Crawford L. Elder

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy, U-1054
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT 06269-1054
Office: 232 Manchester Hall
Phone: (860) 486-3659


Research Interests

Metaphysics, philosophy of mind.

My research has, for the past twenty years, centered on articulating an ontology capable of explaining the cognitive successes scored by ordinary people using common sense and familiar sciences—not just physics, but also, say, cell biology and population genetics and psychology and linguistics. Basically this has amounted to defending realism about a wide range of familiar objects. Most recently I’ve been exercised by some issues in the philosophy of time. I think that in our ontology we should take seriously the common-sense idea that many material objects undergo alterations: one and the same material thing first has one accidental property, and later drops it for some contrary accidental property. But at the same time I think there are powerful reasons for preferring Eternalism over Presentism or any other view that endorses Passage. I’ve recently been exploring ways to reconcile these two apparently inconsistent positions.

Recently-published book, Cambridge University Press (2011): Familiar Objects and Their Shadows. For a one-paragraph blurb, click here; for a longer sketch, click here.

REPLIES TO REVIEWS of Familiar Objects and Their Shadows

SEE ALSO NEW PRESENTATION of one central argument.

Earlier book, MIT (2004): Real Natures and Familiar Objects

This book argues that there really are in the world at least many of the medium-sized objects that common sense believes in.  There are dogs and trees, quartz crystals and snowflakes, screwdrivers and desk chairs.  The book defends this position against challenges from conventionalism, causal exclusion arguments, and sorites arguments.

For a precis, click here.

Online Papers:  

"On the Reality and Causal Efficacy of Familiar Objects," Philosophia, forthcoming. (What is posted here is the penultimate draft.) The final publication is available at

“Biological Species Are Natural Kinds”, Southern Journal of Philosophy, 46, fall 2008.  Click here for an abstract.

" The Alleged Supervenience of Everything on Microphysics ", Croatian Journal of Philosophy, forthcoming. Click here for an abstract.

"Millikan, Realism, and Sameness" (Director’s Cut).  A slightly shorter version of this paper will appear in Justine Kingsbury, Dan Ryder, and Ken Williford, eds., Millikan and her Critics (Oxford: Blackwell, forthcoming).

"Realism and the Problem of Infimae Species," American Philosophical Quarterly, 44 (2007), pp. 111-27. Click here for an abstract.

"Conventionalism and Realism-Imitating Counterfactuals," Philosophical Quarterly, 56 (2006), pp. 1-15. Click here for an abstract.If you would like to get a pdf file that presents the paper in exactly its published form, please email me your request. (Blackwell does not permit me to simply post the pdf online.)

"Conventionalism and the World as Bare-Sense Data", Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 85 (2007), pp. 261-75. Click for an abstract. If you would like a pdf that presents the paper in exactly its published form, please email me your request.

"Undercutting the Idea of Carving Reality," Southern Journal of Philosophy, 43 (2005), pp. 41-59.  Click for an abstract.     

"Kripkean Externalism versus Conceptual Analysis," Facta Philosophica, 5 (2003), pp. 75-86. Click for an abstract .

"Alexander's Dictum and the Reality of Familiar Objects," Topoi, (2003), pp. 163-71.  Click for an abstract .

"Destruction, Alteration, Simples and World-Stuff," Philosophical Quarterly, 53 (2003), pp. 24-38. Click for an abstract.

"Mental Causation versus Physical Causation: No Contest," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 62 (2001), pp. 111-127. Click for an abstract.

"Physicalism and the Fallacy of Composition," Philosophical Quarterly, 50 (2000), pp. 332-43. Click for an abstract.

"Ontology and Realism about Modality," Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 77(1999), pp. 292-302. Made available by the kind permission of Oxford University Press, which asks that I invite you to visit the AJP website. Click for an abstract.

"What versus How in Naturally Selected Representations," Mind, 107 (1998), pp. 349-63. Made available by the kind permission of Oxford University Press, which asks that I invite you to visit the Mind website. Click to see an abstract.

"Essential Properties and Coinciding Objects", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 58 (1998), 317-331. Click to see an abstract.

"What Sensory Signals are About," Analysis, July 1998. Please click here for the paper.

Almost-Online Papers:  

If you'd like to see a draft of any of these papers, just email me.

