Skip to main content

What is a Negative Property?

  • Sam Baron, Richard Copley-Coltheart (a1), Raamy Majeed and Kristie Miller

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.

Corresponding author
Hide All

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

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), 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).

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

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

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

12 Bigelow, John, ‘Presentism and PropertiesNoûs 30 (1996), 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), 281.

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

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

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), 125148.

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

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.

1 This paper is dedicated to the memory of Richard Copley-Coltheart (1964–2000). Richard was born and grew up in Sydney, Australia. His PhD thesis, which he was writing at the time of his death, examined the logical and metaphysical notions of identity. Central to his analysis was a discussion of negative states of affairs. His final conclusion was that identity statements posit negative facts about the world and he was developing a system of formal logic to demonstrate the consistency of his thesis. Richard's passing was a loss for Australian philosophy and he is sorely missed by all who knew him.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
  • URL: /core/journals/philosophy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed