Attribute (philosophy)

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The expression attribute (Latin attributum , participle of attribuere “to allocate”) describes an (essential) property in philosophy in the sense of ontology or logic .

Attribute in the logical sense

In logic , the term “attribute” denotes a predicate or predicator . The term “attribute” describes both single-digit predicators (“properties”) and relations, i.e. n-digit predicates.

Attribute in the sense of ontology

middle Ages

The Latin scholasticism used the term “attributum” generally in the sense of property, characteristic of a thing and mostly specifically in application to the divine properties. Wilhelm von Ockham , for example, spoke of God's perfection as an “attributive perfection” ( perfectio attributalis ).

In medieval Islamic theology one dealt very extensively with the "attributes of God" ( ṣifāt Allāh ). As attributes of God, one understood not only his essential properties, but also divine actions, which are represented in the Koran by verbs related to God and from which theologians derived participles used as attributes ( muḥyī , mumīt , razzāq ). Therefore there is an overlap in content between the attributes of God and the beautiful names of God .

Modern times

In modern rationalism the attributes are the essential characteristics of the substance, in contrast to the modes or accidents.

Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1677) differentiates between substance, attribute and accident. For him, attributes are the essential properties that something must have in order to maintain its identity. Accidents are insignificant properties that can be missing without something losing its identity.

"By attribute (essential property) I understand what the mind recognizes in the substance as its essence."


According to Spinoza, the infinite substance has an infinite number of attributes, of which we only know two: thought and expansion, which make up the essence of divine substance.

For René Descartes , thinking is an attribute of the soul and expansion is an attribute of the body.


The quality as that which can be predicated of another is in opposition to that which cannot be predicated of another. This is called classic (first) substance , modern individual and neutral object . Whether this idea is only linguistic or real is a matter of dispute. David Hume, for example, believed that he could do without a carrier substance. According to him, things are just bundles of properties.

The terms property and characteristic are often used interchangeably. If you make differences, you accentuate differently: On the one hand, features should be the “linguistic structures that relate to properties”. On the other hand, Gottlob Frege distinguishes the properties of objects from the characteristics of the terms :

“By properties that are predicated of a concept, of course, I do not understand the characteristics that make up the concept. These are properties of the things that come under the concept, not the concept. So “right-angled” is not a property of the term “right-angled triangle”; but the proposition that there is no right-angled, rectilinear, equilateral triangle expresses a property of the term "right-angled, rectilinear, equilateral triangle"; The zero number is added to this. "

- Frege

According to Frege, a concept can also have properties. A distinction must therefore be made between the characteristics and the properties of a term. A prominent application of this distinction is the concept of existence . For Frege, existence is the property of a concept not to be empty. But properties of terms are also their relationships to other terms, their inclusion and exclusion, their composition and decomposition, their lack of contradiction or consistency.


The classifications of the attributes depend on the underlying theory of the property and its ontological obligations.

Traditionally, properties are divided into essential and accidental properties . Essential properties of an object are properties that the object must have, if it exists. For example, the property "being alive" is an essential property for a living being. For epistemological theories which assume the existence of such essential properties, these are the main goal of knowledge. Terminologically, there is variety: Instead of accidental properties, one also speaks of insignificant, contingent properties or of accidents . In the current philosophical debate, there is no unanimity about which properties are essential properties. The division into essential and accidental properties has far-reaching consequences for a large number of philosophical questions. Traditionally, "attribute" denotes an essential property, but the terms "property" and "attribute" are mostly used as synonyms today .

The distinction between primary and secondary properties , as advocated by John Locke , was important to seventeenth-century empirical philosophy . According to George Berkeley , all properties are secondary, which he justifies with the fact that the properties would arise as a result of subjective perception and sensation in consciousness. The "objective" properties of size and shape were considered primary, and properties such as color and taste were secondary. Whether this distinction is meaningful depends on the underlying epistemology.

Properties are compared as single-digit logical predicates in logic relationships ( relations ). There is no fundamental difference for modern logic: the classical properties correspond to single-digit predicates, the relations are multi-digit predicates which express relational properties.

Sometimes empirical properties are spoken of as "real qualities of an object ... which can be determined by methods such as observation, measurement, etc." and these are differentiated from logical properties and subjective attributions of value.

It is controversial whether it makes sense to distinguish between complex and simple properties .

Property, predication and classification

As Frege's definition shows, the concept of property can be derived from the concept of the (logical) predicate or predication : property is that which can be predicated of something. So Otto means is big. : Otto has the property of size or the individual Otto falls under the concept of size or The predicate 'size' can be predicated of the individual Otto .

