Philosophy, Department of


Date of this Version



Sats - Nordic Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 5, No.1 (2004), pp. 110-130.


Copyright (c) 2004 Philosophia Press; published by DeGruyter. Used by permission.


Disposition terms, such as 'cowardice,' 'fragility' and 'reactivity,' often appear in explanations. Sometimes we explain why a man ran away by saying that he was cowardly, or we explain why something broke by saying it was fragile. Scientific explanations of certain phenomena feature dispositional properties like instability, reactivity, and conductivity. And these look like causal explanations - they seem to provide information about the causal history of various events.

Philosophers such as Ned Block, Jaegwon Kim, Elizabeth Prior, Robert Pargetter, and Frank Jacksonl have suggested reasons for thinking that dispositions are causally inert. I call this the "Inert Dispositions View." According to this view, the glass's fragility was not responsible for its breaking; the man's cowardice was causally impotent as he fled. The Inert Dispositions View would call many of the explanations we give into question. By employing a disposition in an explanation, we might have thought we were giving a causal explanation of the event. Perhaps we took ourselves to be explaining an effect with some feature of its cause that was responsible for the effect. However, if dispositions are causally inert, we are explaining the event in some other way, or not really explaining it at all.

The Inert Dispositions View suggests that something is amiss with many scientific explanations. If properties like conductivity and volatility are causally inert, it is not clear how appealing to them provides us with information about why certain phenomena occur. This is especially problematic if one thinks, as some do, that the fundamental properties that scientists attribute to the ultimate constituents of matter -- things like force, mass, charge, impenetrability -- are dispositional. If, as Simon Blackburn says, "science finds only dispositional properties all the way down,"2 and if dispositions are causally inert, it would seem that science does not provide us with real causal explanations.

The Inert Dispositions View implies that there is something amiss with psychological explanations as well. At least some psychological states are dispositional -- being courageous or shy, being such that you would accept a drink if you were offered one. On some views, all mental states are like dispositions, since having a mental state is a matter of having some brain state or other that performs a certain causal role. If mental properties are relevantly similar to dispositions, and dispositions are inert, then mental properties make no difference to what a body does. However, it is natural to think that my believing and desiring certain things has much to do with my body moving in certain ways. It would take powerful arguments to cast these beliefs into serious doubt.

In this paper, I defend the causal efficacy of dispositions against two types of arguments that l call "Analyticity Arguments" and "No Work Arguments." According to Analyticity Arguments, there is an analytic or necessary connection between a disposition and its manifestation, and this goes to show that there is no causal connection. I argue, on the contrary, that it shows no such thing. According to No Work arguments, manifestations of dispositions already have sufficient causes, and so there is "no work" for dispositions to do. I claim that these arguments rest on some questionable assumptions.