Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 4, pp 1015–1033 | Cite as

On how (not) to define modality in terms of essence

  • Robert MichelsEmail author


In his influential article ‘Essence and Modality’, Fine proposes a definition of (conceptual, logical and metaphysical) necessity in terms of the primitive essentialist notion ‘true in virtue of the nature of’. Fine’s proposal is suggestive, but it admits of different interpretations, leaving it unsettled what the precise formulation of an Essentialist definition of necessity should be. In this paper, four different versions of the definition are discussed: a singular, a plural reading, and an existential variant of Fine’s original suggestion and an alternative version proposed by Correia which is not based on Fine’s primitive essentialist notion. The first main point of the paper is that the singular reading is untenable. The second that given plausible background assumptions, the remaining three definitions are extensionally equivalent. The third is that, this equivalence notwithstanding, Essentialists should adopt Correia’s version of the definition, since both the existential variant, which has de facto been adopted as the standard version of the definition in the literature, and the plural reading suffer from problems connected to Fine’s primitive essentialist notion.


Essentialism Modality Essence Metaphysical necessity Kit fine Fabrice Correia 



Sections 24 of this paper are based on parts of a chapter of my dissertation ‘Metaphysical Modality and Essentiality’, which I defended in December 2013 at the University of Geneva. Thanks again to my supervisor Kevin Mulligan and the members of my Ph.D.-jury Fabrice Correia, Fraser MacBride, Peter Simons and Wolfgang Spohn. Parts of the paper were presented at the eidos seminar at the University of Geneva and at the Fine Conference in Varano Borghi. Thanks to everyone who discussed the paper with me on these occasions, especially to Kit Fine for his reply in Varano Borghi, to Philipp Blum, Peter Fritz, Olivier Massin, and Nathan Wildman for suggestions which led to important improvements, and to three anonymous referees for this and another journal. I gratefully acknowledge financial support by the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007-2013 under Grant Agreement No. FP7-238128 and the Swiss National Science Foundation (Project ‘Indeterminacy and Formal Concepts’, Grant-No. 156554, University of Geneva, principal investigator: Kevin Mulligan).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.eidos and Institut de philosophie, Faculté des lettres et sciences humainesUniversity of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland

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