What Does the Doing?  On Powers, Things and Powerful Things

Ruth Groff

Now that realism about causal powers has gained a foothold in analytic metaphysics, some follow-up questions have emerged.  One question is this: assuming that causation amounts to the expression of real causal powers, what is it that is actually doing the doing, when such displays occur?  Is it the properties of things – i.e., are the powers themselves the causes?  Or is it their bearers – what Harre and Madden called “powerful particulars”?  I argue that it’s got to be the bearers that do the doing.  But the argument involves attending to another question, viz., what kind of causal bearer can do what kind of doing?  This further question can be parsed in two ways – which, though related, may be provisionally distinguished.  One version of the question is something like: “Is it only bounded material objects that can be causes?  Or, for example, can collectivities be bearers of powers (if one believes in such entities)?  And what about structural relations, such as capitalism, or patriarchy?”  The second version is more pointed.  It’s: “What if all material bearers are themselves just other properties?  Could a putative entity comprised only of tropes be a causal bearer?”  As it happens, I’m actually less interested in this narrower version.  Unlike the first version, however, it figures directly in the answer to the initial question, about whether it’s properties or the bearers of properties that are the causes, when causation occurs.  So I pursue it here.  I argue in part that if one takes causation to be about the expression of real causal powers, then what Aristotle called efficient causation, at least, looks to require powerful particulars whose being is not exhausted by abstractions, not even abstractions that are particulars. A point that drops out of the analysis is that realism about causal powers may not combine so well, in the end, with a classical trope theoretic account of material objects.