Are Objects Just Collections Of Properties Philosophy Essay

The concept of objects is a prominent area of discussion within metaphysics and various theories have been proposed in order to explain the nature of objects. The notion of an object first originated with Aristotle, who considered how an object could possess varying properties and the impact this had on an object. Since then various other philosophers (for example Hume and Locke) have introduced different theories such as an object (or a substance) being purely the total collection of properties required to make that object what it is, and the grouping of these properties forms an object. Another theory considers the idea that objects have an underlying substance which bears all the properties relevant to that object. This essay aims to outline and evaluate the various theories concerning the nature of objects before concluding whether objects are simply a collection of the properties that make them, or whether there is an underlying concept which contains all the properties of an object.

Aristotle, who documented his ideas in the Categories, distinguished between primary and secondary substances with primary substances considered more fundamental and of a higher reality than secondary substances due to their ability to exist independently (Aristotle, undated). Aristotle argues that these primary substances have an independent existence and thus are "neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject" (Aristotle, undated) and are "the entities which underlie everything else" (Aristotle, undated). They exist ontologically independently of any restriction and are thought of as property bearers. On the other hand, secondary substances depend on primary substances and thus can be predicated to (be said of) a subject. To illustrate this distinction, an example concerning animals can be used. If it wasn’t for one specific dog, such as the breed of the Labrador, then the secondary substance of dog wouldn’t exist as it would have no primary substances to be said of. Instantiated properties, according to Aristotle, are completely dependent on substance, cannot exist alone and are ‘in’ substance; such as space, weight and colour (Aristotle, undated). An example of this is shown through colour as colour cannot exist without being in an object. Red is unable to exist independently of a red dress but a dress is able to exist without it necessarily being red as a dress is the property bearer. Another reason primary substance is thought to be more of a substance by Aristotle is due to their ability to endure through spatial and temporal changes, a notion that properties cannot do. For example, a banana is able to be yellow at one time and then start to turn brown a week later, but yellow cannot be yellow at one point and not be yellow later on. Properties cannot endure through space and time and thus can be deemed of a lower state in reality compared to primary substance. (Aristotle, undated). Aristotle would thus conclude that objects are collections of instantiated properties but that these properties are all dependent on a property bearer in order for them to exist.

Departing from the Aristotelian view, the Dutch philosopher Spinoza argues that objects are not just simply collections of properties and that instead we are all properties of one greater substance. This substance, according to Spinoza, is God and everything else, including us, are modes of God (an affection of a substance) as nothing besides God can be a substance (Melamed, 2009 pp.19/20). According to Spinoza, a substance is entirely independent and conceived by itself (Shein, 2009). God is the only thing able to fulfil those criteria and consequently worthy of the name substance (Shein, 2009). Spinoza proposed all modes to be inhered in God, a view which has led to criticism (Shein, 2009). Curley challenged Spinoza’s position by questioning whether, in fact, all modes could be attributed to God as this could lead to God possessing contradictory properties (Melamed, 2009 pp. 22/23). If all properties were inherent in God then modes of evil would be inherent in God as well, a notion which, if true, means God is both benevolent yet possesses these evil modes, showing a contradiction (Melamed, 2009 pp. 22/23). Curley also criticises Spinoza by questioning the position of God when it comes to change and motion. If all modes are inherent in God then whenever a new mode appears and becomes a state of God, God changes. This results in the notion of a constantly changing God who cannot be, due to his unstable and changing nature, a supreme being thus posing quite a threat to Spinoza’s position (Melamed, 2009 pp.22). Therefore, Spinoza’s stance of God being the only substance and all other properties inhering in this one subject appears robust at face value, but closer examination reveals the argument to be strongly criticised.

