Are events particulars?


There is an element of ambiguity in the title question.  Ontology is that branch of metaphysics that attempts to answer, in the most general possible terms, the question what kinds of things exist.  Particulars and universals are the two most commonly acknowledged categories of fundamental existents.  But various ontological theories also include such categories as substances, relations, tropes, events, facts, states-of-affairs, propositions, concepts, among others.  So "particulars" are generally regarded as a fundamental category of existents.  The essay's title question can be viewed as asking whether events should be classed amongst the fundamental category of existents labelled "particulars", or whether they should be otherwise classified - either within an alternative category, or as a category of its own.  The hidden assumption behind the title question, therefore, is that the class of particulars is ontologically fundamental.  The alternative is that the class of "particulars" is, instead, a derivative and non-fundamental classification.  It may be possible, in other words, that despite the subtle implications of the title question, events might be classed as particulars and yet be regarded as non fundamental because the class of particulars is regarded as non-fundamental.

In other words, the apparently simple title question must be understood to be asking four separate but related questions:

(a)    Are there such things as "events"?  (If there are no such things as "events", the essay's title question is, of course, moot.)

(b)    Assuming that events exist, what are events?

(c)    Given that they exist, are events ontologically fundamental existents?

(d)    Given that they exist, and whether or not they are fundamental, are events such that they should be classified along with the other things that we classify as "particulars"?

In this essay, I will attempt to justify my answers that:

(a)    Events do exist.

(b)    Events are concrete particulars that exist in time as opposed to space.

(c)    But they are not ontologically fundamental existents.

(d)    And yet they are such as they should be classified as "particulars", because "particulars" is not an ontologically fundamental category.

The philosophical literature on events contains widely varied opinions as to just what events are, if in fact they exist.  And there are some opinions to the effect that events do not exist.  It is clear from the diverse variety of these opinions that the philosophical community has yet to come to any consensus on the meaning of the word "event".  It is also clear from the literature that one of the driving motives behind the wide variety of these opinions, is a desire for ontological parsimony - a desire to reduce the number of different kinds of fundamental things that exist.  In this respect, the motivation behind my answers to the title questions will interpret "parsimony" in a different light.  In the words of Donald Davidson,

"Clarity is desirable, but parsimony may or may not make for clarity."
                                                                                                         Donald Davidson(1)

In following this thought, my motivation will be clarity in the understanding of the English concept "event", rather than ontological parsimony in the catalogue of fundamental kinds that exist.  It is my own intuition that when philosophers stray too far from the "common sense" (or dictionary of common usage) understanding of common words, they usually err.  As it will turn out, however, I will achieve ontological parsimony as a result.


At a "common sense" level of understanding, of course events exist.  We speak of, and refer to, events all the time.  Ordinary discourse is full of references to events.  From the Big Bang, to the World Cup, to the next election, to the publication of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found Thereby by Lewis Carroll in 1872.  We cannot speak about, or even think of, very much without references to events of various sorts.

"Our language encourages us in the thought that there are, by supplying not only appropriate singular terms, but the full apparatus of definite and indefinite articles, sortal predicates, counting, quantification, and identity-statements; all the machinery, it seems, of reference. If we take this grammar literally, if we accept these expressions and sentences as having the logical form they appear to have, then we are committed to an ontology of events as unrepeatable particulars ("concrete individuals")"                                                   Donald Davidson(2)

"Broadly understood, events are things that happen . . .  things such as births and deaths, thunder and lightening, explosions, weddings, hiccups and hand-waves, dances, smiles, walks. . . . there is little question that human perception, action, language, and thought manifest at least a prima facie commitment to entities of this sort"                  Roberto Casati and Achille Varzi(3).

But the prima facie commitments of language and thought are rarely accepted at face value by philosophers.  Events clearly differ in kind from the regular "furniture of the world".  The latter are said to exist, while events are said to happen, or occur.  Ordinary things occupy space, while events permit co-location.  Events alter the properties and relationships of things.  Things change by taking part in events.  Like things, events have both types and instances.  But unlike things, we don't have convenient one-word terms to designate event types and event instances.  These and other obvious differences have led various philosophers to assume that events are fundamentally different from ordinary objects.

