Edginess about essences
April 14, 2014 § 6 Comments
In a nominalist’s world everything blends into everything else. Names are just arbitrary labels that we assign to groupings of similar things for our own purposes: like Humpty Dumpty when we use a word it means just what we say it means, nothing more, nothing less. Getting from one sort of thing to another sort of thing is like navigating a connected conceptual terrain: we cross boundaries from one kind of thing to reach another kind of thing, and in between kinds of things there are either cliff edges or transition zones in shades of gray.
In a world where things have essences, though — that is, in reality — it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t make sense to propose that if we just go far enough in the right direction on the terrain-of-everything-that-is, this apple can become an orange. It doesn’t make sense to try to make an orange get as close as possible to appleness without actually crossing the line and becoming an apple. It doesn’t make sense to propose that in order to avoid apples we have to understand the boundary where oranges become apples. It doesn’t make sense to suggest that because knowing what apples are and what oranges are is in some sense an empirical question, ‘what is an apple’ can be resolved by taking a poll of how various people use the term “apple”. And it doesn’t make sense to attempt to shut down criticism of apples by suggesting that labels are arbitrary, so when we use the term apple it means just what we say it means, nothing more, nothing less.