Friday, November 23, 2007

On a distinction I don't quite get

Occasionally I see a distinction drawn in philosophical literature. I think it is usually drawn in terms of entities. The distinction is historical versus essence-bearing. The idea is that if something has an essence, then there is a clearly demarcated core of things to know about that entity. These things are objective, transcend paradigms, or are not dependent on any specific conceptual frames or theories. I think it usually goes along with this view that knowledge about the essences yields necessary truths about the thing and, possibly, that this knowledge can be gotten a priori. I'm not sure since I don't think I've seen this laid out and defended anywhere.

The contrast is entities that are historical. These things have no essences. Their properties are entirely contingent. Their properties are dependent on how they develop over time, a development which could have been otherwise. There is no necessity in their being so. Because of this, possibly, they are not as open to a priori investigation. Knowledge of their properties yields no necessary truths. Arthur Fine has one version of this view in his "Unnatural Attitudes": "But the description of science as an historical entity was intended precisely to undercut at least one version of that idea, the idea that science has an essence. ... If science is an historical entity, however, then no such grand enterprise should tempt us, for its essence or nature is just its contingent, historical existence."

I've seen versions of this distinction used by many philosophers. Ones that spring to mind are Brandom, Rorty, and Fine. I feel like there should be something along these lines in Marx, Nietzsche, Hegel, Quine, Davidson, McDowell, and Kripke, but no instances are forthcoming. [Edit: McDowell, Davidson, and Hegel probably shouldn't be in the list. Kripke is mainly there to endorse the essence side of the distinction. I 'm not really sure if he talks about the other side.] As I said above, I don't think I've ever seen an explicit laying out of this distinction and what it entails. I'm not even sure what sort of distinction it is. Is it a distinction of sorts of aims, looking for essences versus looking for historical developments? Is it a distinction among entities, the essence-haves and -have-nots?

At least at times it has a bit of an intuitive pull. There does seem to be some general distinction, however blurry, that it is rightly drawing. But, this is terribly hand-wavy. A more pointed question is: is the distinction rightly drawn in the exclusive terms I gave above? Is there a helpful sense in which we can understand historical entities as having essences of some sort (barring 'historical' as an essential feature,I suppose)? Are these two categories orthogonal ones? Getting clear on this would help illuminate the claims that people who use it make. For example, if they are orthogonal, then Fine would be wrong to say that viewing science as historical should tempt us away from viewing it as having an essence.


Kenny said...

I sometimes feel like this is the distinction in mindset between the sciences (things have essences) and the humanities (they're all historical and contingent). Though of course that oversimplifies a whole lot. And philosophers are really the ones that think that everything has essences (scientists are surprised when philosophers say that morality, explanation, belief, knowledge, possibility, and other things have objective facts of the matter about them).

Daniel said...

I'm not sure why you think Hegel should have some form of this distinction kicking around. Hegel's "essences" are the things whose appearances develop historically; "Essence must appear". In general, the idea of an opposition between "history" and "necessity" in Hegel strikes me as odd. For Hegel, what is purely contingent is of no deep interest to thought; his example is enjoying the way cloud-formations float around (EL ss145). If you meant that Hegel should probably consider something like this distinction (to reject it), this seems plausible. Though I don't recall where he does so. Possibly in one of the places where he rejects a "mathematical method" in philosophy.

I'm not sure where Davidson or McDowell would use the distinction, either, again unless you just mean for them to reject it. Divying objects up into those that "are objective, transcend paradigms, or are not dependent on any specific conceptual frames or theories" and those that are not seems scheme/content-y.

Rorty does at least have a version of the distinction in play; I'm thinking of the introduction to "Consequences of Pragmatism", where Rorty claims that pragmatism is a rejection of "essentialism" about the true, the good etc. (I recall him laying out the essentialist/pragmatist distinction fairly straightforwardly there, but I don't have the book here and it's not searchable on Amazon.) Rorty has plenty to say about contingency & history; I suspect you could piece together a fairly robust sense of what it is to have an "essence" by just looking at all the things Rorty rejects under that heading.

I'm inclined to say that if the distinction is worth drawing at all, then the two categories are going to be orthogonal. But it seems to me that the only intuitive pull the distinction has is due to the attraction of a problematic notion of "essence". If being "historical" means having no essence, then an acorn has no essence, since acorns could have never existed, are dependent on time to develop into oak trees, etc. But the acorn-oak relation strikes me as paradigmatic of a thing having an essence. So this distinction between things which have or don't have essences seems to me to be concerned with some strange notion of "essence", and not one that I can see the point in.

Shawn said...

I agree in part. It almost seems like a methodological distinction except for no one besides philosophers talking about essences.

I think Hegel is in the list cause Rorty and Brandom both say these sorts of things. He could very well not belong at all. You are right that McDowell doesn't belong in the list. I'm not sure why I stuck him there.

I felt like Quine should be in the list mainly to reject the essence side of the distinction. Davidson is there sort of piggybacking on Quine, although it is more Quine that I was thinking of. That is a good point about this looking sort of like scheme/content. I wonder if it can be connected to the myth of the given... I think the best sense of the distinction that I've gotten was from Rorty, probably the Consequences of Pragmatism. I haven't looked at it for about a year. I will look into it when the library opens on Monday.

I came across that quote from Fine last night when I was working on a paper and that gave rise to the post. I'll check the Rorty and see how well that calms my uneasiness.