Jaegwon Kim, for example, has proposed that events are not ontologically fundamental, but are instead a complex relation between a property, an object and a time.  He proposes that events are a class of entities that are supervenient on the more fundamental classifications of properties and objects - events are property-exemplifications.  Kim identifies an event as the exemplifying of a property (or n-adic relation) by a concrete object (or n-tuple of objects) at a time.(4)

Roderick Chisholm, as another example, focuses on the fact that many events (like "The next election") seem to recur numerous times, sometimes at numerous places. 

"Any theory of events should be adequate to the fact of recurrence, to the fact that there are some things that recur, or happen more than once.We should also take into account the fact that there are conjunctive events. If an event p occurs while an event q is occurring, then the conjunctive event p & q occurs."                     Roderick Chisholm(5)

He regards events more akin to universals (which can be multiply exemplified) than to particulars (which must be uniquely exemplified).  His view is that for an event to occur is for a "state of affairs" to "obtain".  Hence, in his view, events supervene on the more fundamental category of states-of-affairs.(6)

Terence Horgan, as a third example, argues that the things we call "events" are instead better understood as propositions.  He examines the uses to which events are put by the likes of Davidson, Kim, Goldman and Clark, and concludes that what these authors take to be events can equally be taken to be propositions.  (A proposition is a bearer of truth value which may be an object of thought or some other mental act.)   And since propositions must exist for other reasons, ontological parsimony recommends that we drop the notion of "events" in favour of "propositions".

"Events are usually thought to be the very stuff of causation - the causes and effects themselves. So how can we have causation without positing events or eventlike entities? Davidson, the most explicit defender of events, has himself suggested an answer to this question. In "Causal Relations" he considers the possibility that "causes correspond to sentences rather than singular terms".  . . .By thus representing causal relations with a sentential connective rather than a predicate, we can retain causation while eliminating the need for events."                        Terence Horgan(7)

These are just three of a wide variety of notions on how the concept of "events" is to be best understood.  But in my view, all of these alternative understandings of "events" miss a key aspect that is fundamental to our every-day understanding of events.  And to the extent that these alternatives ignore our common sense intuitions about the concept of an "event", they are talking about something else other than what we call an "events" in English.  Consider that, in our "common sense" understanding of the concept:

(a)    A particular event has a definite spatio-temporal location.  It's boundaries may be more or less vague, but no more so than the boundaries of such concrete existents as Geach's "Tibbles the cat"(8).  Hence, contrary to Horgan, events are concrete existents rather than abstract existents like propositions.

(b)    Specific events are unique existents.  While "the next election" or "The World Cup" may be used to refer to a collection of events (an event-type in philosopher-speak), what we are usually thinking about when we refer to "the next election" or "The World Cup" is a particular event, on a particular day (or other time period), in a particular jurisdiction.  Hence contrary to Chisholm, events are concrete particulars rather than universals.

(c)    Events are ephemeral.  Events take up a (relatively) small amount of time.  They come into being and go out of existence.  Hence characterizing events as Kim does (the instantiation of a property by an object at a time) loses the fundamental intuition that events are dynamic and capture a change in some property (or properties) of an object (or group of objects) over a period of time (or from one time to another).

Common usage, as documented in any number of dictionaries, indicates that the word "event" is used to refer to some thing that occurs or happens.  An occurrence or happening contains a fundamental element of temporal dynamics.  Analyzing our concept of an "event" in terms of such allegedly more ontologically fundamental categories as relations, tropes, facts, states-of-affairs, propositions, or such like, loses the core intuition that events are temporally dynamic entities.

