Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Antirealism about essence

I've been thinking about essence.  In particular I've been thinking about being an antirealist about essence.  This isn't surprising, as it looks like realism/antirealism debates about essence will be central to my thesis, at least it certainly looks like things will be going that way.  In fact, the first chapter I'm writing for my thesis is a defence of a conventionalist account of essence.

At the moment I'm looking at the prospects of being an antirealist about essence (at least in the conventionalist sense).  I see this approach as having a couple of big advantages over a standard realist approach.  If such an account can be made to work (and of course if it doesn't have Japanese monster  movie problems of its own), then the following might be cause for the realist about essence to blink, rub their eyes, pour their drink away (one the strange assumption that it must contain alcohol, and the even stranger assumption that this is causing them to hallucinate for some reason), and decide to have a lie down.

It's worth making clear that I'm not one of these 'anti-metaphysics' people.  I love metaphysics, and I don't consider this kind of antirealism to go against that.  In fact part of what I think is so exciting are the hefty metaphysical consequences of such a view, and all the work that would have to be done in its wake.  Your metaphysics is already going to be affected by what kinds of questions you take to be good ones, and what kinds of talk you take seriously, so denying certain questions and talk is in my mind writing a great big IOU to the metaphysical community, and refusing to pay that debt is just plain rude.  But anyway...

The first advantage of the conventionalist account is that the direction of explanation problem is resolved.  This is the question of whether something has its essence in virtue of what it is, or whether it is what it is in virtue of its essence (please excuse the inane use of  italics).   Under the conventionalist account this is decided.  The essence of the individual makes the individual the thing that it is because both kinds and individuals are a construction from the modal properties (which either are, or follow from, the essential properties).  These essential ‘properties’ are determined by what sentences are essentially true.  Which sentences are essentially true (or at least which sentences the truth of which is essential) is determined by our linguistic/conceptual conventions. 

Also it resolves the problem of deciding whether essence is about individuals or about kinds.  This is because under this account all necessities take the form of conditionals.  Because of our understanding of necessity (it is empirical that water is H2O, but it is necessary that water is H2O because of our conventions) all necessities take the form of conditionals such as 'if P then necessarily P'.  This means that essential facts (if understood as non-modal) take the same form.  So the sortal essential facts come first, but they come in the form of conditionals (if x is an F then it is essentially G).  Individual essential facts then follow from these and are of the form 'x is an F and so is essentially G'.

This works for essential properties such as 'humans are essentially material', and 'Socrates is a human and so is essentially material', but there are some essential properties that require an additional step.  For instance essentiality of origins.  Since not all humans have the same origins an additional conditional is required.  This will then take the form of 'if x is F then whatever G-type quality x has it has essentially'.

This option is not available for the realist.  First of all it’s less obvious that there should be both on a realist picture.  Second, even if one were to try to adopt the conventionalist picture in a realist account then the essences of individuals would be dependent on the essences of kinds.  This seems like the wrong way around to have it.  If anything it seems that the essential properties of kinds should come from the essential properties of the individuals that make up that kind.  Getting it the other way around looks mistaken.  This restriction isn’t there for the conventionalist.  The conventions are ours for the making, and so it doesn’t matter which end we start from, so long as we get the account that we want. 

It also looks really freaking parsimonious.  Be an antirealist about essence in this way and it soon becomes evident that you end up being antirealist about modality, kinds and even individuals!  Of course, that might freak you out a little too much.

There is an important lesson for the realist about essence to learn from this.  The antirealist program shows us how central essence is to any wider theory of the world.  Just from being an antirealist about essence, significant parts of one's ontology and ideology seem to follow.  A proper understanding of the role that essence plays in metaphysics is vital for any attempt to account for it.  Another lesson to be learned is in just how such an account should go.  Many of the questions that seem quite open for a realist account are more easily resolved by the antirealist.  Perhaps by following the antirealist example in a realist account, one can form a unified realist program that can give essence  pride of place in modern metaphysics (if you're into that kind of thing). 

Obviously conventionalism traditional construed has plenty of its own problems.  And any new construed will probably have at least some of its own.  But at the moment (I'm currently at the early hand wavy stage) I think this is some pretty funky stuff.

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