show that if the difference between negative and positive properties tabled here is correct, then negative properties are metaphysically contentious entities, entities that many philosophers will be unwilling to countenance.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2013

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2 McTaggart, J. M. E, The Nature of Existence. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921), § 62Google Scholar; Armstrong, D. M., A Theory of Universals. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 2527Google Scholar; Van Cleve, James, Supervenience and Closure. Philosophical Studies 58 (1989), 225238CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Merricks, Trenton, Truth and Ontology. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 4359CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Molnar, George, ‘Truthmakers for Negative Truths’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 78 (2000), 7286CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zangwill, Nick, ‘Negative Properties, Determination and Conditionals’, Topoi 22 (2003), 127134CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zangwill, ‘Negative Properties’, Noûs, 45 (2011), 528556Google Scholar. This literature is related to work on negative facts. For discussion of negative facts, see Barker, Stephen and Jago, Mark, ‘Being Positive About Negative Facts’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, (forthcoming)Google Scholar; Cheyne, Colin and Pigden, Charles, ‘Negative Truths from Positive Facts’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 84 (2006), 249265CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dodd, Julian, ‘Negative Truths and Truthmaker Principles’, Synthese 156 (2007), 383401CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mumford, Stephen, ‘The True and the False’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 83 (2005), 263269CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Armstrong, D. M., Truth and Truthmakers. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 7980CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Armstrong, ‘Reply to Simons and Mumford’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 83 (2005), 271276CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Zangwill, ‘Negative Properties’, 528–556.

4 Armstrong, A Theory of Universals, 25–27. Armstrong argues that although we say things like ‘lack of water caused him to die’, which seems to impute to the negative property not being hydrated certain causal powers, we should not take such remarks seriously. This is because we do not generally treat claims like ‘lack of poison caused him to remain alive’ with the same seriousness as ‘lack of water caused him to die’ and yet prima facie they make the same kind of causal claim. Moreover, Armstrong argues that science has already provided us with a rough guide to the kinds of positive properties and relations that exist and the properties and relations identified by science are sufficient to explain the causal outcome of any situation. So there is no need to suppose that there are negative properties with causal powers. Following Braun, David, ‘Causally Relevant Properties’, Philosophical Perspectives 9 (2005)Google Scholar, AI, Connectionism and Philosophical Psychology, 447–475, we disagree with Armstrong on this point: negative properties (if there are any) do have causal powers (see §3 for a full account of the causal powers of negative properties).

5 Zangwill, ‘Negative Properties’, 531.

6 What is a property? This is a thorny issue. For present purposes we conceive of properties as the entities that ground causal powers and similarity relations. Our discussion is therefore framed in terms of a metaphysically substantive conception of properties, rather than say a conception according to which properties are mere shadows of language and where their ontic status can be determined by examination of our predicative practices given our actual languages (or our predicate practices given any possible language). Although we adopt this position, we do not defend it here and nor do we have to: assuming a metaphysically substantive view of properties is needed to make sense of the present debate surrounding negative properties.

7 That said, Zangwill, ‘Negative Properties’, 532–533, proceeds in the other direction, defining certain negative facts in terms of negative properties.

8 Dyke, Heather, Metaphysics and the Representational Fallacy. (New York: Routledge, 2008)Google Scholar.

9 Schiffer, Stephen, ‘Language-Created Language-Independent EntitiesPhilosophical Topics 24 (1996), 149167CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 See for example Shoemaker, Sydney, ‘Causality and Properties’, in Identity, Cause and Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 206233Google Scholar; Whittle, Ann, ‘A Functionalist Theory of Properties’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 127 (2008), 5982CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Ellis, Brian, Scientific Essentialism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

11 Schaffer, Jonathan, ‘Causation by Disconnection’, Philosophy of Science 67 (2000), 285300CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Bigelow, John, ‘Presentism and PropertiesNoûs 30 (1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Supplement: Philosophical Perspectives (10), 36.

13 Lewis, David, ‘Void and Object’, in Causation and Counterfactuals, Collins, John, Hall, Ned and Paul, Laurie A. (eds) (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 281Google Scholar.

14 Dowe, Phil, ‘Wesley Salmon's Process Theory of Causality and the Conserved Quantity Theory’, Philosophy of Science 59 (1992), 195216CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Salmon, Wesley, ‘Causality without Counterfactuals’, Philosophy of Science 61 (1994), 297312CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Lewis, ‘Causation’, Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973), 556567CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Lewis, ‘Void and Object’, 282–283.

17 Helen Beebee, ‘Causation and Nothingness’ in Causation and Counterfactuals, 293, suggests but does not endorse (A) and (C).

18 Though for an attempt to restrict such cases see McGrath, Sarah, ‘Causation by Omission: A Dilemma’, Philosophical Studies 123 (2005), 125148CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Lewis, David, ‘Events’ in Philosophical Papers, Volume 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 241269Google Scholar.

20 One might draw the even stronger conclusion that, therefore, negative properties don't exist, because absences don't exist. Although some of us are sympathetic to this further claim, we cannot defend it here; arguing the point against the existence of absences would take us too far afield.

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