"Recent theories of events have ignored the distinction between events and states, preferring to focus on what may loosely be called relations of composition between events and states, indifferently conceived, and properties, objects, and times.  . . .In my view, events are distinguished from states in virtue of being essentially dynamic. This view locates the difference between events and states in their different existential statuses.. . .  Events are essentially dynamic in the sense that they essentially unfold."                                 Frederick Schmitt(9)

Hence my conclusion that (a) events do exist, and (b) events exist as concrete existents that capture a (temporally dynamic) change in some property (or properties) of an object (or group of objects) over a period of time (or from time to time)


"Particulars" is an ontological category reserved for entities that have attributes.  An attribute is a quality, character, characteristic, or property that is or can be attributed to a thing.  It is part of the definition of a "particular" that particulars have some sort of relationship with attributes, or characteristics.  Exactly how that relationship is described depends on the metaphysical theory one adopts.

What most of these theories accept as given, however, is that particulars exist independently of how we think about them (with the notable exception of Nominalism).  On the basis of a realist characterization of "particulars", events must be regarded as concrete existents that just are there with their properties for us to sense and identify.

But one of the difficulties that this approach creates, is the problem of boundaries.  How is it that we draw the boundaries we do around the particulars - objects or events - we identify.  What is it that renders particular A numerically identical (exactly the same one) as particular B?  Ontologists have come up with all sorts of explanations, the most famous and influential of which is the theory of natural kinds.  This theory maintains that there are "natural kinds" of particulars out there for us to discover, and it is up to us to discover what natural kinds actually exist in the world.  And it is up to the ontologists to provide descriptions of what it is that makes one natural kind different from another.  But the natural kinds theory is a realist conception of particulars (and events).  Nominalists would disagree.  A nominalist theory would argue instead that the kinds that we label are more or less completely arbitrary - a simple matter of linguistic convention.  Yet both approaches leave unresolved the question of what is it that makes that grand oak the same thing as the acorn?   And what is it that makes a heap of sand different from a collection of individual sand grains?

One of the ways that philosophers come to grips with the boundary conditions for a given concept is to specifically delineate the conditions under which two existents are identical.  When it comes to events, for example, Jaegwon Kim maintains that two events are identical when their properties, objects and times are the same.  Roderick Chisholm suggests that two events are identical when they both involve the same state-of-affairs.  Donald Davidson argues that two events are identical only when their causes and effects are the same.  If events are regarded as concrete particulars that capture a (temporally dynamic) change in some property (or properties) of an object (or group of objects) over a period of time (or from one time to another), all of these identity criteria can be seen as acceptable.

However, one of the theories that is neglected in modern philosophical literature, is the Conceptualist theory of particulars.  The conceptualist theory is a nominalist theory with realist boundaries.  It posits that what marks the boundaries of a particular (in space or time) is our current cognitive purpose.  Contrary to the realist approach, particulars do not exist independently of how we think of them.  The boundaries of any given particular (or event) are drawn to suit our current cognitive convenience.  They are not given by the world for us to discover.

If one accepts the principle that "what marks the boundary" of a particular (or, for that matter, a universal), "is our current cognitive purpose", then boundaries can change as our cognitive purpose changes.  There is an extreme reading of this, which one finds in this famous passage:

"In abstract, nothing prevents us from dissecting surrounding material into fragments constructed in a manner completely different from what we are used to. Thus, speaking more simply we could build a world where there would be no such objects as 'horse,' 'leaf,' 'star,' and others allegedly devised by nature. Instead, there might be, for example, such objects as 'half a horse and a piece of river,' 'my ear and the moon,' and other similar products of a surrealist imagination."
                                                                                                                                              Leszek Kolakowski(10)

In abstract we can play any games we please.  But when it comes to dealing with the world around us, and particularly with the interactions we have with others, we have a clear cognitive purpose of cleaving those surroundings in a manner that is most conducive to our ability to anticipate how it will react to us.  This is where Conceptualism differs from Nominalism.  When dealing with the world around us, we have a clear interest in erecting boundaries around portions that are most easily predictable - lest we become lunch rather than enjoying it.  When dealing with other people, we have a clear interest in erecting boundaries in the roughly the same places as do others - lest communications become totally impossible.

