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Essence and Properties


The distinction between the essence of an object and its properties has been obscured in contemporary discussion of essentialism. Locke held that the properties of an object are exclusively those features that ‘flow’ from its essence. Here he follows the Aristotelian theory, leaving aside Locke’s own scepticism about the knowability of essence. I defend the need to distinguish sharply between essence and properties, arguing that essence must be given by form and that properties flow from form. I give a precise definition of what the term of art ‘flow’ amounts to, and apply the distinction to various kinds of taxonomic issues.

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  1. 1.

    Gelman (2003).

  2. 2.

    Note that what follows is meant to apply in a wholly general way, i.e. without restriction to certain kinds as opposed to others. Although it is my view that everything that exists has an essence, this is not presupposed in the present discussion. What is presupposed is that for everything that does have an essence, the distinction between essence and properties applies.

  3. 3.

    The full modalist conception of essence, of course, identifies it with necessary and sufficient characteristics, but I focus here, as with other critics, on whether necessary characteristics are essential.

  4. 4.

    Fine (1994). See also Gorman (2005), Oderberg (2007): Chap. 1.

  5. 5.

    It is not, of course, insignificant in general: that some objects are partly conventional is quite significant for their metaphysical analysis. By ‘insignificant’ here, I mean only as far as the possibility of real (as opposed to nominal) definition is concerned.

  6. 6.

    What about the changeability of conventions? Suppose sedimentologists altered their stipulation of the minimum diameter of sand by .001 mm; or consider the fact that an engineer might stipulate a different diameter range from a sedimentologist; or that national standards as to what constitutes sand might differ. I do not pretend there to be no metaphysical significance to any of this: the metaphysical analysis of partly (or wholly) conventional objects is a difficult issue I cannot pursue here. What I do claim, however, is that once a stipulation (even if it is imprecise or non-mathematical) is made, it is really (as opposed to nominally) the case that sand has a definition that fits the stipulation. The conventional aspect to the definition means that sand’s unifying form is partly stipulative, and the significance of this is that it would be wrong to call sand as such a substance, at least without qualification. Its existence is partly ontologically dependent on human convention, since its unifying form has a conventional element. As my initial example of a pure artefact—a cricket ball—is meant to convey, the early part of the discussion is not limited to substances but covers any entity with a unifying form, from pure substance to pure artefact. Sand falls somewhere in between. It is only later that I narrow the discussion down to substance as my primary concern.

  7. 7.

    Though it is arguable that in general artefacts are easier to define since we have greater access to our stipulations and conventions than to the workings of nature. Although I will avoid important epistemological questions here, I hold that there is no easy separation of essences into the class of those knowable a priori and those knowable a posteriori. For instance, in the case of (V), the essence of the violin is largely knowable a priori by its inventors but only a posteriori by users who had no part in determining its structure and function. (Note ‘largely’: part of the essence of a violin is to be tuned a certain way, but the essence of the tuning, which is part of the essence of the violin, is only knowable a posteriori.) In the case of (S), the essence of sand is knowable largely a posteriori but also partly a priori since there is an element of stipulation with respect to diameters. In general, the essences of artefacts contain more content that is knowable a priori than those of non-artefactual or natural kinds. Hence the sort of essentialism I defend cannot be identified with the position that all essences are knowable a posteriori or that they are all knowable a priori.

  8. 8.

    In fact, since not all elms can cross-breed it appears that there are genuine botanical species within the botanical genus Ulmus, thus making Ulmus a metaphysical genus as well—the proximate genus, to be precise—with the botanical family Ulmaceae being the next highest metaphysical genus and the botanical species within Ulmus, assuming no further species lower than these, being metaphysical infima species.

  9. 9.

    For more on this, see Oderberg (2007): Chaps. 8 and 9.

  10. 10.

    For an extended critique of historical analyses of the idea of biological essence, see Oderberg (2007): Chap. 9.

  11. 11.

    See: Kripke on ‘internal structure’, in his (1980): 120ff; Putnam on ‘hidden structure’, in his (1975): 235ff; Locke on ‘real essence or internal constitution’, in his (1975/1690): II.XXXI.6; also II.XXIII.3, III.VI.9 and elsewhere. For a contrary interpretation of Locke, see Leary (2009).

  12. 12.

    Putnam (1975): 241. To be fair, Putnam confines his attention to natural kinds only, and further allows that not all natural kinds may possess a ‘hidden structure’, but the overall emphasis is on essences as given by such structures, even when he considers living things. Ellis in his (2001) is far less cautious and more explicit in his commitment to internal structure essentialism.

  13. 13.

    For a little more detail, see Gorman (2005).

  14. 14.

    For some criticisms, see Oderberg (2007): 13ff., 157ff.

  15. 15.

    Since the trope bundle theory is more acutely subject to unity problems of its own (such as trope migration), I leave it to one side and concentrate on a unity-friendlier theory incorporating real universals as well as property instances. For varieties of the trope bundle theory, see Simons (1994); and for criticisms, see Lowe (1999): 206ff.

