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Are Character Traits Dispositions?

  • Maria Alvarez (a1)


The last three decades have seen much important work on powers and dispositions: what they are and how they are related to the phenomena that constitute their manifestation. These debates have tended to focus on ‘paradigmatic’ dispositions, i.e. physical dispositions such as conductivity, elasticity, radioactivity, etc. It is often assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that the conclusions of these debates concerning physical dispositions can be extended to psychological dispositions, such as beliefs, desires or character traits. In this paper I identify some central features of paradigmatic dispositions that concern their manifestation, stimulus conditions, and causal bases. I then focus on a specific kind of psychological disposition, namely character traits, and argue that they are importantly different from paradigmatic dispositions in relation to these features. I conclude that this difference should lead us to re-examine our assumption that character traits are dispositions and, by implication, whether we can generalize conclusions about physical dispositions to psychological dispositions, such as character traits and their manifestations.


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1 McKitrick, J., ‘A Defence of the Causal Efficacy of Dispositions’, Sats: Nordic Journal of Philosophy 5 (2004) 110130, 110.

2 C.B. Martin, for example, writes: ‘The fact that belief and desire states are dispositional is both familiar and obvious’, Martin, C.B., The Mind in Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 184 . This is a widespread view in the literature on dispositions, see e.g. Mumford, S., Dispositions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

3 See Miller, C.B., Character and Moral Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), fn 41 for a representative list of philosophers who conceptualise character traits as dispositions. Doris, John, in his Lack of Character (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), along with other ‘situationists’, expresses scepticism about character traits. I can put aside that debate because their target is ‘robust’ rather than ‘local’ character traits and my argument requires accepting merely the latter.

4 The precise character of these explanations is a controversial issue. For a discussion see McKitrick, ‘A Defence of the Causal Efficacy of Dispositions’ and ‘Are Dispositions Causally Relevant?’, Synthese 144 (2005), 357371 .

5 Mumford and Anjum, for example, claim that ‘we have different terms for dispositions with different features, for instance, “tendency” (for dispositions with a frequent or reliable manifestation); “ability” (dispositions that it is an advantage to have); “liabilities” (a disadvantage)’. ( Mumford, S. and Anjum, R. Getting Causation from Powers, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011: 4 ).

6 See e.g. Fara, M., ‘Dispositions and Habituals’ , Noûs 39 (2005), 4382 and Hacker, P., Human Nature: The Categorial Framework, (Oxford: Wylie Blackwell, 2007), esp. ch.4 Vetter says that ‘is disposed to’ is a sort of technical sense in these debates, and we should not to be misled by its ordinary connotations which is either something like ‘is willing to’ or, ‘has a passing tendency to’ with no grounding on the individual's intrinsic features. With plural subjects, she adds, it also expresses ‘statistical correlation’ (Vetter, Potentiality. From Dispositions to Modality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 67 ).

7 As Molnar, following Elizabeth Prior (1985), says ‘“disposition” and “potential” (in Aristotle's sense) are philosophers’ artefacts’ ( Molnar, , Powers. A Study in Metaphysics Oxford: (Oxford University Press, 2003), 57 ).

8 Molnar, Powers, 57, 60. Molnar lists five features which he says are defining of what he calls ‘the family of dispositional properties’; the remaining three being: ‘Actuality’, ‘Intrinsicality’ and ‘Objectivity’. See Molnar, Powers, chs 3–7 for further details. I shall put aside Molnar's somewhat controversial claim that we should understand directedness as a kind of physical intentionality, i.e. that ‘something very much like intentionality is a pervasive and ineliminable feature of the physical world’, Molnar, Powers, 62.

9 Cross, What is a DispositionSynthese 144 (2005) 321341, 322.

10 Choi, Sungho and Fara, Michael, ‘Dispositions’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), URL = <>. See also Mumford, Dispositions, 21; and Mumford and Anjun Getting Causes from Powers, 5: ‘a disposition or power … may nevertheless still exit unmanifested’.

