Essence and modal knowledge

Synthese 198 (Suppl 8):1957-1979 (2018)
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Abstract

During the last quarter of a century, a number of philosophers have become attracted to the idea that necessity can be analyzed in terms of a hyperintensional notion of essence. One challenge for proponents of this view is to give a plausible explanation of our modal knowledge. The goal of this paper is to develop a strategy for meeting this challenge. My approach rests on an account of modality that I developed in previous work, and which analyzes modal properties in terms of the notion of a metaphysical law. I discuss what information about the metaphysical laws is required for modal knowledge. Moreover, I describe two ways in which we might be able to acquire this information. The first way employs inference to the best explanation. The metaphysical laws, including the essential truths, play a crucial role in causal and grounding explanations and we can gain knowledge of these laws by abductive inferences from facts of which we have perceptual or a priori knowledge. The second way of gaining information about the metaphysical laws rests on knowledge that is partly constitutive of competence with the concepts that are needed to express the relevant information. Finally, I consider how knowledge of the metaphysical laws can be used to establish modal claims, paying special attention to the much-discussed connection between conceiving and possibility.

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Boris Kment
Princeton University

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