Properties and Predicates

I just finished a very nice little book by Douglas Edwards about the philosophy of properties, appropriately titled Properties.  The arguments Edwards covers are entirely from the analytical side of the fence, most of which are from the past forty years or so.  I was familiar with some of the arguments and unfamiliar with others.  But even if you are well versed in this area, I’d still recommend the book because of the masterful way Edwards put the various approaches into conversation with one another.  Properties is designed primarily as an introductory text, so it’s plenty accessible to the uninitiated too, and Edwards provides excellent definitions and examples for key concepts before discussing them in the context of existing arguments.


That’s as far as I want to go by way of a review.  I really want to record some thoughts I had about properties and predicates as I was making my way through the book.

First, seeing the various approaches to properties put together in such a concise way brought me back to some of the things I was thinking about in The Being of Analogy with regards to resemblance/similarity (NB: Though it is almost never explained as such, resemblance is most often used when similarity is dependent upon an observer, which is why I stick to similarity in my own writing.  I’m sure there are arguments to be made about etymologies and the fact that resemblance is nominalized from a verb and similarity from an adjective, but for me, it’s just contextual).  At almost every point in the history of philosophy, from Plato’s Glaucon dialogue on down, similarity has really been conceived of as what I would call mereological sameness.  In other words, similarity is thought of as multiple objects sharing one or more of the exact same properties.  These properties might be instantiations of ideal forms or of natural states (e.g. a particular configuration of atoms), but in either case, similarity is just the appearance of some underlying, partial sameness. In everyday life, people speculate on the similarity between things without ever feeling obliged to point out exactly which properties of the objects in question are the same (though they often do).  Philosophers, however, seem totally incapable of doing this. There have been some programs, such as Resemblance Nominalism, which have left similarity (or resemblance) as it is, without reducing it to sameness; but the problem there is that similarity is always dependent upon a third, human observer rather than a relationship between objects themselves. A big part of my work over the past few years has been to envision a non-anthropocentric theory of similarity for itself, just as Deleuze did for difference.

One of the ongoing debates Edwards highlighted particularly well was that of the relationship between predicates and properties.  And I think that’s where my work is headed to next.  Predicates are supposed to represent properties, and subjects are supposed to stand in for objects–be they concrete, abstract, or designated by a proper name.  As Edwards points out, some thinkers believe that there are fewer real properties than predicates; for others, there are more properties than predicates; and still others–particularly in the nominalist camps–deny any real relationship whatsoever.  One of the motivating concerns across all factions is that we not confuse the semantic content of predicates with natural properties and/or that we don’t confuse the grammatical relationship between subjects and predicates with that of objects and properties in the real world. Almost everyone agrees that language gives us a distorted view of reality, even if there are those who believe we cannot think outside of language.  W.V.O. Quine and Nelson Goodman, for instance, argue that predicates (as classes) are purely heuristical and that there is nothing in reality to ground them.  Others, such as David Armstrong, contend that properties are real and knowable but that they must be discrete enough to be described scientifically, which excludes many of our predicates. Despite the contrasting views, what the entire tradition appears incapable of imagining is the possibility that even though linguistic signs cannot be the same as the objects and properties they signify, linguistic things can be incorporated into the reality that an ontology is supposed to describe.  In order to find thinkers who are able to imagine such a thing, you have to go to certain strains of continental philosophy, such as New Materialism, Object-Oriented Ontology, or even Lacanianism.  The thought of a car or the word car is not the same thing as a car itself, but that does not mean that the thoughts and words occupy a different reality than the car occupies. The closest the analytical tradition is able to come to this line of thought is the idea that reality is grounded in logico-mathematical forms, and that human syntax is an instantiation of those forms.  But that way of thinking usually isn’t all that concerned with the relationship between properties and predicates in the first place.

If you can stomach the idea that linguistic things are more than just meta-things, then one area worth exploring is the ordinal relationships between subjects and predicates and between objects and properties.  The ordinal relationship between objects and properties goes to the heart of the dispute philosophers have been engaged in since Plato.  In formal idealism, universal forms exist outside of time and space, but as properties they clearly precede the objects by which they are instantiated.  This sequence holds for formal realism (or perhaps formal naturalism), even though the universal forms may or may not be integrated into time and space. In contrasting views, such as trope theory, properties fall into sets after they have constituted their individual objects.  There doesn’t seem to be any debate, however, on the ordinal relationship between subjects and predicates.  We think of a particular subject as being predicated upon a universal or categorical predicate. The idea is that the predicate is already there, waiting to identify the particular subject. But if we accept that predicates are tokens of categories (even if categories are themselves abstract particulars rather than sets), then predicates are actually more unstable than subjects, and thus should not be seen as constants waiting upon contingent subjects. What I would argue is that predicates (again, as categories) are in constant analogical flux, forming and reforming by perceived similarities in the objects they are supposed to identify. Predicates, in other words, proceed from relationships between mental objects (or grammatical subjects).

As for subjects themselves–be they concepts or proper names–I am drawn to Saul Kripke’s theory of proper names. For Kripke, a proper name cannot, as Bertrand Russell contended, be reduced to a set of definite descriptions. Take Benjamin Franklin as an example (as Kripke frequently did). Under the definite description argument, Benjamin Franklin could not refer to the person we know as Benjamin Franklin if it weren’t replaceable by ‘inventor of the bifocals,’ ‘the guy who flew his kite in a thunderstorm,’ etc. But Kripke argued that the referring power of Benjamin Franklin comes instead from the fact that it has repeatedly referred. In other words, a proper name refers because it refers. A proper name’s causal power does not come from something external to it, but rather from what I would describe as a chain of self-similarity. To be clear, Kripke made no claim that concepts in general work this way (though he remained open to the possibility). But I think there is a case to be made for it. What’s more, I would argue that objects in general endure and source their identities in self-similar intra-action.

The corollary to my argument about identity and self-similarity is that when objects interact with other objects, their properties conform, meaning that instead of participating in a universal by imitation of that universal form, objects participate in an emergent similarity by translating the properties (form) of the other object. In doing so, asymmetries are introduced into the objects’ repetition of themselves, which is why objects are self-similar rather than self-same. This emergent similarity in object-to-object interactions, by the way, is also how I would describe the metaphysics of analogy that puts predicates in flux.

I know I’m leaving out a lot of explanation and citation from my specific claims here. Take them for what they are. I’ll be elaborating further in other writings. But my larger point in this post is that it should not be out of bounds to include object-property and subject-predicate relationships under a single ontological program.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s