One of the main philosophers who enquired after the nature of substance is Locke, who presented a surprising account of substance considering his empiricist standpoint. Locke argued that substance was more than just a collection of properties and concluded that there exists an underlying substance, which he terms the "substratum" (Locke, 1975 p.95, S18, 30) which supports and bears properties enabling us to view objects as we do. Yet, the substratum itself is devoid of any properties and is completely unique; nothing else can be like it. Locke reaches this conclusion through a process of observation resulting in two distinctions with one being between simple and complex ideas. We observe simple ideas (such as colour) through sensation and reflection and then group them into complex ideas. These complex ideas also have the "confused idea of something to which they belong" with this namely being the confused and unclear idea of substance (Locke, 1975, pp.297, S3, 5) Due to our inability to conceive of these simple ideas existing independently, instead Locke states that we should see them as existing within a substratum (property bearer) and it is from this substratum that various simple ideas can form the objects we perceive (Locke, 1975 pp.295, S1, 15). This proves problematic for Locke’s empiricism, as he concludes that from observation there exists something abstract which binds these instantiated properties together (Locke, 1975 p.95, S18, 30). Finally, Locke also concludes that due to the limited understanding we have of corporeal (material) substance and our inability to possess any clear idea relevant to corporeal substance, the possibility of spiritual (immaterial) substance is equally conceivable, as to deny spiritual substance would also deny corporeal substance and vice versa. In order to support his argument Locke draws upon the example of the idea of Gold. He states that we can only describe its properties and not the underlying substance, such as when we describe it as yellow and solid. Here, we are simply saying that the complex idea of Gold possesses the property (or simple idea) of yellowness and this acting upon us is what we observe, not the actual substance of Gold (Locke, 1975 pp.544/555, S 30, 30/5). Thus, Locke concluded that objects aren’t simply collections of properties and, despite his empirical standpoint, there is an abstract concept of which we have no knowledge which has the ability to bear all these properties allowing us to view objects in the way we do today.

One criticism of Locke’s view stems from an empiricist standpoint as it could appear incoherent for there to exist a "bare substratum" which bears all the properties to form various objects. However, this criticism is easily countered on the basis that Locke’s theory is prima facie plausible and it might just be that we don’t have complete knowledge of substance yet and thus cannot rule out the "bare substratum" as an option (Jordan, 2008). One philosopher to criticise this view of Locke was Berkeley. Berkeley was an immaterialist and thus denied the existence of a material substratum. He stated that humans came to assume the existence of an underlying material substratum due to the inability to conceive of properties, such as colour, being able to exist in the mind or alone (Berkeley, 2009 pp.56). However, Berkeley argues that it is impossible for there to be a substratum in which properties exist independent of the mind. Instead, Berkeley argues that the idea of a material underlying substratum is incoherent due to our inability to perceive it as a result of a limit on our senses (Berkeley, 2009 pp.57/58). If our senses improved and were able to conceive of a material substratum then all we’d come to know by matter is an "unknown support of unknown qualities" (Berkeley, 2009 pp.58) and thus still not possess complete knowledge. Due to this, Berkeley concludes there is no advantage to enquire into substance as we don’t know anything about it; therefore Locke’s argument for an underlying substratum is incoherent thus reducing the strength of Locke’s argument.

Another philosopher who shared Locke’s view, thus providing some degree of support for the theory, was Descartes. Descartes states in Principles of Philosophy that a substance is something which requires nothing else to exist and concludes this to be God (Descartes, 2008, pp. 13 S51); a notion similar to Spinoza. Descartes reaches this conclusion by first examining that "nothingness doesn’t have any attributes of qualities" (Descartes, 2008 pp.3 S11) and thus when we see a property in an object it must belong to a substance (Descartes, 2008, pp. 3 S11) as everything else exists with the aid of God. Descartes states that we come to know of substances due to their various properties and not plainly through their mere existence. He argued that if we are in the presence of a property we are thus also in the presence of the substance that property belongs too (Descartes, 2008, pp. 13 S52); a logical conclusion based on his previous statement that "nothingness doesn’t have any attributes of qualities" (Descartes, 2008 pp.3 S11). However, Descartes doesn’t limit substance to just God as he argues for the mind to also be a substance and that ideas are modes of thinking derived from the mind. Descartes states that the mind is a substance as it requires nothing aside from God’s concurrence in order to exist whereas ideas depend on the existence of the mind and thus are modes and cannot be considered substances (Skirry, 2008). This view of Descartes supports that of Locke as it argues for the separation of properties and attributes from an abstract concept of substance, in Locke’s case the "bare substratum", which acts as a property bearer and it is through these properties that we know substance.

