Dynamism and the Power to Persist

Anne Sophie Spann

It is commonly assumed that whether you believe in powers influences your conception of how things persist. Nonetheless, the exact bearing of a powers metaphysics on the theory of persistence has rarely been explored.

A notable exception is a paper by Stephen Mumford entitled “Powers and Persistence” (2009), which justifiably can be said to pave the ground for any further research in this field. Mumford specifies three possible ways of tackling the interrelation between powers and persistence. The first rests on the assumption that to persist means to retain certain powers, the second considers persistence itself a kind of power, and the third is concerned with the question of whether a perdurantist or an endurantist framework is more apt to think of persistence in terms of powers. Obviously because he fears a threat of circularity regarding the first two options, Mumford prefers to devote his paper solely to the third issue, claiming that a powers theorist should favour an endurantist ontology.

In my talk, I mainly want to follow this line of reflection on powers and persistence by critically discussing the arguments Mumford gives for his claim. These rely on the core idea that by breaking down acting particulars into unchanging, static parts, perdurantism cannot accommodate active powers, whose manifestation involves change. Perdurantism, therefore, seems unable to give a plausible account of processes at all. Although I am sympathetic to what Mumford says, I think Neil Williams (in a not yet published paper) has come up with some arguments, which present a considerable challenge to Mumford’s view. Williams criticizes Mumford’s conception of processes and stresses the possibility of very short-lived powers as well as the existence and importance of static powers (for the latter issue, cf. also Williams (2005)). He then develops a model of perdurance where powers function as links between temporal parts, thus, by all appearances, proving that it is wrong to think that powers do not fit well with perdurantism.

However, I will try to show that there is still a convincing way to defend Mumford’s claim, which also seems to allow for explaining in what sense a powers metaphysics positively entails that things endure rather than perdure (which Mumford doesn’t tell us). The strategy consists in emphasizing Mumford’s appeal to what Ruth Groff has called ‘dynamism’: the view that the world is fundamentally dynamic by containing particulars, which in virtue of their powers are irreducibly active sources of change. Trying to sketch the implications of such an anti-passivist metaphysics for the conception of persistence, finally, leads to some remarks also on the first two approaches to a powers view of persistence mentioned but set aside by Mumford.

Groff, R. (2013): “Whose Powers? Which Agency?”, in: Groff, R./ Greco, J.: Powers and Capacities in Philosophy. The New Aristotelianism, New York: Routledge, 207-227.

Mumford, S. (2009): “Powers and Persistence”, in: Honnefelder, L./ Runggaldier, E./ Schick, B.: Unity and Time in Metaphysics, Berlin: de Gruyter, 223-236.

Williams, N. (Ms.): “Powerful Perdurance: Linking Parts with Powers”, unpublished Ms.

–      (2005): “Static and Dynamic Dispositions”, Synthese 146, 303-324.