Sunday, December 05, 2004

Essential Meanings

Before I start, see this post for an explanation of the distinction between meaning (intension) and reference (extension). The other bit of terminology used below is that of metaphysical 'essence'. Some properties might be considered essential to an object's identity, in that there is no possible world where the object exists without those properties. (If it lacked an essential property then it would be a different object altogether.) Non-essential properties are called 'accidental'.

Now, I've been reading Quine's wonderful collection of essays, From a Logical Point of View, and was captivated by the following paragraph of 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' (p.22):

The Aristotelian notion of essence was the forerunner, no doubt, of the modern notion of intension or meaning. For Aristotle it was essential in men to be rational, accidental to be two-legged. But there is an important difference between this attitude and the doctrine of meaning. From the latter point of view it may indeed be conceded (if only for the sake of argument) that rationality is involved in the meaning of the word 'man' while two-leggedness is not; but two-leggedness may at the same time be viewed as involved in the meaning of 'biped' while rationality is not. Thus from the point of view of the doctrine of meaning it makes no sense to say of the actual individual, who is at once a man and a biped, that his rationality is essential and his two-leggedness accidental or vice versa. Things had essences, for Aristotle, but only linguistic forms have meanings. Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.

I'd never thought of that before. We can get rid of essences altogether, and instead hold that the sorts of modal properties we're interested in belong to our linguistic descriptions, not to the objective individual. I really like that idea.

I've noted before that any given individual can be described in a multitude of different ways. Depending on which description one opts for, different properties will strike us as essential to them. But we run into problems if we mistakenly attribute these properties of the description as instead belonging to the objective individual (a mistake I have first-hand experience of!). Such confusions can be avoided if we scrupulously replace all talk of individual essences with that of descriptive meanings. Is there any reason why we shouldn't want to do this? (i.e. Is there any advantage to retaining the old 'essence' concept?)

Another reason I like this approach is that it gels nicely with my previous suggestion that truth is a feature of our descriptions - it does not exist independently, 'out there' in the world. I can now add that essence is also a feature only of our descriptions, and not of things in themselves. So, it all coheres quite nicely. Am I missing anything?

Update: In 'Reference and Modality' (a latter essay from the same book), Quine forcefully argues that "necessity does not properly apply to the fulfillment of conditions by objects [...] apart from special ways of specifying them." (p.151)

Quine points out that a single object X can be equally well specified by either of the following two descriptions:
(1) The number of planets in our solar system
(2) 7 + 2

Now, he asks, is it a necessary truth about X that it is a number greater than 7? Well, it depends which specification you use. Of course [7 + 2] is necessarily greater than 7; but [the number of planets in our solar system] surely is not. So, it seems, we can't really say anything about X objectively, i.e. independently of how we specify it.

10 comments:

  1. "..it may indeed be conceded (if only for the sake of argument) that rationality is involved in the meaning of the word 'man' while two-leggedness is not; but two-leggedness may at the same time be viewed as involved in the meaning of 'biped' while rationality is not."

    Aristotle is less interesting in finding the meaning of the word "man", so much as finding a full account of "what is man?". Since a man is, for Aristotle, a compound substance of matter and form, a full account of man would certainly include two-leggedness.

    If Aristotle does not think that two-leggedness is not part of a full account of a man, then he certainly does not think that two-leggedness is not involved in the meaning of the word "man".

     

    Posted by Kupad

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  2. Richard, just a short question: if essence is a feature only of our descriptions, what do you think about identity? I mean some people assume that if something is identical with something it is necessarily identical. But then it would seem that there are certainly some essential properties - quite independent of the description in question.
    Or am I missing your point? 

    Posted by enwe

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  3. Enwe, I'm not sure - I'm certainly no expert at this stuff.

    I think I would want to say if two "somethings" are metaphysically identical, then that is just to say that both somethings refer to the same one object, right? (Since everything is identical to itself and nothing else.)

    That would indeed make them necessarily identical, by one interpretation, since reference is fixed throughout all possible worlds. (See the discussion of 'rigid designators' in my Kripke post.)

    But then what "essential property" is supposed to follow from this?

    Perhaps you mean haecceities - i.e. having the property of being identical to itself. There are other trivial properties too, like "being red or not-red", which everything presumably has as a matter of logic. I guess those all technically count as "essential", in that the object couldn't not have them, but it seems to me a fairly empty sort of essence.

    I don't know if that answered your question or not. Feel free to elaborate if it did not. 

    Posted by Richard

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  4. I should add that I don't know what it would mean to say that two objects are identical. Since identity asserts that we are in fact only talking about one object, not two. So I think that when we say two "somethings" are identical, the somethings in question are not directly objects. They must be names, or something like that, instead. That way, when we say they are identical, we really just mean that both names refer to the same object. There's no "two objects". There's just two names, both naming the same one object.

    This might influence our view of haecceities. For suppose we have an object, lets call it X. So X has the essential property of "being identical to X". But then all this really says is that we can use the name X to refer to this object. So this talk of identity and haecceity isn't really about the objective individual at all... it's more just about how we may talk or refer to it.

