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Essentialist explanation


Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in metaphysical explanation, and philosophers have fixed on the notion of ground as the conceptual tool with which such explanation should be investigated. I will argue that this focus on ground is myopic and that some metaphysical explanations that involve the essences of things cannot be understood in terms of ground. Such ‘essentialist’ explanation is of interest, not only for its ubiquity in philosophy, but for its being in a sense an ultimate form of explanation. I give an account of the sense in which such explanation is ultimate and support it by defending what I call the inessentiality of essence. I close by suggesting that this principle is the key to understanding why essentialist explanations can seem so satisfying.

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  1. 1.

    I will use these essentialist locutions (and obvious variations on them) interchangeably. Nothing will turn on any differences in logical form between such locutions.

  2. 2.

    I will take facts (and propositions) to be structured entities (à la Russell) built up from worldly constituents like objects, properties, operations and so on. The fact that A will therefore be distinct from the fact that t is essentially such that A.

  3. 3.

    Fine (1995b) distinguishes a number of notions of essence. In this paper I have in mind something very close to Fine’s notion of immediate constitutive essence, though I am not sure he thinks of such essence as what something is at its core. For further discussion of essence see Fine (1994), Correia (2006) and Koslicki (2011), among others.

  4. 4.

    I leave aside the question of how such explanations should be understood, though see Kment (2014) for discussion.

  5. 5.

    Rosen (2010) flirts with the proposal, Dasgupta (2016, 390–391) apparently presupposes it and Kment (2014) endorses it(though he uses ‘metaphysical explanation' to mean what we mean by ‘grounding explanation').

  6. 6.

    For discussion of ground and grounding explanation, see Fine (2001, 2012a), Schaffer (2009) and Rosen (2010), among others. The proposal (as well as the grounding account of ultimacy rejected in Sect. 3) presupposes a unified notion of ground. This presupposition has been challenged by Wilson (2014) and Koslicki (2015); so much the worse for the proposal if they are right.

  7. 7.

    Philosophers have distinguished notions of full and partial grounding explanation. Since an essentialist explanation is clearly a full explanation, the proposal is plausible only if understood as involving full grounding explanation.

  8. 8.

    One might, of course, use ‘grounding explanation’ simply to refer to any explanation of a metaphysical kind. But philosophers working on grounding explanation have tended instead to characterize such explanation by reference to paradigm cases, such as the explanation of a conjunctive fact in terms of its conjuncts, of a disjunctive fact in terms of its true disjuncts, of the possession of a determinable property in terms of the possession of a determinate property, and so on. I will follow this approach here.

  9. 9.

    Of course, in the case of the cat and the mat, one might take the facts A and B to be identical and so think the case provides no reason to think our first condition was too strong. (See Williamson 1985; Fine 2000; Dorr 2004, among others, for discussion of the general issues here.) But one might think all the same that there is some other reason to adopt the weaker condition. Alternatively, one might think that there is no such reason and that the stronger condition should be maintained. The case developed below shows that the grounding proposal should be rejected whichever of these views one has.

  10. 10.

    Fine’s rule is formulated more generally and employs his notion of ‘weak ground’. If one fact weakly grounds another, that entails that the first does the grounding work of the second, in our sense. The converse, however, does not hold.

  11. 11.

    One might think the condition should be weakened still further, or should have been weakened in a different way. Consider a disjunction A ∨ B both of whose disjuncts are true. One might wish to count as grounds of the disjunction all facts that ground the conjunction A ∧ B. And one might think that among these facts we may well find facts that do not do the grounding work of either disjunct alone. The case developed below shows that the grounding proposal runs afoul of this condition too.

  12. 12.

    Pace Leuenberger (2014) and Skiles (2015).

  13. 13.

    This condition, with one slight qualification, is a consequence of Fine’s (2012a, 65) elimination rule for the existential quantifier. The qualification is this: if some instance is in Fine’s sense ‘zero-grounded’, then his rule allows that a fact might ground an existential generalization even if it fails to do the grounding work of any instance, provided it does the grounding work of the ‘totality fact’ that the objects of the domain are what they are. Our argument can be modified to accommodate this qualification.

  14. 14.

    My discussion here owes much to Fine (1995b) and Dasgupta (2014).

  15. 15.

    Devitt (1984) attributes the view to Kant.

  16. 16.

