Monday, March 7, 2011

Essences and Truthmakers

After reading David Oderberg's book Real Essentialism I've been concerned with getting a clear understanding of what "essences" are. Essences are not substances in themselves, over and above the entities which have them. On the other hand, they are supposed to provide explanatory power for the objects that have them, and they are supposed to have a specific sort of causal importance, in Aristotle's terms what is called "formal causation". In trying to make sense of these notions I have found truthmaking to be somewhat helpful (provided of course we have a good account of truthmaking). Here's an analysis:

Essence: For any entity X the essence of X is the truthmaker of the proposition that the real definition of X is [such and such].

To begin with, let's be clear about what exactly a truthmaker is. A truthmaker is some fact or aspect of reality in virtue of which a truthbearer, such as a proposition, statement, belief, etc., is true. How exactly is truthmaking helpful here? Well, it describes a real aspect of a thing.

Kit Fine provides a popular neo-Aristotelian definitional account of essences, saying that we can give real definitions of not only words, but entities, in order to explain what they are. These real definitions of objects are their essences. More work needs to be done on getting to the heart of what real definitions are and how we come to know them. (A possible account of what they are, which I am now somewhat doubtful of, is here.) But provided we have a clear understanding of this, Fine's account certainly seems to be on the right track, especially in the face of the failure of some modalist accounts. But according to the classical account, essences not only make things to be what they are; they provide explanations for causal powers. Definitions, which are linguistic entities, obviously do not.

As Kathrin Koslicki puts it in her paper "Essence, Necessity, and Explanation", "A definition, according to Aristotle, is a formula or statement of the essence, i.e. of what it is to be a certain kind of thing." She continues, "On Aristotle’s way of thinking, then, the explanatory power inherent in definitions, in their role as the linguistic correlates of essences, is a direct reflection of the causal power of essences." Since real definitions are the linguistic correlates of essences, truthmaking provides a way to get back to the essence itself.

3 comments:

Leo Carton Mollica said...

Hm... are you offering your analysis of essence as a definition or something leading up to a definition? If it's the former, I'm not sure it hasn't got things backwards: aren't real definitions supposed to be defined in terms of essences rather than vice versa, as your definition would require? Still, I'm willing to be convinced otherwise.

You write, moreover, that "according to the classical account, essences not only make things to be what they are; they provide explanations for causal powers. Definitions, which are linguistic entities, obviously do not." I'm confused as to the final sentence: if it is by virtue of his rational animality that Socrates has the power to effect laughter, won't his definition ("rational animal") explain why he has that causal power the same way the definition of a (Euclidean) triangle explains why its interior angles must equal the sum of three right angles?

BTW, I read the Fine article you told me about and finished Koslicki's monograph, which, as you say, is quite good but nevertheless has a lot to criticise.

(Also, have you read any Edmund Husserl? He has some interesting things to say vis-a-vis essences in the Logical Investigations and Ideas I.)

awatkins69 said...

Well, what I'm trying to do is give a clear analysis of what an essence is. I don't think a given entity's essence just *is* its definition. A definition is a linguistic entity, right? Linguistic entities don't give things causal powers, yes?

If we already have a clear understanding of real definition, identifying the essence of a thing becomes easier by using truthmakers. At least, it does for me.

Re Husserl: I have to be honest, I have been somewhat put off by thinkers such as Husserl, due to reading related people like Derrida. I suppose that's unfair though. I'll give him a shot.

Thanks for commenting!

Leo Carton Mollica said...

I see that I was misunderstanding your first point: yes, of course definitions, real or otherwise, don't give things causal powers, and that point would be a fatal blow for anyone defending a definition-essence identity theory; however, I don't know of anyone who does hold such a theory. As I understood him, Fine was only proposing that we should equate a statement of an essence with the providing of a definition, which is not the same thing.

If we already have a clear understanding of real definition, identifying the essence of a thing becomes easier by using truthmakers.

But doesn't the notion of a real definition itself depend upon that of an essence? So is your analysis not open to the charge of circularity? Or do you have an analysis of real definitions that does not rest upon the idea of an essence?

I haven't read any Derrida, Foucault, etc., so I won't judge them, but I have heard Bill Vallicella characterize later Continental philosophy as a marked decline from Husserl, Meinong, et al. Plus, I have read a bunch of analytic philosophers who have been willing to take Husserl's work seriously, which courtesy they do not extend to postmodern babble.