TA 110 (Butterfield)


Commentary 2



by Simon Blackburn


Review of


C. B. Martin


241pp. Oxford University Press.

27.50 (US $65).



in Times Literary Supplement, 12 September 2008, posted 4 October 2008


[ This review deals with the topic of TA110, and can serve to clarify some questions. - I have added paragraph numbers, to facilitate discussion - HFJM ]


C. B. Martin, now Professor Emeritus at the University of Calgary, has long been something of an eminence grise in philosophy. He has been mentioned as an influence by many of the most admired philosophers of the past fifty years or more, and is an inspiration for those who practise what is sometimes called "analytical metaphysics". Such a term would have seemed oxymoronic at an earlier time, when analytical philosophy allied itself with the positivist contempt for anything calling itself metaphysical. But thanks to writers such as David Lewis, David Armstrong and Martin himself, the old suspicion has largely died away, and philosophers now discuss What There Is with a lack of inhibition that would have been applauded in medieval Paris. Things are required to make propositions true, and if those things include propensities and powers, dispositions, chances, or potentialities, then so be it, and the task of the analytical metaphysician is to uncover and admire them.



The centrepiece of this forthright and fascinating book is the problem of the "finkish" disposition, arising from a simple, if bizarre, thought experiment. Analytical philosophers used to suppose that the "dispositions" of objects, such as fragility, or solubility in water, are explained by the truth of so-called "counterfactual" conditionals. A glass being fragile means pretty much that if it were to be struck then it would break. Against this, Martin points out that the dispositions of things can change, and change fairly quickly. So imagine a protective guardian angel, looking after the glass. The glass is fragile, but immediately before it is struck the guardian angel fortifies it, so it does not break. After the crisis is over, the angel changes it back, and once more the glass is fragile. But it is never true of it that it would break if it were to be struck, for the guardian angel is always on standby. The thought experiment does not depend upon supernatural intervention, for there is nothing to prevent natural inhibitory or blocking mechanisms having the same effect.



This apparently irritating wrinkle in the conditional account of dispositions proves harder to deal with than one might think, and Martin convincingly dispatches many attempted counterexamples. The upshot is that it can be true to say that objects have dispositional properties, although the ordinary manifestations of those dispositions are (always) inhibited or blocked. So dispositions may be there, even if sleeping and never to be awoken. They therefore take their place not as mere shadows of conditionals, but as real denizens of natural reality.



Dispositions give Martin the key to what there is: "at any definite freeze-dried moment" in the history of the universe "there are specific disposition lines having their actual readinesses for an infinity of mutual manifestations with an infinity of actual and nonactual reciprocal disposition-line partners, both intrinsic and extrinsic". The omnipresence of dispositions also provides Martin with a naturalistic account of mathematics and science, a solution to problems of causation, a replacement for the notion of laws of nature, and finally the promise of a new approach, and new solution, to the problem of consciousness.



The last of these problems becomes tractable since the hallmark of consciousness is its directedness or intentionality: the fact that, while lesser systems confine themselves to the here and now, our minds leap effortlessly over space and time, to embrace the past, the future, the absent, and the purely imaginary with equal enthusiasm. But dispositions are also directed. They are "to" or "for" things, and give rise to "systems of dispositional states capable of complex, directed, combinatorial, regulative, distal adjustments and control as well as positive or negative feedback". Martin rightly insists that other cellular and autonomic processes may show this kind of complexity, and this insight contributes to diminishing the gulf between mental processes and others. There is still, however, a distinguishing mark of the mental which is its variable use of "sensate input". The exact way this solves any problem of consciousness remained obscure to me, and principally it seems to give Martin a platform from which to denounce rival accounts, such as those of Wittgenstein and Ryle.


Another crux which is passed by rather quickly is the vexed problem that dispositions seem to require "categorical bases", i.e. foundations in properties that are not themselves dispositional, since otherwise we have a world in which there is a lot of potential but no actual fact. Martin solves this simply by announcing that his pet properties are both dispositional and categorical, not quite a Trinity, but at any rate two in one.



C. B. Martin's thought experiment suggests that I may be a really good pianist, even concert standard, although unfortunately the presence of a piano blocks any manifestation of that ability and leaves only my usual Grade II performance. He is relatively coy about how we might verify or falsify such claims, ducking, as metaphysicians are wont to do, behind the strict separation of epistemology and ontology that so annoyed the positivists. But The Mind in Nature has many unblocked and uninhibited dispositions of its own: provocative, rich, useful and infuriating.



Simon Blackburn

Prof. of Philosophy, Univ. of Cambridge

e-mail <swb24 (at) cam.ac.uk>