"Against Universal Mereological Composition", dialectica, 62(2008), pp. 433-54. Click here for an abstract. An earlier draft of this paper is posted here.

"Carving up a Reality in which There are No Joints", in Steven D. Hales, ed., A Companion to Relativism (Oxford: Blackwell, forthcoming).

"On the Phenomenon of 'Dog-Wise Arrangement'," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, January 2007. Click here for an abstract.

"On the Place of Artifacts in Ontology," forthcoming in Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence, eds., Creations of the Mind: Essays on Artifacts and their Representation (Oxford University Press, 2007). Click here for an abstract.

"Contrariety and the Individuation of Properties," American Philosophical Quarterly, 38(2001), pp. 249-59. Click here for an abstract.

"The Problem of Harmonizing Laws," Philosophical Studies, 105 (2001), pp. 25-41. Click for an abstract.

"Materialism and the Mediated Causation of Behavior," Philosophical Studies, 103(2001), pp. 165-75. Click for an abstract.

"Familiar Objects and the Sorites of Decomposition," American Philosophical Quarterly, 37 (2000), pp. 79-89. Click here for an abstract.

For abstracts of other papers that might be of interest, click on the title.

"On the Reality of Medium-Sized Objects"

"Contrariety and 'Carving Up Reality'"

"Content and the Subtle Extensionality of '...Explains..."

"Realism and Determinable Properties"

"A Different Kind of Natural Kind"


Curriculum Vitae:  

My first few papers explored contributions Hegel has to make to metaphysics. My idea at the time was that Hegel was a realist, and offered a far richer realism than anyone else. I then decided that Hegel's teachings on how our various concepts connect up with one another don't eo ipso tell us anything about how the world is. I started doing Hegel-free metaphysics. Life has its cycles, however, and in my forthcoming book I return to doing somewhat Hegelian metaphysics. For details, click here .

Courses taught

Undergraduate: Metaphysics and Epistemology, Ancient Philosophy, Contemporary Marxism and its Foundation, sometimes Phenomenology, sometimes an introductory course called Philosophy and Social Ethics.

Graduate: Kant; Metaphysics  


Abstract of “On the Phenomenon of ‘Dog-Wise Arrangement’”

Crawford L. Elder

A widely influential line of thought in metaphysics holds that where common sense discerns a tree or a dog or a baseball there may be just many, many microparticles. Provided the microparticles were arranged in the right way—provided they were “treewise” or “dogwise” or “baseballwise” arranged—our sensory experiences would be just the same as if a tree or dog or baseball were really there. Therefore the question whether there really are such familiar objects in the world can be decided only by determining what more is needed for microparticles that are dogwise arranged actually to compose a dog—and by determining whether that “more” obtains in the world. This paper argues that this line of thought sets up the wrong agenda in metaphysics. Composition is trivial; dogwise (etc.) arrangement is tricky. Dogwise arrangement will obtain in the wrong regions unless we stipulate that there are dogs, and that dogwise arrangement obtains only within their borders. The bearers of dogwise arrangement, moreover, will have to be dogs themselves, not their component microparticles. Thus once one allows that there obtains in the world dogwise arrangement, it is far too late to ask whether there really are in the world dogs.


Abstract of "Realism and the Problem of Infimae Species"

Crawford L. Elder

Modal conventionalists hold that sameness in kind rests on our conventions for individuating nature’s kinds, and that numerical sameness across time rests on our conventions for individuating members of the kinds. Realist opponents have for thirty years argued forcefully against the first claim, but only weakly and rarely against the second. This paper identifies a reason for the reticence, and undertakes to dispel it. The reason: if there are mind-independent persistence conditions for the objects of nature, they derive largely from the membership-conditions for natural kinds to which those objects belong—but a particular object can, it seems, belong to two natural kinds, one more specific and one more general. If so, then incompatible persistence-conditions will attach to that object. This paper argues that the hardest such challenges come from recognizing kinds that are too specific to qualify as natural kinds at all, by the realist’s own lights.