  16. 16.

    Following Lowe, who adheres to the more traditional terminology in his (2006).

  17. 17.

    Where unit negative charge is −1.602 × 10−19 coulombs. In fact this is only a partial definition of electrons, since muons and tauons are also elementary particles with unit negative charge: what distinguish the three are their different masses, inter alia. For simplicity in the ensuing discussion, however, I will take the partial definition to be complete.

  18. 18.

    Albeit chloride ions have unit negative charge in virtue of gaining an electron. Nevertheless, it is not just the electron that carries the charge but the ion of which it is a part, which is why in sodium chloride the oppositely charged sodium and chloride ions themselves are attracted.

  19. 19.

    In the context of both criticizing Lowe’s account of law statements and expressing scepticism about the role of natural kinds in dispositional essentialism: Bird (2007): 208–209.

  20. 20.

    Armstrong (1983).

  21. 21.

    Leave aside whether we might want to include other properties such as having maximum radius 10 −22 m. On the version of essentialism I defend, and as will be clear from this paper, there would be no place for any other such property as part of the property being an electron, assuming (which I deny anyway) that being an electron is a property at all.

  22. 22.

    I use square brackets simply to avoid any suggestion that there is something specifically set-theoretic in the idea. Since [E, U] is thought of as a mereologically essential complex, the relation to U should if anything be understood as necessary parthood rather than as necessary inclusion or membership, but I use the latter in the main text as a more generic term.

  23. 23.

    For trenchant criticism, see Bird (2007): Chap. 4.

  24. 24.

    Hume, Appendix to A Treatise of Human Nature in his (1978/1739): 635–6.

  25. 25.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this to me.

  26. 26.

    I am, therefore, ruling out the possibility of a genus with only one species. More precisely, I exclude the possibility of a genus for which it is metaphysically impossible that it have more than one species. If all the non-mammals were wiped out, then animal would only have one immediately lower species, namely all the mammals (and, of course, species of mammals below it, and so on, but this is irrelevant to the argument). But it would still be metaphysically possible for non-mammals to exist, and hence for the genus animal to have more than one species. Only the metaphysical possibility of multiple species of a single genus is necessary for the argument to go through.

  27. 27.

    The useful epithet comes from Gendler and Hawthorne (eds) (2002): Introduction.

  28. 28.

    See Oderberg (2007), esp. Chaps. 4 and 5.

  29. 29.

    But not exclusively, as my example of the cricket ball is meant to suggest.

  30. 30.

    Although there are important differences between the essences of artefacts and those of natural kinds, I present and discuss the unity problem in terms of both. This is because although the story is more complicated for artefacts it is the same in principle as far as the requirement of a principle of unity is concerned. Artefacts are not strictly substances but ontologically dependent entities consisting of one or more substances, one or more of their accidents, and at least one mind that stipulates certain functions etc. for the substance/s in virtue of those accidents. The unity of natural kinds does not require a mind to stipulate their function (leaving aside issues to do with a divine cause), but the unity of artefacts does. Nevertheless, that the cause of an artefact’s unity partly requires something extrinsic to the artefact is a fact additional to the fact that artefacts still require a form to unify those elements and properties that they are stipulated to have. It is just that the form, as principle of unity, will not be wholly intrinsic. For more on artefacts, see Oderberg (2007): Chap. 7, Sect. 4. (Although, as in the definition of sand, there is sometimes a stipulative element with respect to the essences of natural kinds, the situation is different from that of artefacts, for with kinds such as sand the stipulation merely determines the range of objects that fall under the kind. This does not mean that sand lacks an intrinsic substantial form, or that sand is an artefactual kind, only that it is a natural kind with a stipulative element.).

  31. 31.

    Locke (1975/1690): II.XXIII.2, p. 295.

  32. 32.

    For some useful discussion of the issue, see Koslicki (2008): 147, 159–62. For Aristotle, see De Anima I:5, 411b5-13, and also Metaphysics Delta: 25, 1023b12–25.

  33. 33.

    Aquinas (1951): Book I, Lectio 14, Sect. 206.

  34. 34.

    Hence, when Koslicki (2008): 147, n.57, speak of ‘form, in the guise of definition’, appearing in Met. Delta: 25 as a kind of whole, this is in my view a mistake for the reasons given above.

  35. 35.

    See further Oderberg (2007): Chap. 5.

  36. 36.

    Locke (1975/1690): II.XXXI.13, p. 383. I say ‘semi-correctly’ because what is right about his summary is the distinction between essence and the characteristics that flow from essence. What is wrong is his belief that essence itself is unobservable, i.e. that all we can observe are the properties that flow from it. We can observe that gold has atomic number 79 and that fish are vertebrates. The whole story, however, is more complex; see further Oderberg (2007): Chap. 2.

  37. 37.

    Locke (1975/1690): II.XXXII.24, p. 392–3; III.VI.19, p. 449.

