Antirealist Essentialism

Dissertation, University of Leeds (2014)
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This project is an investigation into the prospects for an antirealist theory of essence. Essentialism is the claim that at least some things have some of their properties essentially. Essentialist discourse includes claims such as “Socrates is essentially human”, and “Socrates is accidentally bearded”. Historically, there are two ways of interpreting essentialist discourse. I call these positions ‘modal essentialism’ and ‘neo-Aristotelian essentialism’. According to modal essentialism, for Socrates to be essentially human is for it to be necessary that he be a human if he exists, and for Socrates to accidentally have a beard is for it to be contingent that Socrates has a beard if he exists. According to neo-Aristotelian essentialism, objects have definitions in something like the way words do. For Socrates to be essentially human but accidentally bearded is for it to be part of the definition of Socrates that he is human, but not part of that definition that he is bearded. I argue that both are susceptible to antirealist interpretation. This thesis sets about showing that this is the case. In Chapters One and Two I investigate neo-conventionalist theories of modality, in the hope of using such a position to develop an antirealist modal essentialism. In Chapter Three I discuss the debate between modal and neo-Aristotelian essentialism and conclude that it is by no means settled. In Chapter Four I develop an antirealist neo-Aristotelian essentialism based on the mechanism of one of the neo-conventionalist accounts of modality. In Chapter Five I argue that this account is in a better position to give an essentialist theory of necessity than its realist counterparts. I conclude that, regardless of whether one is a modal or neo-Aristotelian essentialist, antirealist essentialism is a viable theory of essence that is worthy of consideration in contemporary debate.
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