Kripkean Externalism versus Conceptual Analysis

Crawford L. Elder

Does Naming and Necessity show that we have no useful a priori knowledge about the reference of rigid designators in science and philosophy?  Jackson and Chalmers answer No:  Kripke shows only that the C-extension of a rigid designator is an empirical question, but any rigid designator has also its A-extension, and we know of it a priori.  But what is A-extension?  Supposedly, a dimension of extension which diverges from C-extension only at non-actual worlds, and only when these worlds are treated as being actual.  This sounds contradictory.  This paper argues that it does reflect a confusion--the confusion of seeing non-actual worlds as separated spatially, not modally, from the actual world.  We have indeed no useful a priori knowledge concerning the reference of rigid designators.  The externalism of Naming and Necessity does raise puzzles--but they are removed by Millikan's naturalized account of concepts.

Alexander's Dictum and the Reality of Familiar Objects

Crawford L. Elder

Alexander's Dictum--"to be is to have causal powers"--appears to furnish an argument against the reality of familiar medium-sized objects. For every time a familiar object appears to cause a familiar macro-event, it sets up a rival claim by its component microparticles to have caused the complex swarm of microphysical events that composes into that macro-event. But this argument, argues this paper, wrongly assumes that even after familiar objects are removed from the picture, there is a phenomenon of joint causation which unites all and only the microparticles within each familiar object.

Destruction, Alteration, Simples and World-Stuff

Crawford L. Elder

When a tree is chopped to bits, or a sweater unraveled, its matter still exists.  It sometimes is inferred--the inference is indeed ancient--that nothing really has been destroyed; what has happened is just that this matter has assumed new form.  Contemporary versions hold that apparent destruction of a familiar object is just rearrangement of microparticles or "physical simples" or "world-stuff".  But if destruction of a familiar object is genuinely to be reduced to mere alteration of something else, we must find an alteration proper to the career, the course of existence, of this something else; relatedly, the alteration must be characterizable without asserting the existence of the familiar object.  All contemporary views fail one of these requirements.

What vs. How in Naturally Selected Representations

Crawford L. Elder

Empty judgements appear to be about something, and inaccurate judgements to report something. Naturalism tries to explain these appearances without positing non-real objects or states of affairs. Biological naturalism explains that the false and the empty are tokens which fail to perform the function proper to their biological type. But if truth is a biological "supposed to", we should expect designs that achieve it only often enough. The sensory stimuli which trigger the frog's gulp-launching signal may be a poor guide to the signal's content. Teleosemantics should be anti-verificationist.]

Essential Properties and Coinciding Objects

Crawford L. Elder

How can a parcel of matter, or collection of particles, simultaneously compose three different objects, characterized by different modal properties? If the statue is gouged it still exists, but not exactly that piece of gold which originally occupied the statue's borders, and the (mass of) gold within that piece can survive dispersal, while the piece cannot. The solution to this "problem of coinciding objects", this paper argues, is that there is, in that space, only the statue. The properties which the piece and the mass supposedly must have, to go on being, are not properties which anything can have necessarily or essentially. Not even "having that origin" can be essential. There is no object of which the statue is composed, though there are objects (viz., gold atoms) and a kind of stuff (viz., gold) of which it is composed.

Conventionalism and Realism-Imitating Counterfactuals

Crawford L. Elder

Historically, opponents of realism have managed to slip under a key objection that realists raise against them.  The opponents say that some element of the world is constructed by our cognitive practices; realists retort that the element would have existed, unaltered, had our practices differed; the opponents sometimes agree, contending that we construct in just such a way as to render the counterfactual true.  The contemporary installment of this debate starts with conventionalism about modality, which holds that the borders of the worlds kinds and the careers of individuals in those kinds obtain only relative to our conventions of individuation.  Realists charge that the kinds and careers in nature would still have obtained, had our conventions been different, but conventionalists claim to be able to agree.  This paper argues that the claim is false, and that conventionalism contradicts itself.

On the Place of Artifacts in Ontology

Crawford L. Elder 

If a desk is crushed, should ontology say that an object has been destroyed, or merely that the matter of the desk has gotten re-arranged?  It depends on whether the desk has essential properties different from those of the matter.  This paper argues that artifacts of many kinds are distinguished from what composes them by properties that are essential by the standard tests for essentialness.  If argon atoms, water, and stars have essential properties, so do many artifacts.  Further, ontology must put artifacts in the same category as customs and conventions.  So anyone claiming artifacts are merely our projections must say that the customs which cause the projecting are equally unreal--an incoherent position.

