Tropes: For and Against

in: Metaphysics and Scientific Realism: Essays in Honour of David Malet Armstrong, Francesco Calemi, ed., pp. 85-104.

Abstract: Trope theory is the view that the world consists (wholly or partly) of particular qualities, or tropes. This admittedly thin core assumption leaves plenty of room for variation. Still, most trope theorists agree that their theory is best developed as a one-category theory according to which there is nothing but tropes. Most hold that ‘sameness of property’ should be explained in terms of resembling tropes. And most hold that concrete particulars are made up from tropes in compresence (for an overview, including an introduction to some alternative versions of the view, cf. Maurin, 2014). D. M. Armstrong disagrees. He thinks the world is a world of immanent universals, the thin particulars in which those universals are instantiated, and the states of affairs that—thereby—exist. He holds that ‘sameness of property’ should be explained in terms of numerically identical universals or—if the resembling things are the universals themselves—in terms of partially identical universals. And he believes that concrete particulars are made up from ‘thin particulars’ in which a (sufficient) number of universals are instantiated. In spite of their disagreements, proponents of tropes owe Armstrong a debt of gratitude. First, for being one of the theory’s earliest, most serious, and—not least—most prominent, critics (Armstrong for the first time considers, and rejects, what he then labels ‘particularism’, in his 1978a). But also for being one of the theory’s most ardent champions. Already in his 1989a, Armstrong regrets his 1978-rejection of the view. Equivalence classes of exactly resembling tropes, he now admits, for most purposes “serve as an excellent substitute for universals” (Armstrong 1989a, 122). But then why isn’t Armstrong a trope theorist? In this paper, Armstrong’s main reasons for rejecting the trope view are critically scrutinized. All of them, it is maintained, fail to convince. If this argument is accepted, Armstrong seems to have no—or, at least, no good—reason for not accepting the existence of tropes. But, then, ought Armstrong to have been a trope theorist? If the ‘best’ version of the trope view turns out to be ontologically more parsimonious than Armstrong’s own theory of universals, then, yes. That there is a version of the trope view, a version that is not (or, at least not seriously) considered by Armstrong, that is ontologically more parsimonious than the universals view, is argued in the next section. Why none of Armstrong’s reasons for preferring universals to tropes manage to convince, is explained in the section after that. First, however, and in order to avoid a common misunderstanding of the trope view and, as a consequence, of why one ought to reject it, a few more words about the core-difference between tropes and universals, and about how this difference matters (as well as does not matter) to what—and how well—these theories explain.

Link to preprint here.