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The Problem with Properties

When we use a term like “property” in relation to things having them, we suppose we know what we mean. What we have in mind in these cases is just some feature (or features) of a thing which, along with other features, combine to make it what it is. That is, we suppose that a property is that element or aspect of a thing which possesses it – along with every other element or aspect of it which then, if all are specified in full, would convey to an interlocutor the complete picture of the object in question. The property of a thing, in this sense, is any of its parts or elements which are accessible to us via the senses, either directly or indirectly.

Synonyms for the word “property” in various contexts include words like “feature,” “quality,” “aspect,” “element,” “constituent,” “characteristic,” “part,” and so on. None of these may be precisely the same as what we mean by “property” in every case for some are more specific, or refer to physical elements of a thing only while others have a more abstract reality. The idea of a “feature,” for instance, suggests something that may belong to a thing but is not an intrinsic part of it, i.e., something temporarily connected to the thing in question. A “quality” of a thing seems to suggest an evaluative or evaluated fact about it. An “aspect” conjures the picture of a particular appearance of something, depending on the viewer’s perspective and to speak of a thing’s “characteristic” suggests something not quite physical, something more like an effect the thing has on its observer, i.e., something it’s prone to produce in observers. The word “element” suggests some basic constituent part of the thing while the term “constituents,” itself, suggests parts, albeit not necessarily basic ones (i.e., something that is non-reducible to anything more basic than itself). In some cases, at least, these terms are interchangeable with "property" but sometimes they’re not.

But even the term, “property”, itself, has more than one application for it may be taken to denote either a physical feature of a thing or something that something else is prone to do. It may be some trait that a thing has, that is, on all occasions of its occurrence or only sometimes. Thus “property” suggests physical elements of physical things but also the tendencies of things to act in certain ways under certain conditions, e.g., as a smooth, spherically shaped object will tend to roll down an inclined surface or a shiny surface will reflect light.

The term “properties” seems to name a strange sort of entity in the world of phenomena because such entities may be either physical, as the phenomena they're said to be part of are, or physical in the broader sense of being activity which is physical in its manifestation (as inclinations to behave in some ways but not others). In this latter kind of case it’s to what the entity does or is inclined to dothat we look.

We speak of properties as being possessed by physical things (that is, we suppose their bearers to consist of sensible elements in experience, whether visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, etc.) but sometimes we speak of properties as being possessed by things lacking physical presence in this sense, too. Numbers, for instance, may be said to have properties, such as being evenly divisible. And computer programs, which are coded algorithms, may, in the course of being implemented, be said to exhibit certain properties, too, e.g., the property of giving certain kinds of results. Some properties then are tangible – and so readily verifiable by others with whom we communicate – while others seem to be intangible because their bearers are and depend for observability on the capacity of the observer to be able to perform or understand the performance of certain activities.

We may speak, too, of a work of art (e.g., a painting or musical piece) as having properties such as the tendency to move us. We recognize these because, on exposure to them, we are, in fact, moved.

The notion of a property, in all cases, seems to imply a bearer, for properties are said to be of something. Thus we suppose some other phenomenon or complex of phenomena to be present which the property is not the same as, but which is said to have it. But, if once we see that the property bearer is nothing more than all those properties it’s said to have, then the very notion of that bearer dissolves before our eyes, leaving the property itself as if unborn, certainly not borne by something larger than itself. And now, if a property is not the property of something, how is it anything at all? Hasn’t the property, in this sense, all but ceased to exist just because we can no longer find a bearer to carry it?

Yet we speak of properties as being, themselves, property-bearers, too. Is not the property of redness, of being red (i.e., of having that color we call “red”) itself capable of also being bright or dull, dark or light, brownish or yellowish, glaring or muted in appearance? That is, the color red (itself a property of some things) may have properties of its own, too, making it both property and property-bearer. The whole idea of “properties” seems to shift with our uses of the term, sometimes bearing, and at other times being borne by, things different from itself. Seen this way, the word “property” looks even more problematic. When we come to think about the meaning of our evaluative terms, we find ourselves reaching for this notion of property, too. If something is good, for instance, we think of it as having the property of goodness just as a true sentence is thought to have the property of truth and a beautiful object the property of beauty. But here we run aground if we try to say what sort of property we have in mind. All other properties can be discerned by their physical presence, their observability. But what’s the truth in the true sentence, the goodness in the good meal or the good act? And what’s beautiful in the Mona Lisa or a photo of a brilliant sunset?