Mental Causation versus Physical Causation: No Contest

Crawford L. Elder

Common sense supposes thoughts can cause bodily movements and thereby cause changes in where the agent is or how his surroundings are. Many philosophers suppose that any such outcome is realized in a complex state of affairs involving only microparticles; that previous microphysical developments were sufficient to cause that state of affairs; hence that, barring overdetermination, causation by the mental is excluded. This paper argues that the microphysical swarm that realizes the outcome is an accident (Aristotle) or a coincidence (David Owens) and has no cause, though each component movement in it has one. Mental causation faces no competition "from below".

Ontology and Realism about Modality

Crawford L. Elder

A philosopher who thinks substantive necessities obtain in re, this paper argues, need not believe in non-actual worlds, or maximal consistent sets of propositions, but merely in properties. For most properties, on even the sparsest property realism, are flanked by contraries with which they cannot be co-instantiated. True, Armstrong has shown that the impossibility that a property bearer should bear each of two contraries is sometimes just the impossibility that the bearer should be identical with its own proper part-hence is no substantive impossibility. But for many genuine contraries Armstrong's analysis fails; their incompatibility cannot be reduced to facts of identity. The main examples are dispositional properties, so the paper also argues that being dispositional is no bar to a property's being real in its own right.]

Physicalism and the Fallacy of Composition

Crawford L. Elder

Physicalism, as in this paper, holds that every instance of causation reported by the special sciences is shadowed, even rivaled, by causation at the level of microphysics. The reported "cause" is embodied in one massive collection of microparticle events; the "effect" in another; the former brings about the latter by laws of physics. This paper argues that while individual events in the "cause" collection bring about individual events in the "effect" collection, it does not follow, and is unbelievable, that the "cause" collection itself brings anything about. Causings reported by the special sciences can be traced only at that level.

Familiar Objects and the Sorites of Decomposition

Crawford L. Elder

Familiar objects (e.g. bicycles, trees) appear to be compositionally vague-removal of a single atom leaves the object still existing. Should we conclude, via sorites reasoning, that such objects do not really exist? Or follow "epistemic" theorists of vagueness, and dispute the appearance-asserting rather that there is a precise point at which a minute removal destroys? Neither. The real reason why removing one atom does not destroy doubles as a reason why removing many does. So compositional vagueness invites no sorites. Moreover, if the epistemic position were true, it would entail, not prevent, the conclusion of non-existence.

Undercutting the Idea of Carving Reality

Crawford L. Elder

Many philosophers suppose that sameness and difference, among the world's objects, obtain only relative to our conventions for individuation, our conceptual scheme, etc.  That two objects are the same in kind, or that one object is the same object as existed earlier, are not fixed mind-independently.  The usual premise is that schemes for 'carving' objects out of the world quite different from our actual scheme could afford us equal success in practice and theory.  This paper examines typical examples of such 'strange' objects and argues that the prediction of equal success is not believable.

Contrariety and the Individuation of Properties

Crawford L. Elder

When do different predicates pick out the same property, and when does one predicate pick out different properties? how are properties individuated? This paper addresses that question from the standpoint of property-realism. But property-realists have standardly seen properties as what ground resemblances among their bearers. This paper takes properties as what ground contrasts between their bearers and other objects. A property's identity lies in its differing to different degrees from its proper contraries, in other words, lies in its place in a contrary-space. The standard view locates a property"s identity in what it is like in itself. This either leads to a vicious regress (e.g. Shoemaker), or makes property-identity untraceable and without consequence (e.g. Robinson, Armstrong). Individuation via contraries avoids these problems and moreover implies interesting results, e.g. that there are no conjunctive properties.

The Problem of Harmonizing Laws

Crawford L. Elder

More laws obtain in the world, it appears, than just those of microphysics--e.g., laws of genetics, perceptual psychology, economics. This paper assumes there indeed are laws in the special sciences, and not just scrambled versions of microphysical laws. Yet the objects which obey them are composed wholly of microparticles. How can the microparticles in such an object lawfully do more than what is required of them by the laws of microphysics? Are there additional laws for microparticles--which seems to violate closure of microphysics--or is the "more" a coincidental outcome of microphysics itself? This paper argues that the appearance of violation is illusory, and the worry about coincidence misleading. We cannot expect to understand the special sciences at the level of the microparticles.

