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Essence and Mere Necessity

  • Jessica Leech (a1)

Recently, a debate has developed between those who claim that essence can be explained in terms of de re modality (modalists), and those who claim that de re modality can be explained in terms of essence (essentialists). The aim of this paper is to suggest that we should reassess. It is assumed that either necessity is to be accounted for in terms of essence, or that essence is to be accounted for in terms of necessity. I will argue that we should assume neither. I discuss what role these key notions – essence and necessity – can reasonably be thought to contribute to our understanding of the world, and argue that, given these roles, there is no good reason to think that we should give an account of one in terms of the other. I conclude: if we can adequately explain de re modality and essence at all, we should aim to do so separately.

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1 Fine, K., ‘Essence and Modality’, Philosophical Perspectives 8: Logic and Language (1994): 116.

2 This is one of several different formulations of modalism, but nothing much hangs on my choice here.

3 For example, Brogaard, B. & Salerno, J., ‘Remarks on counterpossibles’, Synthese 190 (2013): 639660; Correia, F., ‘(Finean) Essence and (Priorean) Modality’, Dialectica 61 (2007): 6384; Cowling, S., ‘The modal view of essence’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 43/2 (2013): 248266; Rocca, M. Della, ‘Recent Work on Essentialism: Part 1’, Philosophical Books 37 (1996): 113; Denby, , ‘Essence and Intrinsicality’, in Francescotti, R., (ed.) Companion to Intrinsic Properties (De Gruyter, 2014); Wildman, N., ‘Modality, Sparsity, and Essence’, The Philosophical Quarterly 63 (2013): 760782.

4 For example, Correia, F., ‘Ontological Dependence’, Philosophy Compass 3 (2008): 10131032.

5 Cameron, R., ‘Intrinsic and extrinsic properties’, in Poidevin, R. Le et al. (eds), The Routledge Companion to Metaphysics (Routledge, 2009), 265275.

6 Not everyone agrees with Fine's examples, but dissatisfaction is often an overture to the presentation of a set of preferred examples which also serve as counterexamples to modalism1. See, for example, M. Gorman, ‘Essentiality as Foundationality’, in D. Novotný and N. Lukáš (eds), Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives in Metaphysics (Taylor and Francis, 2014), 119–137.

7 Della Rocca, ‘Recent Work on Essentialism’, 3.

8 One might also worry about this example. It does not follow logically from something's being self-identical that it is identical to Socrates: it is only Socrates's being self-identical that implies that Socrates has the property of being identical to Socrates. As such, the entailment seems to rest on specific and non-trivial information concerning Socrates. However, presumably Della Rocca's point is that we can run the same line of reasoning for anything that exists. In each case we appeal to the self-identity of one particular thing rather than another. But there is no difference in how things go for different things. It's not as if, for example, we can't conclude in the case of Plato that he's identical to Plato, on the basis of his being self-identical.

9 See Gorman, M., ‘The Essential and the Accidental’, Ratio XVIII (2005): 276289.

10 See Gorman, ‘The Essential and the Accidental’ for a different approach to generating counterexamples.

11 If everything has an origin, one might claim that Oedipus's origin is trivial insofar as it follows from the universally necessary property of having an origin. However, we might not want to rule out the possibility of objects without an origin, perhaps everlasting or cyclical objects.

12 There is a background assumption here that Jocasta and Oedipus are contingent beings, but the argument can be modified to accommodate views according to which everything exists necessarily, as, for example, in Williamson, T., ‘Necessary Existents’, in O'Hear, A. (ed.) Logic, Thought and Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Zalta, E.N., ‘Essence and Modality’, Mind 115 (2006): 459, 659–693. We need only modify examples of properties had in all (and only) worlds in which a thing exists, for the surrogate notion of properties had in all (and only) worlds in which a thing is concrete. So, for example, we might say that Jocasta and Oedipus exist in all worlds; necessarily, if Oedipus is concrete, he has Jocasta for a parent; in some worlds in which Jocasta is concrete, she does not have Oedipus as a child; but Jocasta does necessarily have the property of being a parent of Oedipus if he is concrete, if she is concrete.

13 This change is required because the essentiality of origin claim is not that Oedipus is essentially the child of Jocasta if they both exist. This would allow for Oedipus having a different parent in worlds in which he existed without Jocasta. The claim is rather that Oedipus is essentially the child of Jocasta if he exists. But this still generates a universal necessary truth, that necessarily, if Oedipus exists then Jocasta is his parent, and accordingly a universal necessary property.

14 Skiles, A., ‘Essence in Abundance’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 45 (2015).

15 See Levinson, J., ‘What a Musical Work Is’, The Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980): 528; Wiggins, D., Sameness and Substance Renewed (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 136–8.

16 Skiles, ‘Essence in Abundance’, 106.

17 Denby, D., ‘The Distinction between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Properties’, Mind 155/457 (2006), 117.

18 Langton, R. and Lewis, D., ‘Defining “Intrinsic”’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 58 (1998): 333345.

19 This is simplifying to a great extent. I don't want to do Denby an injustice here, by not properly outlining his view, but I think this brings out the core of the proposal.

20 For example, Brogaard and Salerno (‘Remarks on counterpossibles’) propose a form of modalism that includes a counterfactual condition, Steward objects – Steward, S., ‘Ya shouldn'ta couldn'ta wouldn'ta’, Synthese 192 (2015), 19091921.

