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What Makes a Capacity a Disposition?,

Cartwright, N



M. Kistler

B. Gnassounou


Many, if not most of our highly prized “laws” of physics cannot be adequately rendered as statements of regular association among the values of “occurrent” quantities, I have argued.1 This is true even if we do not balk at the concept of natural necessity and are willing to add that the associations hold “by law”. They are rather ascriptions of capacities. They tell us what capacities a system will have by virtue of having a given property. The law of gravity is one example. A system of mass M has the capacity of strength GMm/r2 to move another object of mass m a distance r away towards itself. I shall call this the gravitational capacity. My second thesis is a commonly shared one. Ascriptions of capacities do not reduce to conditionals involving only categorical properties. I shall here discuss two questions about these theses: 1) Why think of capacities as akin to dispositions or powers; and 2) Why allow them in science? Before tackling the first question, I shall first try to figure out what features we expect to be characteristic of dispositions and powers themselves.


Cartwright, N. (2002). What Makes a Capacity a Disposition?,. In M. Kistler, & B. Gnassounou (Eds.), Dispositions and Causal Powers (195-206). London School of Economics

Publication Date May 1, 2002
Deposit Date Sep 22, 2015
Pages 195-206
Series Title Causality: metaphysics and methods
Book Title Dispositions and Causal Powers.
Publisher URL
Additional Information Also as "Causality: Metaphysics and Methods Technical Report CTR 10-03", CPNSS, LSE. Also translated as "En quio une capacite est-elle une disposition?" (2006), in Les dispositions en philosophie et en sciences. CNRS Editions. Also in N. Cartwright (2007). Causal Powers.