  38. 38.

    As in Gorman (2005).

  39. 39.

    Fine (1995): 57.

  40. 40.

    Note: what is a constituent of the essence of one kind of thing might be only a property of another, and what is a constituent of the essence or a property of one kind of thing might be a mere accident of another. Sphericity is of the essence of a basketball but a property of free water droplets. Redness is a property of blood but a mere accident of fire engines. It is not easy to find a single universal that performs the role of all three in different kinds, but the point is that it is universals in all those roles. The idea that universals can be constituents of essence, or properties, or mere accidents, goes back to Aristotle in Topics 101b17ff. and Boethius in his translation of Porphyry’s Isagoge, which slightly modified Aristotle’s theory.

  41. 41.

    Fine (1995): 57.

  42. 42.

    As claimed earlier, the form itself is metaphysically simple. It gives the essence (in conjunction with matter as is always presupposed for material substances) but is not itself the essence. The essence has parts, but the form does not unify them by itself having parts. Hence it is only in a loose sense that I call the form a whole; strictly, only substances are wholes with parts (and the corresponding essence with its parts). More needs to be said about how form can unify without itself having complexity, but I leave this for another occasion.

  43. 43.

    Fine (1995): 56.

  44. 44.

    Fine (1995): 59.

  45. 45.

    Though we could formulate the thought using property abstraction.

  46. 46.

    Fine (1995): 59. One might object that being such that the law of non-contradiction is true or being such that 2 + 2 = 4 are not even potential properties of an entity, and hence are not good counterexamples to the consequential conception of essence. It is true that Fine employs a liberal conception of ‘property’ in this context, but the point could equally be made with logical consequences that look more plausibly to denote potential properties of things. ‘a has E’ entails ‘Either a is F or a is not-F’, but Fine would not want to count this consequence as part of a’s essence any more than the others he mentions. I am not sure he would be right about this particular example, since one might claim that on a suitably aetiolated conception of what essence amounts to, being F or being not-F is part of the essence of anything at the most general level. Consider, though, being unmarried if a bachelor: this does not seem to be part of anything’s essence though it arguably expresses a property (loosely speaking), albeit a conditional one.

  47. 47.

    The ‘not’ is missing in the text but I have confirmed that this is a typographical error.

  48. 48.

    Fine (1995): 59.

  49. 49.

    See further Oderberg (2007): Chap. 4, esp. Sect. 3.

  50. 50.

    An origin, in this sense, is called a ‘principle’ by Aristotle and Aquinas. Aristotle’s term is archē, Aquinas’s is principium. Both put the terms to a wide variety of uses, among which is the explanation of some phenomenon (e.g., change, the generation of substances) in terms of an ultimate or undemonstrable principle. There is no implication of temporal or even epistemological priority, only logical or metaphysical, i.e. the place of a principle in the order of explanation of how other things come to be. Form as origin of properties, in my sense, is a paradigmatic example of what both Aristotle and Aquinas would call a principle out of which other beings arise.

  51. 51.

    Bird (2001) gives a plausible account of just why salt is necessarily water-soluble in terms of what it is to be salt, which accords with the idea defended here that properties flow from essence.

  52. 52.

    See further Oderberg (2007): Chap. 7, Sects. 2 and 3.

  53. 53.

    On finks, see Martin (1994); on masks, see Molnar (2003): 92–3; on antidotes, see Bird (1998).

  54. 54.

    I follow the useful terminology of Lowe (2006), who speaks of attributes ‘characterizing’ kinds. He would disagree, however, with my general thesis that there is a special class of attributes such that necessarily every member of a kind has all of the attributes characterizing that kind.

  55. 55.

    For example Martin (1994). Extended discussion can be found in Bird (2007): Chap. 2.

  56. 56.

    And, equally curiously, of exploding at the slightest touch to the tail of the bulb.

  57. 57.

    Note: in the cases mentioned earlier, non-combustible wood is produced by impregnation with non-flammable material, and so-called albino tigers are either not genuine albinos since they still have some striping (albeit pale or weak), or if genuine albino have been described as sickly and stunted. Hence the propositions that wood has the property of combustibility and that tigers have the property of being striped are unrefuted: in both cases an independently specifiable process (impregnation with non-flammable material, or genetic mutation leading to arrested development) explains the relevant prevention.

  58. 58.

    For more on knowledge of essences via properties, see Oderberg (2007): Chap. 7, Sect. 3.

  59. 59.

    Note 51 above.


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I am grateful to the referees for their detailed comments on an earlier version of this paper. I would also like to thank audiences at the University of Leipzig and at the Prague conference ‘Metaphysics: Aristotelian, Scholastic, Analytic’, to whom prior versions of this paper were delivered.

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Correspondence to David S. Oderberg.

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Oderberg, D.S. Essence and Properties. Erkenn 75, 85–111 (2011).

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  • Natural Kind
  • Essential Property
  • Logical Truth
  • Dispositional Property
  • Bare Substratum