21 See Fine ‘Essence and Modality’; Hale, B., ‘Absolute Necessities’, Nous Supplement: Philosophical Perspectives 10 (1996), Metaphysics 30: 93–117; Hale, B., ‘The Source of Necessity’, Philosophical Perspectives 16 (2002): 299319; Hale, B., Necessary Beings: An Essay on Ontology, Modality, and the Relations Between Them (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

22 Fine, ‘Essence and Modality’, 2.

23 Topics, 101b38–102a1.

24 Aristotle arguably only has in mind definitions of kinds, such as human, and not definitions of individuals, such as Socrates. See Aristotle, Metaphysics, VII, 15: ‘And so when one of the definition-mongers defines any individual, he must recognize that his definition may always be overthrown; for it is not possible to define such things’., translated by W. D. Ross.

25 Fine, K., ‘Unified Foundations for Essence and Ground’, Journal of the American Philosophical Association (2015), 308. Reverse arrow signifies essence, forwards arrow signifies grounding, and so ‘↔’ signifies a relation of both grounding and essence. For example, x = H2O ↔ x = water, means that it is essential to x being water that x is H2O (it is constitutively necessary that x be H2O to be water), and x is water in virtue of it being the case that x is H2O (it is constitutively sufficient for x to be water that it is H2O). K. Fine, ‘Unified Foundations for Essence and Ground’, 296–311.

26 Rosen, G., ‘Real Definition’, Analytic Philosophy 56/3 (2015), 189209.

27 Compare: one might argue that the role of properties is to account for similarities and differences. That role could be filled by transcendent universals, in which case properties would be necessary existents. But there is nothing in the role identified for properties that requires properties to exist necessarily. It seems that contingent entities could play that role, e.g., immanent universals, or tropes, or concepts. Hence, we should not conclude, just from recognizing this role for properties, that properties are necessary beings.

28 Hazlett, A., ‘Brutal Individuation’, in Hazlett, A. (ed.), New Waves in Metaphysics (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2010), 7290.

29 Hazlett, ‘Brutal Individuation’, 85.

30 See also Kripke, , Naming and Necessity (Harvard University Press, 1980), 144, fn 57.

31 Thank you to an anonymous reader for this suggestion.

32 There are also weaker versions of this claim we might consider. For example, if grounding is an internal relation, then if P grounds Q, then necessarily, if P and Q obtain, then P grounds Q. However, my objections to the stronger principle carry over.

33 Brandom, R.B., Making It Explicit (Harvard University Press, 1994), 438.

34 See Wiggins, Sameness and Substance Renewed, 159; Brandom, Making It Explicit, 439.

35 For example, Campbell argues that singular reference requires general constraints that are much weaker than sortal concepts. Campbell, J., ‘Sortals and the Binding Problem’, in MacBride, F. (ed.), Identity and Modality (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2006), 203218.

36 Mackie, P., How Things Might Have Been: Individuals, Kinds, and Essential Properties (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 134.

37 Hazlett argues that if we are not committed to some necessary properties of individuals, then ‘nothing would or could be destroyed’ (‘Brutal Individuation’, 87). However, suppose that Socrates has no (non-trivial) necessary properties. He is actually a human philosopher, but he might have been a talking donkey. That said, given that he is a human, if he loses that property, he will cease to exist. And had he been a donkey, if he lost that property, he would cease to exist. So we can allow for destruction without necessary properties.

38 Further problems for this view may arise from potentially competing principles of individuation, as in the case of Lumpl (lump of clay) and Goliath (statue). But I have no space to adequately consider such issues here.

39 Mackie, How Things Might Have Been.

40 See, for example, Wiggins's Anchor Constraint (Wiggins, Sameness and Substance Renewed, ch. 4).

41 See Textor, M., ‘“Demonstrative” colour concepts: recognition versus preservation’, Ratio 22 (2009): 234–49, section 4, for a discussion of anaphora and preservative memory, which might serve as the basis for a positive account of how we can achieve this kind of tracking.

42 Wiggins, Sameness and Substance Renewed, 119.

43 By which I mean genuine change, not mere Cambridge change: the number 2 can change from being my favourite number to no longer being my favourite number.

44 A different question that isn't absurd is: ‘which thing in world w bears the counterpart relation to a in @?’ Counterpart theory offers a different approach to understanding questions of transworld identity that potentially avoids the pitfalls under discussion. I won't discuss this option in any depth here, as my main target is the essentialist who does not avail themselves of counterpart theory (largely because they want to give an account of modality in terms of essences, not in terms of worlds, independently understood).

45 Kripke, Naming and Necessity, 44.

46 Correia, F., ‘Generic Essence, Objectual Essence, and Modality’, Nous 40(4) (2006): 753767; Real Definitions’, Philosophical Issues 27 (2017) Metaphysics, 5273.

47 Correia, ‘Real Definitions’, 53.

48 Ibid., 60.

49 This is, in effect, a modus ponens/modus tollens move.

50 Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford, Blackwell), 4.

51 Fine, ‘Essence and Modality’.

52 Thank you to audiences in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews, Stirling, and the Royal Institute of Philosophy in London, for helpful discussion of some of the ideas in this paper. Thank you also to Ghislain Guigon, Nicholas Jones, Bob Stern and Mark Textor for comments on various incarnations of the paper.

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