What are Dispositions?9 min read

A recurrent theme in previous posts is that social scientists have a lot to gain by replacing belief-desire psychology as an explanatory framework with a dispositional theory of the mental. As I argued before, it is something that we already do and has a good pedigree in social theory.

The notion of disposition has had a somewhat checkered history in sociological theory. It was central to Bourdieu’s definition of one of his core concepts (habitus) and played a central role in his scheme (Bourdieu defined habitus as a “system” of dispositions). Yet, American sociologists seldom use the notion in a generative way. I want to propose here that it should be a (if not the) central notion in any coherent action theory.

Dispositional explanations of action are not philosophically neutral because they make strong assumptions about the linkage between the capacities presumed to be embodied in agents and our ability to make sense of their actions. This is a good thing since a lot of action theories are not explicit as to their commitments. For instance, a dispositional account has to presuppose that the fact we can make sense of other people’s actions (e.g. when skilfully playing the role of folk psychologists) is itself a manifestation of a disposition, which may or may not manifest itself (sometimes we make sense of other people’s actions by taking other stances that are not folk psychological). In this respect, a dispositional account of action is one that must refer to an unobserved process which is only available via its overt manifestations. Because of this, dispositional explanations must deal with some unique conceptual and philosophical challenges (Turner 2007).

I outline some of these in what follows.

First, a dispositional explanation of action is consistent with a realist, capacities-based account of causation and causal powers. One useful such account has been referred to as “dispositional realism.” According to Borghini and Williams (2008, 23), dispositional realism “refers to any theory of dispositions that claims an object has a disposition in virtue of some state or property of the object.”

In addition, the fact that dispositions are properties possessed by their bearers entails that observing an overt manifestation of a disposition suffices to conclude that the agent possesses that disposition. However, the reverse is not the case. Dispositions may fail to manifest themselves even when their conditions for manifestation obtain (Fara 2005: 42). So not observing an action or profession of belief does not indicate the agent lacks the disposition to behave like X or believe X.

For sociologists, whose “objects” are people, this last statement entails for instance, that we can ascribe dispositions to people in the absence of any overt manifestation (e.g. dispositions to believe), and that this ascription is therefore partially independent from any single present (or past) situation in which we may have observed the agent. For instance, we may be familiar with the causal history experienced by the person, know that certain causal histories result in the acquisition of certain dispositions, and thus ascribe dispositions based on our familiarity with a person’s causal history before we see any of their manifestations.

Second, dispositions are causally relevant to their manifestations (Fara 2005, 44). In most settings to say  an agent has a disposition (D) to take a given intentional stance (belief, desire) towards propositional content Y, or to engage in action W in context C is to say D suffices to produce that intentional stance or that action in that context.

Third, dispositions are properties of the person, not properties of “the situation” or some external environmental feature. This is not say situations don’t have properties. It is to say, however, that in order for a situational property to apply to the explanation of action, we must presume the agent has a disposition to react in such-and-such a way to that situational property. Environments and situations have no free-standing causal powers in determining action. Any environmental effect has to be mediated by the dispositions to act and react that the agent is taken to possess (Cervone 1997).

This also entails that dispositions have bases, but the dispositions are not reducible to some non-dispositional substrate. Dispositional properties are irreducibly dispositional. Dispositions are not holistic glosses over behavior that could be realizable over “wildly disjunctive” set of underlying substrates. Instead, a dispositional ascription is an inherently ontological claim: something exists (the disposition) the causal power of which is responsible for the overt behavioral manifestation in question.

Do dispositions entail conditionals? A popular philosophical view defines a disposition as those properties of objects or persons that entail a conditional statement. For instance, the disposition “fragile” ascribed to a cup entails the condition “would break if struck by a sufficiently rigid object.” Here I follow Fara (2005) in noting that the conditional account of dispositions fails for a variety of reasons. We can consider something to be a disposition without referring to what would occur in a possible world or mental space. Instead of conditionals, dispositional ascriptions entail habituals (Fara 2005: 63), thus a dispositional explanation of action is consistent with a habit-based theory of action.

Accordinngly, fourth, dispositional realism entails a rejection of the conditional (e.g. counterfactual) definition of causation for explaining action (Martin 2011). The reason for this is that under conditional accounts the causal potency of dispositions is given a backseat in favor of talk about “the laws of nature, possible worlds, abstract realms, or what have you” (Borghini and Williams 2004: 24). This penchant to substitute talk about fake or possible worlds for talk about this world is the source of various pathological understandings of causality in social science (Martin 2011).

Fifth, when we say an agent has a certain disposition to do Y, we say that the agent does Y because of something inherent in his or her nature. Note that this account is perfectly compatible with the idea that this nature is “acquired.” The notion of something behaving like a natural property of an agent is separable from how is it that that something became part of the agent’s nature (e.g. learning or genetics). Sociologists are sometimes allergic to talking about properties inherent in agents lest they be accused of “essentialism.” Once acquired and locked in via habituation, dispositions can function as “second nature” in which case the provisional and qualified use of so-called “essentialist” language is not misleading.

This view of dispositions, as noted earlier, entails that there are not purely situational or derived properties, such as for instance, “relational properties” floating around unmoored in the ontological ether. This is not say there are no relational properties. Instead, it is to say that relational properties depend on dispositional properties but not the reverse: the capacity of the agent to enter into relations with properties and entities in the environment requires dispositions. This is what the joining of a habitual account of action (which trades on dispositional talk) and a field theory (which trades on relational talk) is not arbitrary but required to deal with the sorts of questions sociologists are disposed to ask (Merriman and Martin 2015).

Sixth, the relationship between a disposition and an overt manifestation is normally one to many. A single disposition may manifest itself as distinct forms of overt behavior or experiences depending on context (Borghini and Williams 2004: 24).

Finally, dispositions may organize themselves into systems of dispositions. Bourdieu thought this was the natural tendency. However, a dispositional explanation of action does not require the assumption of overall systematicity. In fact, the weaker assumption of loose coupling until proven otherwise is more likely to be empirically accurate.

In a follow-up post, I will outline other consequences of adopting a dispositional ontology at the level of the actor.


Borghini, Andrea, and Neil E. Williams. 2008. “A Dispositional Theory of Possibility.” Dialectica 62 (1). Wiley Online Library: 21–41.

Cervone, Daniel. 1997. “Social-Cognitive Mechanisms and Personality Coherence: Self-Knowledge, Situational Beliefs, and Cross-Situational Coherence in Perceived Self-Efficacy.” Psychological Science 8 (1). SAGE Publications Inc: 43–50.

Fara, Michael. 2005. “Dispositions and Habituals.” Nous 39 (1): 43–82.

Martin, John Levi. 2011. The Explanation of Social Action. Oxford University Press.

Merriman, Ben, and John Levi Martin. 2015. “A Social Aesthetics as a General Cultural Sociology?” In Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture, 152–210. Routledge.

Turner, Stephen P. 2007. “Practice Then and Now.” Human Affairs 17 (2): 375.

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