Materialism and the Mediated Causation of Behavior

Crawford L. Elder

Are judgments and wishes really brain events (or brain states) which will be affirmed by a completed scientific account of how human behavior is caused? Materialists, other than eliminativists, say yes. But brain events do not cause muscle contractions, hence, bodily movements, directly. They do so, if at all, by triggering intermediate causes, viz. firings in motor nerves. So it is crucial, this paper argues, whether they are characterized as biological events--performances of naturally-selected-for operations--or instead as complex microphysical events. "A causes B, B causes C, so A causes C" is defensible for biological brain events, but fails for microphysical ones.

On the Reality of Medium-Sized Objects

Crawford L. Elder

Defending the reality of the medium-sized objects posited by common sense requires, as recently noted, the difficult claim that there is in the world vagueness. This paper that we have deeper reasons for braving the difficulties than mere nostalgia for common sense. Legitimate sciences run inductions over various kinds of medium-sized objects, telling us what they are like by nature. Specifically, sciences warrantedly run inductions over "copied kinds". These are essentially characterized by historical features, e.g., proper functions. The eagle's eye and the zipper are examples. But individual organisms are not; van Inwagen's ontology goes wrong here.

Contrariety and 'Carving Up Reality'

Crawford L. Elder

Many philosophers see little need to "carve reality at the joints"; there are innumerable ways one can carve and still end up with slices of reality. Or, without metaphor: predicates which appear disjunctive or "strange" pick out properties as real as those our familiar predicates pick out. For use of such predicates could afford us all the mastery of the world we currently have. This paper argues to the contrary. Familiar predicates work because, as evidence attests, they pick out properties that fall into contrary ranges. The "strange" predicates would not; in consequence, using them would not afford mastery.

Content and the Subtle Extensionality of '...Explains..'

Crawford L. Elder

Evolutionary theories of content hold that representations are products of biological devices, and that both "that" the products represent, and "what" they represent are functions of the history of the biological devices: what is crucial is what "causally explains" the fact that past tokens of those devices got copied, yielding the present tokens. So some facts about "what explains what" must be fixed independently of there being representations and independently of how those facts are represented. This paper argues that while "...causally explains..." is not fully extensional, it is extensional enough to validate this presupposition. And it is not "so" extensional that evolutionary theories leave indeterminacy of content.

Conventionalism and the World as Bare Sense-Data

Crawford L. Elder

We are confident of many of the judgements we make as to what sorts of alterations the members of nature’s kinds can survive, and what sorts of events mark the ends of their existences. But is our confidence based on empirical observation of nature’s kinds and their members? Conventionalists deny that we can learn empirically which properties are essential to the members of nature’s kinds. Judgements of sameness in kind between members, and of numerical sameness of a member across time, merely project our conventions of individuation. Our confidence is warranted because apart from those conventions there are no phenomena of kind-sameness or of numerical sameness across time. There is just “stuff” displaying properties. This paper argues that conventionalists can assign no properties to the “stuff” beyond immediate phenomenal properties. Consequently they cannot explain how each of us comes to be able to wield “our conventions”.


Realism and Determinable Properties

Crawford L. Elder

Realists about properties typically see dangers in maintaining that, corresponding to determinable "predicates", there exist determinable "properties"; they typically deny there are any determinable properties. Thus the only real properties are precisely delineated ones, which ordinary language rarely equips us to pick out individually. This paper argues property realists need not take so extreme a position. The dangers infect only one form of "determinable property"--those which, if real, would lack contrary opposites (e.g., being colored, having mass). There are also "determinable properties" which do have contrary opposites--e.g., being blue, being painful--and these property realists should recognize as real.

A Different Kind of Natural Kind

Crawford L. Elder

Natural kinds are groupings over which we can run inductions with nonaccidental success. But "why" are the members reliably the same? On the traditional conception of natural kinds, members share a distinctive microstructure which, thanks to the laws of nature, grounds further commonalities. But we seem reliably to run inductions over many groupings, for membership in which microstructure is neither necessary nor sufficient (e.g., traits of species). This paper advances a supplementary conception of natural kinds. The members are copied from previous members under selective pressure, and the environment which does the selecting is responsible for the commonalities.