    Some remarks of Sider’s (2011, 267) suggest another way in which essentialist facts might be grounded. He floats the possibility of giving a reductive account of essence on which t is essentially such that A just in case (a) it is the case that A and (b) A is a certain sort of claim about t, such as an analytic claim.

  17. 17.

    For discussion of fundamentality see Fine (2001), Schaffer (2010), Jenkins (2011) and Sider (2011), among others.

  18. 18.

    For instance, Schaffer (2009), Bennett (2011) and deRosset (2013), among others. Other than Dasgupta, who is discussed below, Fine (2001) is the only philosopher I know of who admits the possibility of such facts. For Fine, a nonfundamental fact can be ungrounded provided it does not help to constitute the ‘objective’ part of the world. One might take essentialist facts to fall in this category and thereby uphold the grounding account. But such a view still runs afoul of the point made below that ground is irrelevant to the ultimacy of essentialist explanation.

  19. 19.

    My argument is of some interest apart from the topic of essentialist explanation, as Dasgupta has appealed to the distinction in defending the principle of sufficient reason (2016) and in formulating the thesis of physicalism (2014).

  20. 20.

    Fine (2012a, 48). Fine speaks of statements here, but a corresponding example involving facts could be given.

  21. 21.

    I am grateful to Ted Sider for discussion of this issue.

  22. 22.

    Suppose, for instance, that one takes the fact that water contains hydrogen to admit of essentialist explanation in terms of the fact that water essentially contains hydrogen. Nothing said here prevents one from taking the latter to admit of some kind of further explanation—perhaps a grounding explanation—in terms of the fact that water is essentially H2O, or in terms of some more general fact about the essence of the kind ‘chemical compound’, or in still other terms.

  23. 23.

    This notation is due to Kment (2014). Fine’s (1995a) notation ‘□ t A’ is more familiar, but I wish to avoid the suggestion that our notion of essence obeys a modal logic.

  24. 24.

    See also the discussion in Dasgupta (2014). It is actually a theorem of Fine’s (1995a) system that if t is essentially such that A, then t is essentially such that t is essentially such that A. But that system is intended to govern a consequentialist notion of essence, and Dasgupta shows that the proof of Fine’s theorem does not plausibly carry over to the case of our constitutive notion.

  25. 25.

    One might take the nature of conjunction to be given by a certain function f on pairs of truth values and so think that conjunction essentially operates in accord with f. And one might further take functions to have their values essentially and thus think that f not only maps (T, T) to T but does so essentially. By ‘chaining’ these essences in the manner discussed in Sect. 3, one might then come to accept the proposition that conjunction essentially operates in accord with a function that maps (T, T) to T. But this should not be taken to provide a counterexample to the principle of the inessentiality of essence. For in the first place, there is no reason to take it to be essential to conjunction that the conjunction-function f essentially maps (T, T) to T, which is what is required for a counterexample. And in the second place, the notion of essence involved in the proposition is mediate, whereas the notion involved in the principle is immediate. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for calling my attention to this case.

  26. 26.

    Rosen has discussed a related principle in unpublished work.

  27. 27.

    Cf. Fine (2015, 296–267).

  28. 28.

    We have taken an essentialist explanation to be one in which we explain a fact of the form ‘A’ in terms of a fact of the form ‘t is essentially such that A’. But some philosophers (such as Fine 1995b) have thought that, in addition to these individual essentialist facts, there can also be collective essentialist facts of the form ‘t 1t n taken together are essentially such that A’ (in symbols: E t1 tn A). If we wish to recognize collective essentialist facts, we must modify our characterization of essentialist explanation to accommodate them, and we must generalize our argument for the principle of the inessentiality of essence. This can be done, but a full presentation must await another time.

  29. 29.

    Cf. Dasgupta (2016, 383).


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My thanks to Brookes Brown, Shamik Dasgupta, Louis deRosset, Kit Fine, Dan Fogal, Matthew Hanser, Kathrin Koslicki, Enoch Lambert, Jon Litland, Penelope Mackie, Barry Maguire, Carla Merino-Rajme, Asya Passinsky, Mike Raven, Jeff Russell, Ted Sider, Michael Strevens, Steve Swartzer, Peter Tan, to anonymous referees, and to audiences at the CUNY Graduate Center, the APA Pacific Division and the University of Helsinki.

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Correspondence to Martin Glazier.

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Glazier, M. Essentialist explanation. Philos Stud 174, 2871–2889 (2017).

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  • Essence
  • Explanation
  • Ground
  • Ultimacy