One of the corollaries of the Conceptualist theory, however, is that it views particulars as derivative rather than fundamental entities.  The fundamental entity that exists is "The World".  The existence of any specific particular or event within "The World" is dependent on our cognitive purpose in establishing its boundaries.

From the perspective of a Conceptualist, then, "particulars" are parts of the world around which we choose to draw boundaries to most economically meet our need to understand and predict how the world is going to react to our efforts.  "Particulars" are not fundamental mind-independent entities.  "Particulars" - including events - are derivative and somewhat mind-dependent entities.  They exist because and only when we create them by drawing suitable boundaries around parts of the world that concern us.  And we draw the boundaries so as to most economically meet our need to anticipate how the world is going to react to our efforts.


In conclusion then, we have the following:

(a)    Events do exist.  To deny they exist is to subvert the meaning of "event".

(b)    Events exist as complex concrete existents that capture a (temporally dynamic) change in some property (or properties) of an object (or group of objects) over a period of time (or from one time to another).

(c)    If complex material objects can be classed as particulars, events are also amongst the class of concrete particulars.

(d)    Neither particulars nor events are ontologically fundamental entities because their existence and boundaries are both somewhat mind-dependent.


Notes & References

(1)   Davidson, Donald; "Events and Particulars" in NoÃ�sVol. 4, No. 1 (Feb., 1970), pp. 25-32   URL=<>

(2)   Davidson, Donald; "Events and Particulars" in NoÃ�sVol. 4, No. 1 (Feb., 1970), pp. 25-32   URL=<>

(3)   Casati, Roberto and Varzi, Achille, "Events" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>

(4)   Kim, Jaegwon; "Events: Their Metaphysics and Semantics" in Philosophy and Phenomenological ResearchVol. 51, No. 3 (Sep., 1991), pp. 641-646   URL=<>

(5)   Chisholm, Roderick; "Events and Propositions" in NoÃ�sVol. 4, No. 1 (Feb., 1970), pp. 15-24. URL=<>.

(6)   Thalberg, Irving; "The Irreducibility of Events" in AnalysisVol. 38, No. 1 (Jan., 1978), pp. 1-9.  URL=<>.

(7)   Horgan, Terence; "The Case Against Events" in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Jan., 1978), pp. 28-47.  URL=<>.

(8)   The case of Tibbles the cat is Peter Geach's adaptation of a medieval sophisma(puzzle), "Animal est pars animalis."   (See DavidW iggins, "On Being in the Same Place at the Same Time" in The Philosophical Review77 (January 1968) 90-95, pp.94-95.)

(9)   Schmitt, Frederick F.; "Events" in Erkenntnis(1975-)Vol. 20, No. 3 (Nov., 1983), pp. 281-293. URL=<>.

(10)   Kolakowski, Leszek; "Karl Marx and the Classical Definition of Truth" in Toward a Marxist Humanism: Essays on the Left Today, Grove Press (October 1968). ISBN-978-0394172736.


Alston, William P.; "Particulars -- Bare and Qualified" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research,Vol. 15, No. 2 (Dec., 1954), pp. 253-258. URL=<>.

Broackes, Justin & Hacker, Peter; "Substance" in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 78 (2004), pp. 41-63. URL=<>.

Campbell, K. 1990. Abstract Particulars. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 21.

Katz, Bernard D.; "Kim on Events" in The Philosophical ReviewVol. 87, No. 3 (Jul., 1978), pp. 427-441. URL=<>

Levison, Arnold; "Might Events be Propositions?" in Philosophy and Phenomenological ResearchVol. 44, No. 2 (Dec., 1983), pp. 169-188   URL=<>

Locke, John; An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XXIII, Sect 4.

Schmitt, Frederick F.; "Events" in Erkenntnis(1975-) Vol. 20, No. 3 (Nov., 1983), pp. 281-293 URL=<>

Simons, Peter; "Particulars in Particular Clothing: Three Trope Theories of Substance" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 553-575. URL=<>]

Tiles, J.E.; "Davidson's Criterion of Event Identity" in AnalysisVol. 36, No. 4 (Jun., 1976), pp. 185-187.URL=<>

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