Anti-Essentialism and Counterpart Theory

The Monist 88 (4):600-618 (2005)
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Anti-essentialism holds that no thing has any modal properties except relative to a conceptualization—for instance, relative to a description. One and the same thing might be essentially rational relative to the description “mathematician” but only accidentally rational relative to the description “bicyclist.” Anti-essentialism was dominant in pre-Kripkean days. The old description theory of names made room for anti-essentialism by reducing apparently true de re modal attributions to de dicto ones by way of the hidden description. We can follow Kripke in giving up the description theory without thereby giving up anti-essentialism. Counterpart theory makes room for anti-essentialism by interpreting de re modal attributions by way of counterparts and allowing that different other-worldly objects count as a thing’s counterparts relative to different ways of thinking of the thing. One thing is essentially physical when thought of as a body but only accidentally physical when thought of as a person. One thing has its shape essentially when thought of as a statue but only accidentally when thought of as a lump of clay. The metaphysical meat of counterpart theory is that it allows for anti-essentialism.



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Mark Heller
Syracuse University

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