    Disclaimer: it's midnight, I'm tired, and so possibly am not making any sense :)

    But if my ramblings here are coherent, then we might be able to say that objects don't really have any essences at all, not even trivial ones. Because those trivial ones, despite appearances, aren't really talking about the object at all. Instead, they're about language, or logic, or something like that. 

    Posted by Richard

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  5. o.k., I see that I've made a misleading statement.
    First, let me say something about your first comment:

    "That would indeed make them necessarily identical, by one interpretation, since reference is fixed throughout all possible worlds. (See the discussion of 'rigid designators' in my Kripke post.)"

    Actually, Kripkes conception of rigid designators wasn't the thing I had in mind. There are some others (more or less good) arguments for the necessity of identity. Lowe cites one of these in his 'Survey of Metaphysics':
    (1) For any object x, it is necessarily the case that x is identical with x. [the necessity of self-identity]
    (2) For any objects x and y, if x is identical with y, then whatever is true of x is also true of y. [Leibniz Law]
    (3) a is identical with b.[assumption]
    (4) It is necessarily the case that a is identical with a [from (1)]
    (5) It is true of a that it is necessarily identical with a. [from (4)]
    (6) If a is identical with b, then whatever is true of a is also true of b. [from (2)]
    (7) Whatever is true of a is also true of b. [from (3) and (6)]
    (8) It is true of b that it is necessarily identical with a. [from (5) and (7)]
    (9) It is necessarily the case that a is identical with b. [from (8)]

    Therefore
    (10) If a is identical with b, then it is necessarily the case that a is identical with b.

    (cf. Lowe 2002:85)

    And afterwards, Lowe argues for the existence of essential properties as follows:

    Assumption: Consider a property such as the property of being identical with O, where O is any particular object.

    (1) If the thesis of the necessity of identity is correct than anything which is identical with O in the actual world is identical with O in every possible world (in which O exists.)
    (2) Only whatever is identical with O in any given possible world possesses the property of being identical with O in that world

    First Conclusion: whatever is identical with O in the actual world possesses the property of being identical with O in every possible world in which anything possesses that property.

    Second conclusion: The property of being identical with O is an essential property which only O can possess. So there are essential properties.

    I' m certainly no expert at this stuff, too. And perhaps my question was a stupid question. I don't know.
     

    Posted by enwe

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  6. "..or suppose we have an object, lets call it X. So X has the essential property of 'being identical to X'.

    Perhaps I'm mistaken, but doesn't essence in the metaphysical sense mean something different then necessary?

    As far as I understand, what is essential is what makes some thing that particular thing. It might be necessary for humans to have a heart for instance, but the property "having a heart" is not the essence of being human - having a heart is necessary for being dogs and cats too.

    Same for the tautological property of being identical to oneself. It might be necessary, but I don't think it's what philosophers mean by essential.

    In the case of two-leggedness, it is neither essential nor necessary.

    I'm just not willing to surrender the idea of essences...it makes sense to me that certain properties are what makes some object F that particular object. 

    Posted by Kupad

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  7. So here is the detailed analysis

    the human brain defins things as belonging to a set using a script. they have a list of criteria that it should meet some essential and some optional they check to see if it has each of those criteria and test to see if there is a better model recorded in their heads to define it.

    I like to imagine it like an ecectric current going along a chain of cells - there are a number of chains describing concepts you have thought of before - those you thought of more are "thicker" - and thus mroe likely to carry a signal. lets say one chain leads to saying "it is a horse" the other leads to saying "it is an elephant" - each time there is a mismatch you get negitive feedback that weakens the potential to complete the signal. In the end the one that most closely matches the information provided and is well establihed will be the one that completes.

    SO --- back to the high level analysis

    Thus an objects definition is defined by
    1) initial cognition of the object (in an ideal situation this would be objective)
    2) a list of criteria upon which the word would be rejected if our initial cognition failed to match (part of the language)
    3) a list of criteria that make it less likely to accept that definition if it failed to match (also part of the language but more subjective)
    4) a list of other objects that might match better (also part of the language)
    5) how important the definition is to the individual

    if you take it beyond the human level then there are no "objects".  

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  8. ie there ae no "objects" because there are no words with which to describe them (except from the human perspective)everything just is - and has no arbitrary boarder. And that doesnt create a problem in the absence of humans to have a problem with it. 

    Posted by geniusNZ

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  9. I would recommend a reading of Wittgenstein's theory of family relations, as well as ideas on paraconsistent logics.

    -T 

    Posted by Tennessee

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  10. Not too much to add, if only because my Aristotle in unacceptably weak. (grin)

    However we should keep haecceity and indentity or individuality somewhat separate. In common speech we treat them as more or less the same, but especially in science things get complicated and we run into trouble with some of the approaches that say Leibniz brought to bear upon philosophy.

    Consider the following. A single electron is an individual but lacks individuality in the sense of haecceity. After all two electrons in the same state can't be distinguished as "this" electron or "that" electron.

    Not quite sure how this bears upon the issue of essentiality. It's an interesting question to which Duns Scotus I believe has some interesting comments. However I believe most modern philosophy follows Ockham contra Scotus on issues of individuality.
     

    Posted by Clark

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