Course Notes – On Essential and Accidental Properties
By Daniel A. Kaufman
Just got finished teaching Copi’s “Essence and Accident” (1) and Cartwright’s “Remarks on Essentialism” (2), in my Knowledge and Reality course, and the issues strike me as important – and interesting – enough, for an edition of Course Notes.
The question of whether the things in the world have essential properties or “essences” is a longstanding one, in philosophy, going back to the Ancient Greeks, who first posed it, in Western thought (as far as we know). It is still a live issue in academic philosophy today, despite the fact that in the public discourse more generally, “Essentialism,” whether with regard to race, gender, sex, etc., is almost universally rejected, at least in educated quarters.
The question of “essence” is the question of a defining property; one that constitutes the heart of what a thing really is. Why would one think there are such essences? Well, from an epistemic standpoint, one might say that some notion of essence is presupposed by the quest for understanding – when we seek to understand something, by way of our many and various forms of inquiry, we are seeking to understand what it really is and not those things that just happen to be true of it. But there is another vantage point from which to approach the question of essences and that is from the perspective of our understanding of change.
The Ancient Greeks found change a rather perplexing concept. On the on hand if we say that x changes, we are saying that it no longer is what it was before. But on the other hand, because we say that it is x that has changed, we are saying that it is what it was before. So, how do we make sense of this?
For Aristotle, the difference lies first in distinguishing two types of changes: (a) Identity-preserving changes, in which the thing that changes retains its identity through the change, and (b) identity-destroying changes, in which the thing that changes does not retain its identity and becomes some other thing, as a result.
The way to cash out this distinction is to further distinguish between two kinds of properties: (c) Those whose presence is essential to a thing’s identity and (d) those that are not. And thus, the distinction between essential and accidental properties is born.
A contemporary way of making the distinction is by way of necessity and specifically, de re necessity, rather than de dicto (‘de re’ meaning “about the thing” and ‘de dicto’ meaning “about what is said”). To illustrate, consider the following statement:
(e) Necessarily, x is F.
Read de dicto, what this says is:
(f) The statement ‘x is F’ states a necessary truth.
Read de re, what this says is:
(g) x has the property of being necessarily-F.
The idea among some contemporary philosophers has been that we can identify the essential properties of things by seeing which de re necessities are true.
There is, however, a Problem, and it is one that applies, no matter how you arrive at your list of essential properties, namely, descriptive relativity.
One might think that it is an essential property of markers that they write and only an accidental property that they are brown. Thus, if I re-ink my brown marker, so that it has black ink rather than brown, I will only have changed an accidental property, and the change, consequently, is identity-preserving. But notice that this is only because our interest in markers is commonly in their writing and not in the colors in which they write. This is reflected in the fact that we have a word for markers but not a word for brown markers or black ones. But suppose that we were interested in the colors of markers, such that we had distinctive words for markers of different colors. ‘Brarker’ for brown markers, ‘Blarker’ for black markers, ‘Grarker’ for green markers, etc. Imagine even that we had no interest in markers, generally, and that consequently, there is no generic word for markers. In that case, being brown would be an essential property of a brarker and thus, swapping its brown ink for black would constitute an identity-destroying change. A brarker would have ceased to exist and a blarker would have come into existence.
We can raise the same problem for essences, modally construed. As Quine observed, in Word and Object:
Mathematicians may conceivably be said to be necessarily rational and not necessarily two-legged; and cyclists necessarily two-legged and not necessarily rational. But what of an individual who counts among his eccentricities both mathematics and cycling? Is this concrete individual necessarily rational and contingently two-legged or vice versa? Just insofar as we are talking referentially of the object, with no special bias toward a background grouping of mathematicians as against cyclists or vice versa, there is no semblance of sense in rating some of his attributes as necessary and others as contingent.
The example is not ideal, but don’t get lost in the details of whether one might be a paraplegic cyclist or a hot-headed mathematician. If our interest in Oscar is as a cyclist, then being two-legged is an essential property and being rational, an accidental one. But if our interest in Oscar is as a mathematician, then being rational is an essential property and being two-legged an accidental one. If we ask what Oscar’s essential properties are, independently of these and any such descriptions, the question would seem impossible to answer.
You may be wondering what the problem is. Why does it matter if properties are essential or accidental, only under a particular description? From the standpoint of understanding change, it may not matter much. Just as what counts as an essential or accidental property is relative to a description, what kind of change has occurred is relative in precisely the same way. There is no absolute or description-free conception of change and no absolute fact as to whether a change has been identity-preserving or identity-destroying.
It is, however, a serious problem from the epistemic standpoint. For those who think that the ultimate point of inquiry is to understand the true nature of things – what they really are, not what they are relative to various interests or under various descriptions – the relativity that I’ve described and which seems inevitable, spells trouble. Indeed, I would maintain that the absence of absolute essences – the fact that it makes no sense to speak of a thing’s true nature, independently of all interests and descriptions – is connected to more general, far-reaching questions, like those pertaining to the Realism/Anti-Realism dispute. After all, if we only speak of a thing’s essence, relative to various interests and descriptions, how likely will it be that we can speak of things at all, other than in terms of such interests and descriptions?
Fortunately, Realism and Anti-Realism are the subjects we are going to take up next, in the course, by way of Quine’s and Putnam’s and Davidson’s work on conceptual and ontological relativity, so if this issue is keeping you up at night, you won’t have long to wait.
(1) Irving Copi, “Essence and Accident,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 51, No. 23 (1954), pp. 706-719.
(2) Richard Cartwright, “Some Remarks on Essentialism,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 65, No. 20 (1968), pp. 615-626.
(3) W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object, The MIT Press, 1960, Ch. 6.