A Paradox of Matter and Form, Thought: A Journal of Philosophy, 6: 33–42, March 2017. (penultimate draft available here)
In the face of the puzzles of material constitution, some philosophers have been moved to posit a distinction between an object's matter and its form. A familiar difficulty for contemporary hylomorphism is to say which properties are eligible as forms: for example, it seems that it would be intolerably arbitrary to say that being statue shaped is embodied by some material object, but that other complex shape properties aren't. Anti-arbitrariness concerns lead quickly to a plenitudinous ontology. The usual complaint is that the super-abundance of material objects is too extraordinary to accept, but I want to raise a different worry: I argue that the most natural way of developing this picture is already inconsistent. I show that a simple version of plenitudinous hylomorphism is subject to a Russellian argument, but argue that we cannot treat the problem straightforwardly as an instance of Russell's Paradox of Sets.
Against Conservatism in Metaphysics (with John Hawthorne), Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 82, 45-75, July 2018.
In his recent book, Daniel Korman contrasts ontological conservatives with permissivists and eliminativists about ontology. Roughly speaking, conservatives admit the existence of “ordinary objects” like trees, dogs, and snowballs, but deny the existence of “extraordinary objects”, like composites of trees and dogs (“trogs”). Eliminativists, on the other hand, deny many or all ordinary objects, while permissivists accept both ordinary and extraordinary objects. Our aim in this paper is to outline some of our reasons for being drawn to permissivism, as well as some of our misgivings about conservative metaphysics. In the first section, we discuss a tempting epistemic line of argument against conservatism. This isn’t a line of argument we find especially promising, and in this we agree substantially with Korman. Our most basic complaint against conservatism is not that conservatism has poor epistemic standing even if true, but instead that conservatism is weird. We develop this thought in the second part of the paper through our discussion of arbitrariness and parity, and along the way voice some misgivings about Korman’s own appraisal of the “arguments from arbitrariness.” In the final section we discuss some larger methodological issues about the project of ontology.
Papers In Progress
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The Barest Flutter of the Smallest Leaf: Understanding Material Plenitude
According to material plenitude, every material object coincides with an abundance of other material objects, which differ in the properties they have essentially and accidentally. Although plenitude has become increasingly popular, it isn’t clear how to make sense of the view beyond its slogan form. I argue that any attempt to develop a coherent version of plenitude is subject to two under-appreciated challenges, and develop a version of plenitude (global plenitude) capable of overcoming both. The resulting picture of the world is much less straightforward than we might have expected, and many of the proposed applications of plenitude may require a more delicate touch than we thought.
Plenitude Without Universalism
Although plenitude guarantees an abundant ontology, there are many ways in which it falls short of the ‘unlimited’ decadence typically associated with it. I explore the ways that plenitude might come apart from other permissive ontological theses -- in particular, mereological universalism, the thesis that for any things, there is something composed of those things. Although, as I show, plenitude and universalism are formally independent, it is tempting to think that the same motivations that drive us to plenitude will force us to accept universalism, as well. I show how standard applications of plenitude don’t require universalism, argue that there are illuminating and well-motivated pictures of reality where plenitude holds and universalism fails.
So Many Fuzzy Things
I develop a version of fuzzy plenitude, according to which the world contains not only an abundance of coincident “precise” objects, but also of “fuzzy” objects. I argue that this view is consistent -- and, in particular, doesn’t require vague identity -- and show how the resulting picture provides a more attractive picture of the material world than material plenitude alone.