Here the word property seems the right choice but it doesn’t do what it does in other cases. A property of being smooth or round, larger or small, red or blue is always discovered by observation (if not directly by us then by the observations of others as reported to us). Yet, aside from the thing we call good or true or beautiful, there is nothing to report, no properties of the thing’s goodness, truth or beauty that can be seen or tested for in the world. Here the element at issue seems imposed by observer on observed. And this will vary with the observers. While two or more observers will, if equipped with the right sensory capacities, encounter the same thing as properties if presented with the same things, that isn’t exactly how this works in the evaluative cases.

Of course, there are objective standards which valuing agents may share in these cases. A true sentence will be one which performs certain functions for users within the functionalities of language, i.e., which performs for them better than others. It’s better for the survival of the user of language to have knowledge than not and having at one’s disposal true sentences amounts to having knowledge. Thus, questions of truth or falsity are evaluative precisely because they are grounded in what use the language speaker can put them to. False sentences will serve the speakers less well, generally speaking, and so the inclination will be to prefer true sentences. The same will be true of statements in the aesthetic sphere. Beautiful things, all other things being equal, will consist of items and activities which please their observers in various ways, move them to pleasurable experiences as it were. And since pleasure is inherently a desirable state, beautiful things will also be good, i.e., the sorts of things we will want to obtain. True statements and pleasurable experiences prompted by awareness of such phenomena (the sort that leads us to exclaim at phenomena’s beauty) will be the kind of things we wish to have or obtain. That is they will be good. But what are good things then?

If truth and beauty are explainable in terms of goodness, what then is goodness to be explained in terms of? Must we reach back to the notion of property to understand the nature of goodness assertions then? Here goodness seems to be the most basic of the three evaluative modalities but if we can explain truth and beauty as what they are only in terms of their goodness (or their potential goodness), we still hit bottom if we cannot clarify what we mean by this latter term. If goodness cannot be explained as a property, despite the superficial similarity between how we use “good” and how we use property-naming words, because we cannot find anything in the world that fits the property category that corresponds to what we mean by “good,” then we must look elsewhere for an understanding of this last sort of attribution. Is there another possibility?

There is at least one and that is to think of “good” as naming not some property like redness or some intangible mimicry of it but, rather, as reporting a status or condition in which a thing stands. We look in vain for the particular manifestations, or evidence of same, as the goodness property we are naming. While the red color of the ball is before our eyes and the even divisibility of certain numbers by two is discoverable by engaging in the right sort of calculations, and learning them, the goodness ascribed to the ball we are tossing back and forth or to its color, or to the act of tossing it continues to be missing in action. What is it about either a color, or that which has it, which may warrant an evaluative ascription? Surely, we can’t offer any ascriptions at all without some observational information, some evidence of a thing’s presence in some fashion for even when a thing is deemed “good,” or “beautiful” or “true,” it’s always some thing that is picked out, something we call that and this must be something we can point to for others to see as we can.

Evaluative terms don’t name things floating in some intangible ether but things in the real world, things that can be red or round or thrown. Things that can be obtained or made use of and the things we do with them. We may deem a ball’s redness to be good if being red makes it easier to see it at a distance or when the light is failing and the ball, itself, may be thought good because it’s better for our game of catch than either a piece of wood or a rock. Both balls and their colors may be better or worse for particular purposes than rocks and sticks, while the latter will be better for other purposes than the former. But where is this goodness that makes any of them one or the other?

Our usages seem to suggest something is there and that goodness, like redness, is possessed by the the thing to which it is ascribed, the way the property-bearing ball is red, or the red is bright (or dull). A ball may have such physical properties as redness or an aerodynamic shape (thus fitting it to be snatched efficiently out of the air when tossed back and forth between two players). But why should we think that something is possessed in this fashion in the case of goodness?

