Dispositionalism and the Modal Operators

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 91 (2):411-424 (2015)
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Actualists of a certain stripe—dispositionalists—hold that metaphysical modality is grounded in the powers of actual things. Roughly: p is possible iff something has, or some things have, the power to bring it about that p. Extant critiques of dispositionalism focus on its material adequacy, and question whether there are enough powers to account for all the possibilities we intuitively want to countenance. For instance, it seems possible that none of the actual contingent particulars ever existed, but it is impossible to explain this by appealing to the powers of some actual thing or things to bring it about. I argue instead that dispositionalism, in the simple form championed by its proponents, is formally inadequate. Dispositionalists interpret the modal operators as simple existential claims about powers, but if we interpret the operators that way, the resulting system of modal logic is too weak to capture metaphysical modality. I argue that we can modify the standard dispositionalist interpretations of the operators to secure formal adequacy, but at the cost of accepting that not all modality is grounded in powers. This, I shall suggest, is not a bad thing—the resulting theory still has powers at its core and has certain attractive features, in addition to formal adequacy, that the standard theory lacks.

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David Yates
Universidade de Lisboa


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