On Whether States of Affairs Make Propositions True

By Benjamin Perlin

Abstract: This paper discusses the central argument of A World of States of Affairs by David Armstrong, which is intended to posit states of affairs as fundamental ontological entities. This ‘truth-maker’ argument is intended to conclude that states of affairs are what make propositions true; I explore this position and the response by David Lewis, which is a tentative rejection of Armstrong’s position in favour of a supremely permissive combinatorialism.

The sentence “the sun is bright” expresses a true proposition. What, if anything, makes it true? The tentative answer by D.M. Armstrong, which may be found in his fine A World of States of Affairs is that some state of affairs (a technical term which will be defined), some constituent of a state of affairs, or some combination of these makes such propositions true (assuming that brightness is a property which does not depend on a relation between two or more things). This hypothesis and a response to it by David Lewis will be considered.

Armstrong considers those propositions which have been thought about or stated. Truth attaches to some of these propositions (he does not elaborate this attachment.) It is these truths which states of affairs and their constituents correspond to in the ‘truth-making’1 process. For clarity, truth-makers will be spoken of as corresponding to propositions rather than truths.

Armstrong’s general hypothesis is that states of affairs and their constituents are ontologically exhaustive-there is nothing else. The constituents of states of affairs are particulars (individual things with their properties mentally abstracted from them, as far as this is possible), properties, external relations, and, in the case of higher-order states of affairs, lower-order states of affairs.

‘Constituent’ is used here rather abstractly. For example, properties and relations are types of states of affairs, or universals. The nature of universals will be discussed when we contrast them with particular properties, or tropes. External relations are distinguished from internal relations: those things which are externally related do not necessitate their relationship. ‘The Morning Star’ having the same referent as ‘the Evening Star’ is an external relation; the Morning Star’s identity to the Evening Star is an internal relation.

The necessary and sufficient condition for a state of affairs can now be given: either a particular has a property or, alternatively, there is an external relation between particulars. Every state of affairs and constituent thereof is an actual and contingent part of this world. This is to say that none are merely possible, yet the existence of any is not necessary.

Armstrong seems to assume that truths require something which makes them true. The proposition expressed by “the sun is bright” is not true simpliciter. It will be seen that a state of affairs-the sun’s being bright-is the most probable candidate for making it so. Why does Armstrong perceive this connection between the proposition and this state of affairs? It must be kept in mind that he is, in A World of States of Affairs, influenced by philosophers such as Wittgenstein (in his earlier philosophy) and John Anderson. They held that reality has a propositional structure.

Some propositions require truth-makers; some constituents of states of affairs require an ‘instantiation’:

We are making the venture that the world contains both particulars and universals. It would certainly seem that if this is so, then something is needed to weld them together (Armstrong 114-115)

In the present example, the particular is the sun and the universal which is ‘welded’ to it-which it instantiates-is the property of brightness. This state of affairs does not make the proposition expressed by “the sun is bright” true by a causal process; it is a process unlike making a light turn on by flipping a switch.

The truth-making relation is internal. The necessity of the relation is evident from the proposition “a truth-maker makes its corresponding proposition true.” This proposition is analytic: it cannot be false due to the meaning of its words. Armstrong makes the point in terms of possible worlds. If there is a particular truth-maker for a proposition, then there is no possible world in which the truth-maker exists but the proposition is false.

Armstrong arrives at his hypothesis of states of affairs as truth-makers by evaluating and rejecting less viable candidates. Corresponding to his scheme, we will consider the sun, the pair of the sun and brightness, and a version of trope theory as potential truth-makers of the proposition expressed by “the sun is bright.”

First of all, it is plainly absurd for the sun without any of its properties to be the ontological ground for the sun’s having a property. Secondly, the sun and the property of brightness are not necessarily tied together on Armstrong’s view. There is some possible world in which the pair exists but the sun does not instantiate brightness. Because of this world, it is not necessary-it is not the case in all possible worlds-that the proposition expressed by “the sun is bright” to be made true by the pair of the sun and brightness.

Armstrong is less dismissive of the trope view. Properties and relations have so far been treated as universals. Theories which hold that universals are real may acknowledge their abstract nature in some sense. The sun, a powered light bulb, and any other bright thing have brightness, so we can conceptually abstract this property from these things. But as a universal, brightness exists au)to_n e)n th~ au(tou~ xw&ra as a type of state of affairs. Universals-properties and relations-are entirely present in anything which instantiates them. Furthermore, the brightness of some particular thing is identical to the brightness of something else. The sense of identity which I use is no less strict than self-identity.

