Thursday, 26 May 2011

An introduction to my thoughts on essentialism

I've been thinking about essence.  I've been thinking about essence for about a year and a half now.  Essentialism is usually understood as the claim that some de re modal predications are true (and indeed that they are sensible).  Fine reckons that they're wrong, and I reckon Fine's right.  Essence isn't a modal thesis, it's an ontological one.  Now, I'm a little confused on just how to formulate the thesis (more on that later), but for now let's just say that an individual's essence is tied in very closely with what that individual is in a mysterious metaphysical identity kind of a way that is somehow only conveyable through the use of italics.  There are two other important parts of Fine's view on essence.  He thinks that essences are to be understood as 'real definitions' analogous to the nominal definitions that help us to understand terms, and he thinks that facts about necessity are grounded in essential facts (stay tuned for bumbling monologues on these two points in the future).

Whitehead said that all philosophy is just footnotes on Plato.  He's wrong.  All philosophy is footnotes on Aristotle, essentialism doubly so.  As far as I can tell from my very limited readings of Aristotle on essence I think it sounds like he's talking about the latter option.  But really I don't care what he thought, or indeed what a lot of people thought of essence.  If what I'm talking about isn't what they're talking about, then I guess I'm not interested in essentialism, I'm interested in something else.  However, until someone comes up with a cooler name (preferably one whose puns haven't been worn out so terribly), I'll stick with 'essence'.

My original motivations for liking Fine's ideas about essence were threefold.  First, I really like 'Essence and Modality' (the paper he puts these views forward in), it's fun and clever and just generally cool in a way that's hard to do in sixteen or so pages.  Second, grounding modality in something that's not possible worlds is right up my alley (I don't like possible worlds.  I think they're cool and fun like every other metaphysician, but let's face it, they just aren't real).  Incidentally I originally thought that essentialism could provide an reductive analysis for modality but have since realised that grounding it is probably all one can hope for, but I'm cool with that.  Third, it felt fun to try to bring back some old school Aristotelian metaphysics and try to reconcile it with contemporary thought.

My current motivations for liking essentialism are just the above, but also that I'm starting to think that it's probably true.  But then again my view on this point does change quite often, so probably best not to assume that I'm an essentialist (certainly not until I'm actually sure of what I mean by that).

One problem that I'm currently trying to get my head around is just how I should consider the literature on essentialism that treats it merely as modality de re.  At first I thought that it was just irrelevant.  They're not talking about the same thing as me, and that's that.  Now I've come round to the idea that their discussion deals with many of the same intuitions that mine will.  If modal facts are grounded in essential ones then their discussion will give a good indication of what's going on at the essential level, just like the lumps in the lawn give an indication of the movements of the gophers beneath (at least this is what cartoons have led me to believe).  However, I still wonder just how good an indication this is, and whether I run the risk of conflating the two interpretations.

Okay, so that wasn't that insightful, but I'm tired.  I've been reading scores of undergraduate essays and it could take a few days before I recover.  Next time I'll get into what I think about Fine's real definitions and some stuff on direction of explanation.

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