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Metaphysics of identity and constitution


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Metaphysics of identity and constitution
Date: 26th November 2009 12:48

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 20 November, with your essay for the University of London Metaphysics module, in response to the question, 'Is an object identical with the parts that compose it?'

As someone who hovers between nihilism and deflationism (according to your five-fold classification) I need a lot of convincing that there is a deep question at issue here (a 'metaphysical' question) and that we can't just 'say what we like'.

You have done a good job of motivating and defending the standard account according to which a statue and the lump of clay that composes it are two distinct entities, even if in the actual world their histories coincide. It suffices to distinguish them that the modal properties associated with the concepts 'statue' and 'lump of clay' differ.

This is actually (although you don't mention him) the response given by David Wiggins in his monograph 'Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity', later expanded as 'Sameness and Substance' (both Blackwell). What the account which you have adapted from Einheuser adds is an assumption which I suspect Wiggins would not fully support: 'that the world... lacks mind-independent ontological structure'.

In putting forward and defending a metaphysical theory, or a solution to a problem, one has to beware of giving 'hostages to fortune'. The idea is to construct your theory or solution with as few assumptions as possible. As you gloss Einheuser's idea, 'a Martian may well carve its world into 'tablestatues' and 'inclays''. How far is this carving allowed to go?

According to Kolakowski, 'In abstract, nothing prevents us from dissecting surrounding material into fragments constructed in a manner completely different from what we are used to. Thus, speaking more simply we could build a world where there would be no such objects as 'horse,' 'leaf,' 'star,' and others allegedly devised by nature. Instead, there might be, for example, such objects as 'half a horse and a piece of river,' 'my ear and the moon,' and other similar products of a surrealist imagination' ('Karl Marx and the Classical Definition of Truth' in 'Toward a Marxist Humanism').

(I chose this quote for the Follydiddledah web site: see

Of course, it all depends on exactly what you mean by 'mind independent'. There wouldn't be 'statues' if human beings didn't have any sense of aesthetic appreciation or any interest -- e.g. aesthetic or religious -- in making them. Manufactured objects whose persistence criteria are determined primarily by their function presuppose creatures who have an interest in exploiting that function. But then again, the world itself has created us, and a vast range of natural kinds which human beings discover, or seek to discover, rather than make. (But then again, would these kinds exist if human beings lacked any scientific curiosity? What's the difference between art and science in that respect?)

I found one slip, where you mention the 'relative identity' thesis defended by Geach in his 'Identity' article (and also in his book 'Reference and Generality'). According to the relative identity thesis Goliath is the same lump of clay as Lumpl but is NOT the same statue as Lumpl. Both Wiggins and Geach agree that 'it makes no sense to ask whether Goliath is the same as Lumpl simpliciter' but Wiggins rejects Geach's view on the grounds that it contradicts Leibniz Law. However, there is a reply available to Geach along Quinian lines: what we term 'objects' are the end result of distinguishing everything that we have the concepts to distinguish. So instead of 'pluralism' you effectively get 'alternative monisms' depending on which way you decide to make the cut on a particular occasion. Hence (I suppose) your 'A relative identity theorist relativizes Leibniz's Law'. (The 'dispute' admittedly begins to look a bit trivial.)

Which brings us back to the original challenge: why is this a deep problem? When you have delved into the complex contributions of 'human interests' and 'the world', admittedly an exercise which is not done in a day, you have all 'the facts'. How you go about describing them is merely a verbal question.

This is the bit I don't 'get', and where your essay, as fine as it is, doesn't really help me. The 'well-known' philosophical questions which you list seem barely gripping. OK, I can see something of interest in the bicycle example, because here you do have a problem of identifying 'function'. A disassembled bicycle is not a bicycle because it doesn't perform the function of a bicycle. On the other hand, if I design a super-collapsible bicycle that can be fitted into a briefcase and assembled in a minute, then the pieces of metal and plastic in my briefcase do have the 'function of a bicycle', in exactly the same sense as a folding knife has the function of a knife whether folded or unfolded (you allude to this with your reference to 'operating principles' and 'normal configurations').

What would spark my interest is a real paradox -- there are plenty of those in philosophy -- why can't we find one here? Doesn't that say something about the whole issue of identity and material constitution?

All the best,