Here is a train of thought I’ve put together inquiring into the nature of properties, with some questions at the end. Comments and recommendations for further reading are welcome.

We usually only consider certain kinds of things as being able to instantiate certain properties. For example, we would never say “snow is a prime number” or “beliefs are cold” or “hockey is tall” on the conventional meanings of these terms, because snow does not have the property of being a number, so it cannot be prime; beliefs are not thermodynamic systems, so they cannot be cold; hockey is not a solid chunk of matter, so it cannot be tall. To do justice to this intuition, I propose the following principle:

Things must have some more basic property in order to instantiate a class of properties associated with that more basic property.

However, despite its intuitive force, I think this principle leads to a problem. Consider the following argument:

  1. Things must have some more basic property in order to instantiate a class of properties associated with that more basic property.
  2. This may lead to a regress, since it could be the thing needs an even more basic property as a prerequisite for instantiating the first basic property, and then another, and so forth. (For example, something may be cold only if it is a thermodynamic systems, but something may be a thermodynamic system only if it is a body of matter.)
  3. Therefore all a thing’s properties must either be fundamental properties or possessed ultimately in virtue of fundamental properties - properties those things have not in virtue of it having any other property. (i.e being a body of matter might be a fundamental property.)

But how do we decide which properties of a thing are fundamental and which ones are not? Could a property be fundamental for one thing but not fundamental for another? If a thing does not have a fundamental property in virtue of another of its properties, then what’s the explanation for why it has that fundamental property?

  • 3
    I suggest you read up on essentialism and natural kinds as well as the corresponding criticism. I do not think that the question, as general as it stands, can be answered properly in this format. Probably, it will solicit opinionated answers.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 1:29
  • "But how do we decide which properties of a thing are fundamental and which ones are not?" We don't, we simply use properties that are useful to us, and if some of them reduce to others so much the better. Such reductions, when possible, can be done in multiple ways with different "fundamentals", mathematicians are fond of it. Based on our current best theories we may choose to designate some properties as primitives for the rest, but that is provisional and partly pragmatic. Force-velocity vs energy-momentum in mechanics is a textbook example.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 7:28

3 Answers 3


A superb question and the easy answer is there may not be such a thing as a fundamental property.

Was it Hume (?) who divided properties into the two classes of primary (essential) and secondary (incidental). I suppose we now enter the domain of essences of things.

Let's take a look at a familiar idea, God. God's omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent. Each of these 3 attributes are necessary i.e. if any of these are absent God ceases to be God. Together, they're sufficient to identify God. God it seems has been defined in terms of His fundamental properties. The color or shape of God aren't God's fundamental properties i.e. God may change them without affecting his divinity.

What about more mundane stuff, like pens, water, persons, etc.? What makes a pen a pen, water water, a person a person?

The same reasoning applies as far as I can tell. For example, a pen must have ink and a nib. Without these a pen is no longer a pen. The color and general shape of pens can vary without affecting a pen's penness.

However, having said that, we have some concepts like life that are extremely difficult to pin down. What are the fundamental properties of life? Are viruses life? Is AI a person? Vagueness is our problem in these cases. Some things populate the grey areas and they scupper taxonomy which is, as we all know, based on fundamental properties.


The area of philosophy here is the primary/secondary properties distinction.

Have a look at: Is the idea that "Everything is energy" even coherent? I'd say 'most fundamental' is equivalent to 'of the aspects which are most universalisable'. So, thermodynamic system is a big category, so that gets quite far into being universal. Our most universal & fundamental picture is energy, & quantum information. Conceptual abstractions are heuristic explanatory overlays, that provide salience landscapes that structure experience usefully, typically by identifying groups of things that persist with time, or have other symmetries or patterns within our experiences.

I see the real problem as being how we group phenomena into 'things', and I see that as needing to be challenged: Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)?


This may lead to a regress

This suggest you think that thos rules it out as a posdibility. However, some philosophies have taken to mean that there are no basic properties. This is what sunyata in Buddhist philosophy argues. If this is what you are interested in you might want to have a look at this.

But how do we decide which properties of a thing is fundamental and which ones are not?

You've already explained how we can decide when properties are more fundamental - by virtue of their explanatory force when it comes to explaining derived phenomena.

Could a property be fundamental for one thing but not another?

Again, I think sunyata might help here. In particular, Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika (Verses on the Middle Way). The key point is that the very language of properties is inappropriate since this presupposes the possibility of individuation and separation in order to isolate properties. Nagarjuna instead argues that things find their being in interaction. Thus fundamentally speaking, reality cannot be separated into elements as such - if you attempt it you will find that you end up with nothing - literally. Reality is a process, it is always in flux, and always changeful. In a sense, it is the whole that is fundamental - but this is not at all the traditional understanding of fundamental, either East or West.

  • Appealing to explanatory force may be necessary but I don’t think it’s sufficient. On explanatory force alone we can never prove that a purportedly fundamental property is not fundamental in ways we just haven’t discovered yet, inducing a skepticism about fundamentality. But I’ll be sure to check out the references you gave.
    – Joa
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 19:55
  • Sure, but I was thinking about "more fundamental" as opposed to fundamental tout court. I'll edit my post to make that clear. Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 20:14

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