In a recent issue of the Monist, E.J. Lowe argues that lots of us have been thinking about dispositions in the wrong way.  It’s quite normal to construe fragility as a property with

  • stimulus: a whack
  • manifestation: a shatter

So to look for fragility, I thought I’d look for shatters, and then examine those to see which ones were caused by a whack.  Lots of problems arise from this construal, because it feels natural to define fragility as

  • the quality such that if something is whacked with a relatively light force, then it shatters

or

  • the quantity such that if something is whacked with a force greater than or equal to N, it shatters

That if-then form of the definition is the root of the problem, as it leaves lots of holes for surprises to wiggle in.  For example, was a vase not fragile simply because it was never whacked (instead it was melted down)?  If a wizard intervenes when a vase is whacked to prevent it from shattering, is the vase still fragile?  These kinds of situations are troublesome, to be sure, since they get right down to how we can manage to define a disposition in the first place.

Lowe suggests we throw the whole if-then notion out the window.  He argues that dispositions surely manifest, but they’re never tied to a stimulus or trigger.  Rather, what we think of as a stimulus is really part of what we mean by the manifestation.

For example, a fragile vase can shatter, but something can’t shatter without being whacked (technically, without the application of force).  So, shattering entails whacking and we define fragility as

  • the quality such that something can be shattered with a light force

or

  • the quantity such that something can be shattered with a force greater to or equal to N

It’s a bit weird at first glance, in the sense of feeling that a trick is being pulled.  We’re still talking about whacking and shattering vases, right?  The important difference is what we’re looking for.  By the first account (referred to by philosophers as the Conditional Analysis), we’re looking for events (shatters) and truthmakers for if-then statements.  By Lowe’s account, we’re looking for a complex event (a shatter).

It turns out that my definition of retaliation is closer to Lowe’s account than the first account.  Retaliations were defined as enforcer actions (hits and certain kinds of penalties) that occurred within five minutes of a violent action (certain other kinds of penalties).  The definition itself sucks in obvious ways, but the important part here is the form – I was looking for events that relate to other events in a certain way.  That boils down to looking for complex events, or at least seems less an appeal to a stimulus/if-then situation.

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