Grounding and Metametaphysics
Skiles (Alexander) & Trogdon (Kelly)
Source: The Routledge Handbook of Metametaphysics (edited by Ricki Bliss and J. T. M. Miller)
Paper - Abstract

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Authors’ Introduction

  1. Metametaphysics concerns foundational metaphysics. Questions of foundational metaphysics include:
    1. What is the subject matter of metaphysics?
    2. What are its aims?
    3. What is the methodology of metaphysics?
    4. Are metaphysical questions coherent?
    5. If so, are they substantive or trivial in nature?
    Some have claimed that the notion of grounding is useful in addressing such questions. In this chapter, we introduce some core debates about whether – and, if so, how – grounding should play a role in metametaphysics.
  2. It is undeniable that in fact grounding plays at least some role in how metaphysics is conducted, and has perhaps done so since the beginning. Two roles stand out in particular.
    1. First, the notion of grounding is routinely used to state, at least in an intuitive way, what is at issue in various metaphysical disputes. Examples include debates over
      → what (if anything) is the ground of mentality and
      → what (if anything) is the ground of modality.
    2. Second, the notion is also routinely used to state, at least in an intuitive way, what various other notions of metaphysical interest amount to. Examples include
      → what it is for a property to be intrinsic rather than extrinsic and
      → what it is for an entity to be a substance rather than a mode.
  3. But what conclusion is to be drawn about what if any role grounding should play in metametaphysics, in answering foundational questions about the nature of metaphysics? Some claim that the notion should play an absolutely central role.
    1. For example, Jonathan Schaffer writes that “metaphysics as I understand it is about what grounds what” in part due to the alleged inadequacies of the ‘Quinean’ approach that dominated metaphysics throughout most of the 20th century, which focuses on what there is rather than “what is fundamental, and what derives from it” ("Schaffer (Jonathan) - On What Grounds What", 2009, p. 379).
    2. For another example, Kit Fine writes that although questions about what grounds what “are not without interest to naïve metaphysics” (which concerns “the nature of things without regard to whether they are real”), nonetheless “they are central to realist metaphysics” (which concerns whether reality does in fact contain things with that nature). “Indeed,” Fine writes, “if considerations of ground were abolished, then very little of the subject would remain” (2012, p. 41, emphasis in original; cf. 2001, pp. 28–29).
  4. Nonetheless, the issue of what role, if any, grounding should play in metametaphysics remains controversial. Some are skeptical about the very coherence of the notion of grounding or suspect that talk about what grounds what isn’t nontrivially truth-evaluable. Some who find the notion coherent argue that its allegedly essential, central theoretical utility has been overblown. And among even those who find the notion both coherent and useful, there is substantial disagreement regarding the nature of grounding itself, which will interact in certain ways about what use we ultimately put the notion to. For the purposes of this chapter, we shall assume that there is at least something coherent to the notion, and that at least some grounding statements are true. As for the nature of grounding, we shall proceed as much as possible without taking on substantive commitments, although we shall also indicate when questions about the relationship between grounding and metametaphysics may turn on which commitments are ultimately taken up.
  5. There is, however, one issue about the nature of grounding that we should address before proceeding. Consider the following representative grounding claim: the fact that the bowl is brittle is grounded by the fact that the chemical bonds of its atoms are covalent. Some stipulate that by ‘grounding’ they mean a distinctive form of determination, where to determine is, roughly speaking, to produce or bring about. In this case to say that the brittleness of the bowl is grounded by the covalent bonds of the bowl’s constituent atoms is to say that the bonding of the atoms produces or brings about the brittleness of the bowl.
  6. Others stipulate that by ‘grounding’ they mean a distinctive form of explanation. In this case, to say that the brittleness of the bowl is grounded by the covalent bonds of the atoms is to say that the bowl is brittle because the bonding of the atoms is covalent. Compare: many interpret causal claims (e.g. “The stone striking the glass caused the window to shatter,”) as targeting in the first instance causation understood as a distinctive form of determination rather than causal explanation; some, however, see ordinary causal claims as targeting in the first instance causal explanation. Rather than plump for one view or the other – or cast the dispute aside as “largely verbal” (cf. Shamik Dasgupta, 2017: fn. 8) – let us simply speak of the distinction between determinationG and explanationG and use ‘grounding’ when potential differences between the two can be safely elided.
  7. In what follows, we focus on three of the most interesting and widely discussed roles that have been assigned to grounding in metametaphysics. Specifically, we consider
    • how grounding might be relevant to whether metaphysical questions are substantive (§1),
    • how to choose between metaphysical theories (§2), and
    • how to understand so-called “location problems” (§3).

Authors’ Conclusion
  1. We draw things to a close by returning to a matter raised in the last section, the issue of providing reasons for thinking that this grounds that. Just how we should think about the epistemology of grounding is an interesting matter – this itself is a further question of foundational metaphysics. What are plausible diagnostics for grounding, principles that specify the conditions under which claims about what grounds what are plausible? Much of the literature on grounding so far has focused on clarifying the notion. These discussions, however, provide little guidance for formulating grounding diagnostics – it seems clear, for example, that nothing in these discussions could be operationalized into a discovery procedure that doesn’t crucially depend on our already having knowledge about what grounds what.
  2. The epistemology of grounding is perhaps an underexplored area of research. While we don’t have the space to explore these issues in any detail here, here is one thought. Some implausible grounding claims seem implausible because we have no sense of how the grounding is supposed to work. This is the case, for example, with respect to the claim Gomer having a greenish experience grounds the fact that Socrates is a philosopher. This claim is implausible because there is no reasonable story to tell about how the connection is supposed to run between the Gomer fact and the Socrates fact. A comparison to causal mechanisms may be helpful here. Suppose you make a claim about what causes a neurochemical event such as the release of neurotransmitters. Since biochemistry is a subject matter in which causal relations have underlying causal mechanisms, if it’s unclear what sort of underlying causal mechanism might be operative in this case, this counts against your causal claim.
  3. So it seems that one way to justify a grounding claim (or at least show that it’s not obviously implausible) is to tell a plausible story about how the connection runs between the relevant facts. How do you do that? Well, one option is to lean heavily on the comparison with causal claims and underlying causal mechanisms. To specify how the connection runs between the ground and grounded is to specify what we might call a “metaphysical mechanism” linking these facts together, either directly or via their constituents (Trogdon 2018). And another option is to develop substantive principles specifying relations of counterfactual dependence between the relevant facts (Schaffer 2016).


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