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Chapter 12 - Essence, necessity, and explanation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2011

Tuomas E. Tahko
Affiliation:
University of Helsinki
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Summary

Introductory remarks

It is perhaps still quite common among contemporary metaphysicians to think of essence along modal lines: an essential truth, on this conception, is just a modal truth of a certain kind (viz., one that is both necessary and de re, i.e., about a certain object); and an essential property is just a feature an object has necessarily, if it is to exist. The essential truths, according to this approach, are thus a subset of the necessary truths; and the essential properties of objects are included among its necessary properties. Quine for example has such a modal conception of essence in mind, when he argues that the view he calls ‘Aristotelian essentialism’ is incoherent, because it requires quantification into intensional contexts (cf. Quine 1953).

But the view Quine calls ‘Aristotelian essentialism’ is for a variety of reasons not one Aristotle himself would have found congenial. One important respect, which will concern us here, in which Aristotle would have wanted to distance himself from what Quine calls ‘Aristotelian essentialism’ is that Aristotle does not subscribe to a modal conception of essence. For Aristotle, the essential truths are not even included among the necessary truths; and the essential features of an object are similarly not included among its necessary features. Rather, Aristotle conceives of the necessary truths as being distinct and derivative from the essential truths; and he conceives of the necessary features of objects, traditionally known as the ‘propria’ or ‘necessary accidents’, as being distinct and derivative from, the essential features of objects. Such a non-modal conception of essence also constitutes a central component of the neo-Aristotelian approach to metaphysics defended over the last several decades by Kit Fine (see for example Fine 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1995c). Like Aristotle, Fine holds that we should not try to reduce essence to modality; rather, the modal status of necessary truths, in Fine’s view, is grounded in, and hence derivative from, facts about essences.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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