Arbitrariness and the Long Road to Permissivism
For the most part, we agree that metaphysics doesn’t admit of arbitrariness. But what does that mean? And what follows from our commitment to avoiding arbitrariness? This paper aims to provide a framework for understanding arbitrariness considerations in metaphysics, and in particular, in disputes about ontology. Considerations of arbitrariness play important roles in a number of different such disputes: most notably, it is supposed to be on grounds of arbitrariness that we are led to radical theses about mereological composition (namely, mereological universalism) and material coincidence (namely, material plenitude). My second aim in this paper is therefore to explore whether the argument from arbitrariness, as I propose to understand it, really is the proper foundation for one or both varieties of permissivism. I argue that the permissivist who hopes to rest her liberal ontology on an aversion to arbitrariness must either bolster the foundations with substantive metaphysical theses (supporting what I call homogeneity principles), or recognize that those foundations are much less stable than they’re usually taken to be.
I answer a challenge from Williamson (2013) that the combination of two intuitive views about modality -- that individuals might have failed to exist, but properties must exist necessarily -- involves an unacceptable asymmetry in the background theory of quantification. I argue that this asymmetry is justified by differences between the domains: while we have reason to endorse an unrestricted comprehension principle for properties, we aren't bound to endorse the analogously unrestricted ‘comprehension principle’ for individuals.
Hylomorphic Change (with Shieva Kleinschmidt)
According to the Temporal Parts account of change, primary bearers of temporary properties are temporal parts of persisting objects, and the persisting objects (in some sense) derive temporary properties from them. Jeffrey Brower has presented an Aristotelian account of change that has a structure similar to a temporal parts account, but which is friendly to Three-Dimensionalists. On this solution, temporary objects have temporary properties and persisting objects as parts, and persisting objects (in some sense) derive temporary properties from the temporary objects they are successively parts of. We raise a dilemma for this view: either the solution cannot account for facts about how objects change in parts over time, or it requires rejecting the claim that, for any object, if it has a part present at a region, then the object is partly present at the region. We explore how theorists who endorse a hylomorphic view of material objects may be able to reject some common connections between parts and places, but we argue that they will not have plausible grounds to reject the principle about partial location when applied to material objects.
No Substitutions: Explanation and Asymmetry in Plato’s Euthyphro
Most commentators on Plato's Euthyphro have assumed that two crucial inferences of Socrates' argument against Euthyphro's Third Definition rely on a powerful principle of unrestricted substitution, according to which the relata of a true definition are mutually replaceable in explanatory contexts. I show that since Socrates is committed to Asymmetry (that explanatory relations are asymmetric) and to an Explanation Constraint on true definitions (that a true definition of F as G entails that x being F is explained by x being G), any such substitution principle would be inconsistent. Thus, we cannot charitably attribute an unrestricted substitution principle to Socrates. I then argue for a consistent non-substitutional interpretation of the argument (defended also by Richard Sharvy) which, in the presence of the other two principles, provides new insight into the dialogue.
Talking With Bigots: Hearer-Complicity as a Response to Slurring Utterances
Elizabeth Camp (2013) suggests that an adequate theory of slurs should account for the phenomenon of hearer-complicity: our theory of the meaning of slurring expressions should explain why slurring utterances ``produce a feeling of complicity in their hearers in a way that other taboo expressions do not’’. I examine a series of cases, and propose a model of hearer-complicity which can explain the cases but is ultimately not different in kind from the more fundamental notion of complicity in non-linguistic transgressions. This model can explain hearer-complicity by only minimal appeal to the semantics and pragmatics of slurs, and so places no new constraints on existing theories and need not be thought of as a new explanatory aim for theories of slurs.
Freedom from Free Contrastivism (with Renee Jorgensen Bolinger)
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has recently suggested that the best analysis of free is contrastive. To evaluate this proposal, we work out in more detail the defining features of a contrastive account. Drawing on the structure of contrastive analyses of knows and ought, we argue that contrast classes must display continued relevance and comparative dependence. We then show that while more free than may be contrastive, no contrastive analysis can respect the intuitive concept of free. Nevertheless, Sinnott-Armstrong’s proposed picture may yet be the best analysis of free: his account respects the contours of the intuitive concept, partly in virtue of failing to display features necessary to count as a contrastive analysis.