The Ontology of Mental Dispositions

Josef Quitterer

According to Gilbert Ryle mental terms should not be understood as 'episodic', referring to single manifestations of mental activities, but as 'dispositional' expressing certain capacities or powers to perform a specific behaviour. Contemporary philosophy of mind has abandoned this global dispositionalism concerning mental terms, focusing instead primarily on occurrent mental states like qualitative experiences and self-conscious activities. In discussions on mental states, the existence of mental dispositions is merely assumed in the absence of conscious representation: We assume the existence of beliefs, desires and intentions even in those periods when we are not consciously aware of having these mental states; some additionally assume a capacity for self-consciousness in those periods when no self-conscious activity is taking place.

I will discuss the ontological implications of dispositional mental states based on an analysis of the relationship between mental dispositions and their manifestations. In this analysis I concentrate on Gilbert Ryle's, Alvin Goldman's and Mumford-Anjum's views of mental dispositions. Even if in all three positions enduring agents are the best candidates for being ontological bearers of mental dispositions, there is no serious ontological commitment in this direction. The reason for this ontological abstinence is, in my opinion, that in these views all causation is done by mental events or mental powers; neither event causation, nor pandispositionalism need powerful agents. I argue for the thesis that the assumption of agents as bearers of mental dispositions implies a commitment to agent causation. Agent causation, however, presupposes a fundamental difference in the manifestation of mental and physical powers.