Philosophy Phridays – Abilities

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is about abilities.

Abilities are probably not the sort of thing that most people think of as a topic for philosophy. Most of us have the common sense notion that abilities are things we can do. But, it turns out, there are a lot of objections that can be raised against that common sense notion.

Before getting to the specific objections, philosophers have something to say about the definition of ability. The main point being that an ability seems to be an active thing, in other words, only actors have abilities. Think of it like this, if you drop a glass on a hard surface, it breaks. But it would be odd to say that the glass has the ability to break. Breaking is just something that happens to it. When we talk of abilities, we are talking about things like walking, talking, and playing. Things that we can actively do as opposed to anything that can happen. After some debate, philosophers have arrived at a definition of ability in a conditional statement called the conditional analysis, “S has the ability to A iff S would A if S tried to A.” (For those not used to reading logical statements, S is a subject, A is an action, and iff means ‘if and only if.’)

Now for the objections. One of the biggest is that if determinism is true, there can be no abilities. Or people only have the ability to do things that actually happen. The idea of trying doesn’t work in a determined world. The debate about free will vs. determinism is one of the biggest in philosophy, and is the one of the primary reasons so much has been written about ability. Salvaging the concept of ability would improve the chances of freedom or at least compatibilism.

Another objection to the conditional analysis is that people might occasionally do things which they do not have the ability to do. In other words, dumb luck happens. Someone who has never played darts, and doesn’t even know the rules of darts, might randomly toss a dart and get it to stick in the bullseye. According to the definition, it seems that the person has the ability to throw a bullseye, even though this instance is more like a glass shattering than a repeatable skill.

The next objection is sort of the opposite. What happens we someone fails at the action, if S tries to do A, but does not do A? If that’s the case, the conditional fails, and we’re forced into saying that the person does not have the ability. But does that make sense? If Steph Curry misses a free throw, does it follow that one of the best shooters in NBA history doesn’t have the ability to sink a free throw?

One way to get around these objections is by distinguishing between general and specific abilities. A general ability is being able to do an action regardless of whether the action is practicable at that moment. So, a tennis player has the general ability to serve a ball even when she is not holding a ball or a racket. A specific ability is an ability in that moment, when the tennis player is at the line, with a ball and a racket. It’s basically what actually happens. So, you can say that the lucky dart thrower had the specific ability to hit the bullseye in that moment, but lacks the general ability to hit bullseyes. Similarly, Steph Curry has the general ability to shoot free throws, even though he missed in that one specific instance.

There are other logical and linguistic objections to the conditional analysis, but they get pretty technical, and probably aren’t worth going over here. The bottom line is that the best definition that philosophers can come up with for abilities has problems. So, it’s an unsettled question. That’s why philosophers continue to debate it. But where does that leave the rest of us? I can only offer a pragmatic solution. Treat the definition of ability as good enough. It mostly describes an actual feature of the world, and it will be understood by other speakers of the same language. Sometimes that’s the best we can do.

Maier, John, “Abilities”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

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