The property is the “determination of an object that identifies it as belonging to a class of objects”. In simple predicate logic “predicates indicate properties or intentions, with the help of which objects etc. are then further grouped into classes”. Above all, this enables things and processes in their universal context to be differentiated individually or in classes for the purpose of explanation and listing. The properties result from the nature of the object and from the type of interaction with other objects.

Classification of objects

The established equality of two or more objects with respect to one property does not mean anything with respect to the equality or inequality of these objects with respect to other properties (see also identity ). Objects with one or more of the same properties (that is, essential properties that allow a specificity or differentiation) can be combined into corresponding object classes. In theory, there are three different cases:

  1. The objects have a finite catalog of properties. The object class to be constituted should take into account all properties. This inevitably leads to the indistinguishability of all objects of a class with the same characteristics.
  2. The objects have a finite catalog of properties, but the object class to be constituted should only take into account some of these properties. This allows the differentiation of objects of a class with the same characteristics on the basis of the characteristics not taken into account in the classification.
  3. The objects have at least a potentially infinite catalog of properties. However, each object class to be constituted can only take into account a finite part of these properties in the implementation. If an object is also assumed to be non-repeatable in all features (i.e. such an object with the same properties exists exactly once in each object class), the individualisability of the objects is ensured.

Since, according to many positions, every thing has an infinite number of properties, practically only the third, difficult case comes into question.

Problems in recognizing properties

In the process of knowledge must be the subject of knowledge to the object of cognition act (that is a necessary condition of sensuous cognition). The objects are theoretically combined into classes on the basis of common properties. Individual representatives of these classes are practically observed, and experiments are carried out with them under appropriate conditions. In theory, the idealizations assumed for every class formation are retained, and in some cases even made more precise. The properties recognized in this way are therefore not necessarily identical to those of objects outside the corresponding knowledge situation. However, it is generally assumed that humans can determine the properties of objects with relative certainty.


  • Michel Allard: The problem of the attribute divins in the doctrine d'al-Ašʿarī et des ses premiers grands disciples . Imprimerie Catholique, Beirut 1965.
  • HK Kohlenberger, L. Oeing-Hanhoff: Art. Attribute , in: HWPh , Bd. 1, 612–614
  • DJ O'Connor: Substance and Attribute , Article in: Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Vol. 9, 294-300

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Peter Prechtl / ​​Frank-Peter Burkard: Metzler Philosophielexikon . Terms and definitions. Stuttgart / Weimar 1996, p. 46, ISBN 3-476-01257-3 ; Hügli / Lübcke (ed.): Philosophielexikon. 5th edition. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2003: Attribute.
  2. only mentioning this scholastic meaning. Regenbogen / Meyer (Ed.): Dictionary of philosophical terms. Meiner, Hamburg 2005: Attribute.
  3. Hubert Schröcker: The relationship between God's omnipotence and the contradiction principle . Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2003, p. 393, ISBN 3-05-003747-4 . Google Books
  4. Cf. Allard: Le Problème des attributs divins . 1965, p. 5f.
  5. Spinoza, quoted from E. Waibl / F.-J. Rainer, basic knowledge of philosophy. facultas.wuv, Vienna 2007, No. 477 (without proof)
  6. Apel / Ludz, Philosophical Dictionary , Berlin, New York, de Gruyter, 6th edition 1976, attribute
  7. Apel / Ludz, Philosophical Dictionary , Berlin, New York, de Gruyter, 6th edition 1976, attribute
  8. Maximilian Herberger, Dieter Simon: Theory of Science for Jurists. Metzner, Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 235.
  9. Gottlob Frege: The basics of arithmetic: a logical mathematical investigation into the concept of number. Meiner, Hamburg, centenary edition, 1986, p. 65 (64)
  10. ^ H. Burkhardt: Term. In: Ricken, Friedo (Ed.): Lexicon of epistemology and metaphysics. Beck, Munich 1984, p. 30 (32).
  11. See Wolfgang Schwarz: Properties / Relations. In: Jordan, Nimtz (Hrsg.): Lexicon Philosophy: Hundred Basic Concepts. Reclam, Stuttgart 2009, p. 68 (69): "This distinction is considered problematic."
  12. Maximilian Herberger, Dieter Simon: Theory of Science for Jurists: Logic, Semiotics, empirical sciences. Metzner, Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 235.
  13. Cf. Edmund Runggaldier: Formal semantic renewal of metaphysics. In: Matthias Lutz-Bachmann (Ed.): Metaphysics Today - Problems and Perspectives of Ontology. Alber, Freiburg 2007, p. 57 (66)
  14. Student dudes: Philosophy. 2nd Edition. 2002 property.
  15. ^ W. Kellerwessel: property. In: P. Prechtl (ed.): Basic concepts of analytic philosophy. Metzler, Stuttgart et al., 2004.