One view which provides support for the notion of objects being simply a collection of properties is that of the Bundle theory. Bundle theorists propose that there is no substratum or a property bearer holding the various properties together and instead, objects just exist as collections of properties. One main antagonist of this view was David Hume who argued that we can only see objects as purely a collection of properties due to our inability to conceive of any other alternative (Hume, 1992 pp. 16), a conclusion stemming from his strong empiricist viewpoint. In Book 1 of the Treatise of Human Nature Hume examines the possibility of a substratum by first concluding that substance cannot be found through either sensation or reflection as this limits it to one of the senses; a concept Hume deems impossible (Hume, 1992 pp.16). Hume then considers whether substance can be found through impressions or reflexions but also finds this to be unsuccessful due to our impressions and reflexions resolving into passions and emotions, which leads Hume to argue that they cannot be considered. As we can have no real knowledge regarding substance, Hume feels that there is no meaning or reason in concerning ourselves with substance and that, according to Hume, substance is simply "a collection of simple ideas that are united by the imagination and have a particular name assigned them" (Hume, 1992 pp.16) This quotation from the Treatise of Human Nature permits the conclusion that Hume believed objects to just be collections of properties as he viewed the idea of an underlying substratum to be one we cannot know anything about.

A.J Ayer is another philosopher who believed objects to be a collection of properties and reached his conclusion by focusing on the linguistics of the terms used when we speak of objects. Ayers argument states that in order to distinguish properties and things when conversing with one another we use phrases such as ‘it’. Ayer believes that the use of these terms fabricates an assumption of substance due to attributing words such as ‘it’ to an entity, when instead it is simply being used to form and talk about experiences. Once this assumption is removed or the "accident of linguistic usage" (Ayer, undated pp.25), Ayer states that an object can be defined in terms of its total appearances (or properties), thus supporting the bundle theorist approach (Ayer, undated pp.25).

However, like the idea of an underlying substratum, the bundle theorists approach doesn’t resist criticism. Whilst the aforementioned arguments of Hume and Ayer, appear prima facie plausible, closer examination reveals devastating criticisms, weakening the position in comparison to the ideas of Locke and Descartes, for example. One criticism is the question of what binds all the properties of an object together and determines them into one object. A proposed answer states that the relation between an object and its properties is purely a primitive relation and it cannot be analysed any further. However, I feel this to be a weak counter to a strong criticism as it appears that bundle theory is admitting it cannot know what holds properties together, yet attempts to argue that this doesn’t impact the argument. When considering this, it is hard to ignore some bundle theorists (such as Hume) eagerness with discounting the concept of a substratum due to the inability to possess knowledge about it; a notion which here appears hypocritically used to counter a strong criticism against their theory.

Another criticism against the bundle theorists focuses upon the principle of the identity of indiscernibles. The principle goes as follows: 1) if the bundle theory is true than the principle of identity of indiscernible is true, 2) it is not the case that the principle of the identity of indiscernible is true, 3) therefore it is not the case that the bundle theory is true. The principle of the identity of indiscernibles is the idea that if A and B have exactly the same properties then they are the same objects. This notion is similar to the bundles theorists’ idea of an object being a collection of properties; thus if two objects had identical properties they are undistinguishable. However, if A and B are separate from each other, yet share the same properties, they still appear to be two separate objects, thus showing the principle of the identity of indiscernibles to be false. From both 1 and 2 being correct the conclusion that the bundle theory is not true logically follows. Some Bundle theorists have tried to refute this by arguing that they are separate objects due to their different spatial properties. Conversely, Max Black has argued against the attempt of the bundle theorists to invalidate the criticisms by presenting the example of two spheres. They are the only two objects in the world and share exactly the same properties. According to the bundle theorists’ attempt to refute the criticism, they would attempt to say that both of these spheres have different spatial properties and thus are not the same object. However, Black then states that both of these spheres would have exactly the same spatial properties as they would be relative to each other, being the only two objects in the world (Black, pp.156). The result of this robust criticism from Black is a serious reduction in the strength and validity of the bundle theory compared to the previous theories of Locke, for example.

In conclusion, objects are not just collections of properties and the stronger position states that objects consist of an underlying substratum which bears all the various properties of a certain object. Despite the criticisms of Berkeley towards the argument of Locke’s, I feel it was able to withstand it due to the large support it gained from Descartes and the small support from Spinoza who, despite believing the only substance was God, still advocated an abstract underlying substance. The bundle theorists’ arguments, in comparison, appeared prima facie plausible and strong but at further investigation were shown to be extremely weak with them collectively being unable to refute any criticisms against them. Thus, I must conclude that objects are not just collections of properties and instead there is an underlying substratum which bears all the properties we view in everyday objects.