11 Occurrences that change those intrinsic properties of a thing that constitute the relevant power are ‘finks’. There are also ‘reverse’-finks (see Martin, The Mind in Nature.)

12 For discussion see, Bird, A., ‘Dispositions and Antidotes’, The Philosophical Quarterly 48 (1998), 227234 ; Choi, S., ‘Improving Bird's Antidotes’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 81 (2003) 573580 ; Johnston, M., ‘How to Speak of the Colours’, Philosophical Studies, 68(3) (1992): 221263 ; Lewis, ‘Finkish Dispositions’; Martin, The Mind in Nature; Molnar, Powers, 83ff.; Manley, D. & Wasserman, R., ‘On Linking Dispositions and Conditionals’, Mind 117 (2008), 5984 and Dispositions, Conditionals, and Counterexamples’, Mind 120 (2011), 11911227 ; and Vetter, Potentiality, 35ff. – to give just a representative sample of the debate.

13 Johnston, ‘How to Speak of the Colours’, 233.

14 Quia est in eo /Vertus dormitiva,/ Cujus eat natura/ Sensus assoupire (Le Malade Imaginaire).

15 See Mumford, Dispositions, 136ff. for further discussion.

16 Which raises the question whether ‘science finds dispositional properties all the way down’, Blackburn, S., ‘Filling in Space’, Analysis 50 (1990), 6265, 63, quoted by Vetter, Potentiality 8. See also Mumford Dispositions; Molnar Powers and Bird Nature's Metaphysics: Laws and Properties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and, relatedly, the question whether all dispositions have categorial basis, on which, see, e.g., McKitrick, J.The Bare Metaphysical Possibility of Bare Dispositions’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66 (2003), 349369 and Mumford, S., ‘The Ungrounded Argument’, Synthese 149 (2006), 471489 .

17 Some of the main contributions to these debates are Bird, Nature's Metaphysics: Fara, ‘Dispositions and Habituals’ Lewis, D., ‘Finkish Dispositions’, The Philosophical Quarterly 47 (1997), 143158 ; Martin, The Mind in Nature; Molnar, Powers; Mumford, Dispositions; Prior, E.W., Pargeter, R., Jackson, F., ‘Three Theses about Dispositions’, American Philosophical Quarterly 19(3) (1982), 251–57; Vetter, Potentiality. See also Marmodoro, A. (ed.), The Metaphysics of Powers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

18 For an analysis of character traits that is consistent with this view and sees them as ‘patterned dispositions distinct from garden-variety, instrumentally bundled sets of beliefs and desires’ see Butler, D., ‘Character Traits in Explanation’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 49(2) (1988), 215238 .

19 I should say the behaviour must be ‘permeated’ by the right inner phenomena. However, I am here trying to remain neutral on whether the interrelations between inner and outer manifestations should be understood causally: the inner causes the outer; or – as I think is right – in terms of internal, non-contingent relations.

20 On what seem the most plausible conceptions of virtue, in order for you to act virtuously, it is not just enough to do the right thing but you must to do it for the right reasons and having the appropriate desires, feelings and emotions. As Aristotle puts it, ‘moral excellence is a state concerned with choice, and choice is deliberate desire, therefore both the reasoning must be true and the desire right, if the choice is to be good, and the latter must pursue just what the former asserts’ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1139a 22–25). I shall have to leave aside the complications introduced by Aristotle's highly demanding conception of virtue and of the unity of the virtues.

21 This view is defended by Hampshire, S. in ‘Dispositions’, Analysis, 14 (1953), 511 , esp. 6. It is also endorsed, though expressed differently by Hacker, Human Nature, ch.4.

22 In my paper ‘Desires, Dispositions and the Explanation of Action’ in The Nature of Desire, Deonna, J. and Lauria, F. (eds) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2016), I argue that desires are also manifestation-dependent dispositions.