Another possibility commends itself to us if we look at other things we commonly ascribe to other things. For, indeed, ascription does not only happen when we speak of the elements of a thing. We may also speak of its state, its condition, its status if you will. If to be a property of something else is to be a part of it either as a constituent of it or as in what we mean by our term for it, and this implies constant inclusion of the property with the idea of the thing in question, there are certainly other things which may be said of things which are not part of their very definition.

If we toss a ball into a puddle and retrieve it, it becomes wet and slippery, the muddy water of the puddle clinging to its surface, at least temporarily rendering it unfit for the game of catch we were playing. This condition involves new properties added to the ball. But these aren’t properties of the ball for it would be that, whether wet or not. What’s occurred is that the ball has temporarily picked up other properties, in this case properties of water and the puddle itself. This temporary conjunction of physical properties resolves itself into a description of the state or condition in which the ball now stands.

Being or having properties is what makes it possible to speak of being in states or conditions for the properties which define what a thing is are the items which come into relation with one another in a way that allows us to describe the different things properties constitute. The ball in flight is related to the ground it passes over, the air it passes through and the individuals who pass it between them and so forth. It’s also related to the water in the sense that water has become attached to it. States, conditions and the status of things reflect the relations in which anything stands to anything else.

Among all possible relations, of course, are the relations which objects have, not only to one another but to us, i.e., to those who interact with the properties and their agglomerations, interact by recognition, utilization and so forth. The idea of properties is no less basic to the existence of things, in this sense, than is the notion of relations which combine to exemplify the states or conditions of things. Is the ball wet or dry? Here or there? Useful to us or not?

The goodness of the ball, unlike its color or the way it feels or its capacity to pass through the air in a reliably predictable arc, etc., is not attached to the ball or to any of its components but reflects, instead, one or more of the relations in which the ball stands to us, the players, i.e., does it serve our purpose? Just as the wetness of the ball reflects the relation between the ball and the water in the puddle, so its goodness reflects what we think about the ball. And here the point to note is that the goodness serves to represent the reasons we have for choosing the ball. A bright red ball, especially at dusk, made of a hollow membrane of rubber and filled inside with air, which is about the size of a person’s hand and which is spherical in shape will be best suited for a game of catch as the sun fades although a darker ball might do as well in better light and an oblong shaped one, a football, might serve better if we’re looking to practice a different sort of catch (i.e., running, passing and so forth). The goodness of the ball lies in its relation to us, the users, and that relation is determined by what we want or need, what we aim to satisfy in ourselves.

Just as the true sentence is true to the extent it captures information about the world for those who use it, and a beautiful painting is the one which moves us in certain ways on seeing it, and so give us reasons to prefer them over alternatives, so the goodness of the ball, or of the game of catch we want to play, lies with the reasons we have to do or choose the things in question. But among all those things we can choose or discard, we may also find the reasons we can state for choosing or discarding. Thus, if goodness is that status of a thing which is constituted by the reasons we have and can express for choosing a thing, even the reasons we have for this can be deemed good or not. And this is an important fact for ascriptions of value, of goodness, are as applicable to the reasons we give for doing what we do as they are to the things done or obtained.

One big problem in the realm of value theory lies in the tendency we have to confuse ascriptive words, mixing notions of property, in all their variations, with notions of standing, of relativity to other distinguished things. If we imagine that the words work in just the same way then we find ourselves looking for the missing link, the property which “good” denotes. But if property is a vague and shifting concept as it is, this is still not sufficient reason to suppose that we must also find a place for it in explaining our goodness ascriptions. Language is richer and more versatile than any single paradigm applied to it suggests and the fact that ascriptions may involve referring to physical phenomena does not imply that all ascriptions must do so. And the use of evaluative terms can easily fit another, perfectly legitimate and recognizable paradigm, one that closes off any need to look for peculiar entities such as properties of goodness.

Thus, not finding them doesn’t mean there’s nothing there to speak of and dispute, leading us to reject the possibility of cognitively significant talk about value, anymore than it means there’s something otherworldly to be found if only we look hard enough for it.

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