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.