The reality of universals can reasonably be denied by a trope theorist. A trope is an instance of a property or relation-the particular brightness of a lamp or the distance between the sun and me at some instant.2 The brightness of a lamp is not identical to the brightness of the sun; they are two different properties.

There are many variants of trope theory. If a pair consisting of a particular and a universal cannot be a truth-maker, can a pair consisting of a particular and an instance of a property? Armstrong immediately rejects those theories which hold that things have tropes contingently. If lamp L1 has brightness B1 contingently, there is a possible world in which they exist independently. The proposition expressed by “L1 has B1” cannot, then, hold an internal relation with the pair L1 and B1.

Trope theories which posit a necessary tie between particulars and their tropes are somewhat reluctantly rejected. Armstrong dislikes the amount of necessity in the world which follows from these theories. If every instance of a property (and, perhaps, every instance of a relation) exists necessarily where it does, we have a world view quite different from Armstrong’s thoroughly contingent-though tentative-ontology.

Armstrong also rejects those trope theories which deny the existence of particulars. Such theories are known as ‘bundle’ theories because particulars are postulated as mere bundles of tropes. The principal problem Armstrong has with such theories is that states of affairs are not purported to be any ontological addition to bundles of tropes. He even considers tropes to be constituents of states of affairs in such circumstances.

States of affairs and their constituents are thus the most likely truth-makers for contingently true propositions. Furthermore, necessarily true propositions-propositions of mathematics and logic, for example-have no truth-makers beyond these entities. A proposition may possess truth from many truth-makers. Consider the proposition expressed by “at least one person exists.” This proposition is made true by each state of affairs wherein a person has those properties which define her as a person. Somebody being rational and somebody being an animal are examples of such states of affairs. Since either of these states of affairs also makes the proposition expressed by “either at least one person exists or the moon is made of cheese” true, there may be many true propositions for a single truth-maker.

David Lewis is disconcerted by an element of necessity in this theory. Consider some particular star and the property of brightness. These constituents are distinct entities. The state of affairs wherein that star is bright is a third distinct entity. Yet if the particular star we have selected has the property of brightness, the state of affairs necessarily exists; if the sun lacks the property of brightness, the state of affairs necessarily does not exist.

Lewis considers these conditions strange for an independent entity. If the state of affairs is an independent entity, it should be able to exist or to not exist, regardless of the particular star, the property of brightness, or any other distinct entity.

This flows from the ontology which Lewis holds, wherein any combination of possibilia is permitted. Possibilia are “wholes and parts admitted by the most permissive sort of mereology” (Lewis, 2004, p. 250). They can actually exist or be merely possible; spatiotemporal regions, force fields, gods, and spooks are all included.

There is thus a tension between states of affairs and the extreme ‘combinatorialism’ which Lewis endorses. Lewis responds by cautioning against using terms of the form ‘the state of affairs wherein A has B’ interchangeably with ‘A has B’ without seriously considering whether the former is distinct from the latter. He never, however, explicitly states that the two have equivalent referents.

Armstrong’s argument for states of affairs is based on the requirement for a truth-maker; Lewis therefore considers this need. He agrees that some part of the world should, seemingly, be a truth-maker for every contingent truth. Whether or not one believes in the reality of universals-and Lewis does not-this intuition is, perhaps, common. It is certainly easy to agree with Lewis that Armstrong’s coherent metaphysic provides a simple and effective solution to a complex problem.

Works Cited

Armstrong, D. M. A World of States of Affairs. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Lewis, David. “The Truthmakers.” Times Literary Supplement 13 Feb. 1998: 30.

Lewis, David. “New Work for a Theory of Universals.” Metaphysics: A Guide and Anthology. Ed. Tim Crane and Katalin Farkas. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 249-261.


1 This term will be frequently used and the quotes will hereafter be dropped.

2 For simplicity and analogy to the present example we will usually consider only those trope theories which allow for the existence of particulars. Armstrong’s analysis is easily extended to trope theories which hold that only tropes exist and that particulars are merely bundles of tropes.

Benjamin Perlin (’09) is a Philosophy major at the University of St. Andrews.

One thought on “On Whether States of Affairs Make Propositions True

  1. I really appreciate this little article you put together! You gave me some great ideas for a metaphysics paper I’m writing.


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