Anti-essentialism, modal relativity, and alternative material-origin counterfactuals

Synthese 199 (3-4):8379-8398 (2021)
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In ordinary language, in the medical sciences, and in the overlap between them, we frequently make claims which imply that we might have had different gametic origins from the ones we actually have. Such statements seem intuitively true and coherent. But they counterfactually ascribe different DNA to their referents and therefore contradict material-origin essentialism, which Kripke and his followers argue is intuitively obvious. In this paper I argue, using examples from ordinary language and from philosophy of medicine and bioethics, that statements which attribute alternative material origins to their referents are useful, common in political and medical reasoning, and in many cases best interpreted literally. So we must replace the doctrine of material-origin essentialism with one that can make sense of ordinary discourse and the language of the medical sciences. I propose an anti-essentialist account of such counterfactuals according to which individuals’ modal properties are relative to a given inquiry.


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Frederique Janssen-Lauret
University of Manchester

Citations of this work

Ruth Barcan Marcus and quantified modal logic.Frederique Janssen-Lauret - 2021 - British Journal for the History of Philosophy 30 (2):353-383.

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The Philosophy of Philosophy.Timothy Williamson - 2007 - Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Naming and Necessity.Saul Kripke - 1980 - Philosophy 56 (217):431-433.

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