Could a middle level be the most fundamental?


Debates over what is fundamental assume that what is most fundamental must be either a “top” level (roughly, the biggest or highest-level thing), or a “bottom” level (roughly, the smallest or lowest-level things). Here I sketch an alternative to top-ism and bottom-ism, the view that a middle level could be the most fundamental, and argue for its plausibility. I then suggest that this view satisfies the desiderata of asymmetry, irreflexivity, transitivity, and well-foundedness of fundamentality, that the view has explanatory power on par with that of top-ism and bottom-ism, and that it has a unique connection to the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

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  1. 1.

    Terminological note: here I will use “bottom level” to refer to the smallest level rather than the ontologically bottom-most level, and “top level” to refer to the largest level rather than the ontologically upper-most level. The upshot of the discussion might turn out to be that the “ruler” of fundamentality doesn’t match the ruler of physical size. Thanks to Karen Bennett and Maegan Fairchild for this way of framing the point.

  2. 2.

    As far as I can see, the only contemporary work directly espousing something like middleism is Inman’s (2017) Substance and the Fundamentality of the Familiar, a work that was published while I was writing this paper, and which has different motivations.

  3. 3.

    It is a controversial matter whether grounding can be diachronic. I will assume here that it is, but see Bennett (2017) for a dissenting view.

  4. 4.

    Though I will focus on what it would be for a middle level to be the most fundamental, I take the view to apply to other middle-level entities such as theories, categories, logical operators, truths, laws, etc.

  5. 5.

    For a discussion of Aristotle as a forerunner to priority monism, see Schaffer (2010).

    Such an interpretation is just as easily viewed as a kind of middleism as it is a kind of priority monism.

  6. 6.

    See van Inwagen (1990).

  7. 7.

    See Merricks (2001).

  8. 8.

    See Korman (2015).

  9. 9.

    See Giberman (2015).

  10. 10.

    See Inman (2017).

  11. 11.

    If one finds building in either direction counterintuitive, then middleism will be doubly counterintuitive. It is beyond the scope of this paper to defend the intuitiveness of building more generally.

  12. 12.

    In separate work, Wilson argues that determinables are more fundamental than determinates, a view friendly to middleist claims.

  13. 13.

    Schaffer (2016) writes: “One cannot be rich merely by having a limitless sequence of debtors, each borrowing from the one before. There must actually be a source of money somewhere. Likewise something cannot be real merely by having a limitless sequence of ancestors, each claiming reality from its parents. There must actually be a source of reality somewhere”.

  14. 14.

    In correspondence, Alex Skiles gives the following example: Suppose that x is more fundamental than y iff x has a diameter closer to n inches than the diameter of y. Then we can conceive of a world in which there are (1) spherical objects of n − 1 inches diameter, n − 1/2 inches diameter, n − 1/4 inches diameter, and so on; (2) spherical objects of n + 1 inches diameter, n + 1/2 inches diameter, n + 1/4 inches diameter, and so on; and (3) no other objects. In such a world, middleism is true in the sense that the more towards the middle we go, the more fundamental we go. Yet there is no most foundational middle level.

  15. 15.

    Bliss (ms) suggests that many foundationalist arguments implicitly appeal to the PSR.

  16. 16.

    See Thompson (2016) for a discussion of metaphysical interdependence that is compatible with both gunk and junk.

  17. 17.

    Thompson (2016) agrees, writing: “Reality might be infinitely divisible, but grounding chains nevertheless terminate, radiating inwards towards the familiar macroscopic objects. This kind of view might be defensible, but it is counterintuitive and would require independent motivation. Since I am not currently aware of it having any defenders, I set it aside here.” This view is similar to the one I aim to make plausible, though I hold that grounding chains radiate outwards.

  18. 18.

    Dasgupta (2016) holds that essentialist facts are the best candidates for explanatorily autonomous facts.

  19. 19.

    See Bernstein (2017) for some grumpy arguments against the causation/grounding analogy.

  20. 20.

    Thanks to Holly Andersen for developing this objection.

  21. 21.

    Thanks to Fatema Amijee, Holly Andersen, Maegan Fairchild, Dmitri Gallow, Daniel Nolan, Alex Skiles, Peter van Inwagen, and audiences at the PSR Workshop at Simon Fraser University, the Notre Dame Metaphysics Reading Group, the Ranch Metaphysics Workshop, the University of St. Andrews, Northern Illinois University, the University of Connecticut, and CUNY Graduate Center for feedback on the ideas in this paper.


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Bernstein, S. Could a middle level be the most fundamental?. Philos Stud (2020).

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  • Fundamentality
  • Grounding
  • Structure