23 C. Miller, Character and Moral Psychology, 19ff. Miller is criticising the so-called ‘summary view’ of character traits which shares the claim of Dependence with my view. I do not, however, endorse the reductive account that some defenders of that view seem to endorse – for details and references see Miller,18ff. In this context, if should be noted that Dependence is not the claim that you only have the trait while you manifest it; it is, rather, that you don't have it unless you've manifested it in some way, which is consistent with thinking of character traits as dispositional.

24 Mumford Dispositions, 8, considers the possibility described by Wright, A in ‘Dispositions, Anti-Realism and Empiricism’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 91 (1988), of someone who has never been in the circumstances to act bravely, or has but was ‘drunk or affected by food additives’. Mumford admits that there would be a question as to what ‘such a person's bravery consists in’ and asks rhetorically whether there is a fact of the matter in this case. I think that the answers is that the person is not brave although it may be true that she would have been brave, had she not been incapacitated or had she found herself in the right circumstances.

25 Brandt's target is certain related claims made by W.P. Alston in ‘Toward a Logical Geography of Personality: Traits and Deeper Lying Personality Characteristics’, in Kiefer, H.E & Munitz, M.K. (eds), Mind, Science and History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1970) 5992 .

26 It is worth asking what evidence Brandt thinks would be relevant here. And it seems that the only relevant evidence would be manifestations of characteristics that the person has displayed whether in action or in psychological tests, such as fearlessness, independence, integrity, etc., that are suitably related to courage, which again supports Dependence.

27 For a discussion of motives and their role in action explanation, see my Kinds of Reasons (Oxford: Oxford University press, 2010), sections 3.1.1 and 6.4.

28 Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 89.

29 For further discussion, see Alvarez ‘Ryle on Motives and Dispositions’, Ryle on Mind and Language, Dolby, D. (ed.), (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), 7496 .

30 Although it is also true that if, after the incident, the person doesn't ever again display any signs of courage, then it is doubtful that they really are courageous, rather than that they were courageously on that occasion, which reinforces dependence. For an interesting discussion of these issues see, Powell, B., ‘Uncharacteristic Actions’, Mind 68 (1959), 492509 , where she also endorses Dependence though not under that name.

31 See Vetter Potentiality, §2.4 for a discussion of the issue of degrees of dispositions in general. Aristotelian ‘virtues’ do not seem to admit of degrees as I am suggesting – an interesting complexity that I cannot examine here.

32 This is an important reason why relying on national, gender, racial, ethnic, etc. stereotypes concerning character traits in order to judge individuals is at best perilous. It is not just that the statistical regularities on which the stereotypes are based are often deeply flawed but also that, even if they were accurate, attribution of a trait to a particular person still requires manifestation of the trait by the person.

33 A different question is what conditions are needed for the acquisition of character traits but I cannot discuss that here.

34 It is interesting to note in this context that Hampshire takes Dependence and related features of character traits to be grounds for arguing that they are dispositions, unlike what he calls ‘descriptions of the causal properties of things – e.g. “electrically charged”, “magnetised”, “soluble in aqua regia”’ (‘Dispositions’, 7), that is, the paradigmatic dispositions of contemporary philosophers!

35 I do not mean that character traits, or psychological dispositions in general, are the only dispositions that display all or some of these features. At least some of the dispositional terms applied to some artefacts, such as being unreliable or ‘temperamental’, are similar in this respect but I do not have space to explore this here.

36 Versions of this paper were presented at research seminars at Edinburg, King's College London, Essex, Zurich, the May 2016 ‘Ascription, Causation and the Mind Workshop’ at the University of Utrecht, and at the 2016 UNC/KCL Workshop on Explanation, as well as at the RIP Lecture Series on ‘Action’, 2016–17. I thank organisers and participants for their very helpful comments. Work on this paper was carried out during my tenure of a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship and I thank the Trust for the award of the Fellowship.


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