Active and passive properties

This post was inspired by a talk Barbara Vetter gave to the Ockham society last night. The view of dispositions as not necessarily needing a stimulus is hers – the extra stuff I’ve added shouldn’t be blamed on her!

Folklore has it that dispositions are individuated both by their stimulus conditions and their manifestations. Fragility, for example, is said to be roughly the disposition to break when struck. There is an active element (breaking) and a passive element (being struck) in this characterization. But could we have purely active or purely passive dispositions?

Consider the purely active case first. This would be a disposition to behave a certain way, independently of external stimuli. There’s one particularly clear candidate; radioactivity. An atom is radioactive if it is disposed to decay spontaneously.

Purely passive cases are harder. But maybe edibility is an example. What matters to whether something is edible is whether or not some external entity can come along and eat it; what happens next (the manifestation) seems to be somewhat irrelevant. Of course, in some sense of ‘edibility’, being edible requires not poisoning the eater when eaten. But leave these cases aside. Or perhaps something like ‘strikability’ is a better example.

If these cases are as I’ve described them, then a kind of pattern emerges. There are similar kinds of property which may be characterized by an active condition (manifestation), by a passive condition (stimulus), or by both, as follows:

Property Passive condition Active condition
Breakability Unspecified Breaking
Fragility (?) Striking Breaking
Strikability Striking Unspecified

A question which now arises is – which of these kinds of properties count as dispositional? I suggest they all do, even though we don’t normally think of properties like ‘strikability’ when giving examples of dispositions. Perhaps this is partly because strikability, if it is a disposition, will be an extrinsic disposition.

The question mark after fragility is because I’m not sure that fragility really is the disposition to break when struck – perhaps it’s just the disposition to break, or the property of breaking easily (this is actually how the OED defines it.) Evidence for this claim might be that ‘fragile’ and ‘breakable’ are used pretty much interchangeably on packaging.

Provisional conclusions –

  • Some dispositions lack a (non-trivial) stimulus condition (radioactivity is a clear example).
  • We can perhaps make sense of properties which lack a (non-trivial) manifestation condition (edibility and strikability are not-so-clear examples).
  • We can lay out a spectrum of possible properties ranging from ‘purely active’ to ‘purely passive’, depending on the role of active and passive conditions in characterizing those properties.
  • Which properties count as dispositional is an interesting and non-trivial question.
Active and passive properties

2 thoughts on “Active and passive properties

  1. Barbara says:

    Hey Al, sorry it took me so long to comment on this. I think your suggestion is very interesting, but I am still not convinced that your cases cannot be accommodated by a manifestation-only view. If dispositions are just dispositions to …, the slot may very well be filled (and is very often filled) by a passive verb: fragility might be the disposition to be broken, rather than the disposition to break, if you wouldn’t want to include spontaneously breaking things in the class of fragile things. One observation about your examples for seemingly stimulus-only dispositions is that they are formed with success verbs. A strikable thing must be one that allows me to complete my striking it (and doesn’t, e.g., disappear just before I touch it), an edible thing must be one that allows me to complete my eating it. If that’s more than just coincidence, then such a disposition is not just a matter of what an external entity can do, it’s a matter of what the thing so disposed allows an external entity to do to it. And then, why should having that thing done to it by an external entity not count as a manifestation of the object’s disposition?

  2. It would certainly be bad to say that strikability is not a disposition because it does not have an intrinsic basis, and dispositions must have an intrinsic basis. As you point out, objects generally fail to be strikable because of the way they are intrinsically (eg clouds).

    My thought was that manifestations must consist in activity, rather than passivity. So being struck is not the manifestation of any disposition of the struck object, rather it is a correlate of the manifestation of something else’s disposition to strike.

    I guess the resulting proposal would distinguish dispositions from ‘liabilities’. Each of these is correctly analysed using a single verb, but dispositions are characterized by active verbs and liabilities by passive verbs. So irascibility is a disposition, but breakability is a liability. Then our disagreement looks like a merely verbal one.

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