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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Humanity *in general* and *your* humanity both exist - the uses of 'trope platonism'

In a previous entry, we looked at platonic realism and trope nominalism. Recall, platonic realism holds that particular things of the same kind, e.g. humans participate in or instantiate the universal or form ‘humanity’, where forms/universals are immaterial entities existing in an eternal ‘world of forms’. Trope nominalism, in contrast, holds that particular things of the same kind have tropes that resemble each other. A ‘trope’ is sometimes referred to as a ‘particularized property’. We can speak of ‘humanity’ in general, but we can also speak of your humanity, and mine. Your humanity and mine may resemble each other, but they are not the same thing. Trope nominalists say that each of us has a ‘human-trope’, and this explains why we are both humans.


I argued in this entry that platonic realism can explain something that trope nominalism cannot – namely, the fact that resemblance exists at all – and that this a reason to believe that particular things do indeed participate in platonic forms. But the fact that particular things participate in platonic forms does not rule out that they also have tropes. Indeed, Michael Loux writes that one could advance a “two-step” theory, which “makes tropes constituents of familiar particulars” but in which the tropes themselves are “instantiations of universals” (2006, p.211). This is a picture in which you and I have distinct human-tropes, but each of our human-tropes participate in the platonic form of humanity.


If there are good reasons to believe, as I have argued, that there are platonic forms, and good reasons to believe that there are tropes, given that the two are not jointly inconsistent, it seems we have good reason to take seriously a hybrid “two-step” theory of this sort.


So, what reasons are there to believe in tropes? One could conjure up clever arguments for their existence, but as far as I’m concerned, it is enough that I can just see tropes. When I look at you, I see your humanity. When I look at myself in the mirror, I see my humanity.

Examples of this kind, at the very least, suggest that the idea of particularized properties fit nicely with our everyday linguistic practises. But those hostile to tropes will charge that we shouldn’t let our language dictate our metaphysics. Point taken.


What then, do I see, if not your humanity and mine? Let us consider other candidates.


1. Perhaps I see the same thing in both cases, that is, humanity itself. But this is a non-starter for those who believe ‘humanity’ to be a platonic form, since platonic forms are necessarily invisible. But of course, critics of tropes tend to be platonists, and thus will show little interest in this candidate.


2. Perhaps it is strictly incorrect to say that I see your humanity (and mine), and that saying as much is an informal shorthand for saying that I see that you are human. When I ‘see that x’, I see something which makes me know or understand that x (this is sometimes referred to as ‘epistemic seeing’, cf. Dretske 1969). But then, the critic owes us an explanation as to what this ‘something’ which makes me understand that you are human, is, which leads me to the next candidate…


3. Perhaps what I see is your appearance – your walking on two legs, your lack of fur, etc – and this leads me to know that you are a human, i.e. that you participate in the form of humanity.


This third account of what really goes on when I ‘see your humanity’ doesn’t involve tropes, unless we say that your human-trope just is your particular morphological structure. To use a simpler example, a critic of tropes might say that we don’t strictly see the yellowness of an autumn leaf, just the pigments that make the leaf yellow (Levinson 2006). But the trope nominalist, I argue, can simply answer that the yellowness of the leaf just is the collection of such pigments.


This answer presupposes that tropes are concrete constituents of particular things. Here it is common to protest that the trope nominalist has made a category mistake (e.g. Lowe 2007). Tropes are supposed to be particularized properties, and properties are not constituents or parts of objects. Rather, they are ways an object is.


Whether it is category mistake to say that particularized properties are constituents of the objects that have them is largely a conceptual matter: if our concept of a particularized property, like ‘your humanity’ rules out its being a constituent of particular thing (in this case, you), then to say that your humanity is a constituent of you is to misunderstand the relevant linguistic conventions. But while it might violate the linguistic conventions followed by some metaphysicians, I don’t see how it violates the ‘folk’ linguistic conventions of wider society. As far as I can tell, we find it quite natural to think of the particularized properties of objects as constituents of such objects -- is it really ‘absurd’ to say that the autumn leaf’s yellowness is a part of the leaf?


Granted, metaphysicians are free to use concepts as they please. But it seems to me that, if we are to communicate something of value to those outside the field, it is the linguistic conventions of wider society that our theories ought to respect. Hence, if I am right to say that the everyday concept of a particularized property (your humanity, this leaf’s yellowness) allows it to be a part of an object, we shouldn’t regard the claim that tropes are constituents of things as a category mistake.

Hence why I persist in my belief that I do see tropes. If I do in fact see tropes, then a fortiori they exist. But, as we have seen, I also think that platonic forms play a unique explanatory role. So, at the risk of being too greedy, I’m going to have both: objects have tropes, and tropes participate in platonic forms. Call this 'trope platonism'.


Levinson, J. (2006). Why There Are No Tropes. Philosophy, 81(04), 563. doi: 10.1017/s0031819106318013


Loux, Michael (2006). 8. Aristotle's Constituent Ontology. Oxford Studies in Metaphysics 2:207.


Lowe, E. (2007). The four-category ontology. Oxford: Clarendon.


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