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Social kinds are essentially mind-dependent

Abstract

I defend a novel view of how social kinds (e.g., money, women, permanent residents) depend on our mental states. In particular, I argue that social kinds depend on our mental states in the following sense: it is essential to them that they exist (partially) because certain mental states exist. This analysis is meant to capture the very general way in which all social kinds depend on our mental states. However, my view is that particular social kinds also depend on our mental states in more specific ways—some of them causal, others metaphysical. I defend a minimal but metaphysically important notion of essence—one that takes as primary that the essential properties of a kind constitute its identity—and argue that this minimal notion of essence is all that is needed to vindicate my claim that social kinds are essentially mind-dependent.

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Notes

  1. I do not defend any particular analysis of these relations, e.g., grounding (though see Griffith 2018a, 2018b; Epstein 2014a, 2014b, 2015, 2016; Schaffer 2017). My view is that there is a plurality of more specific ways in which social kinds depend on our mental states (see Wilson 2014).

  2. Searle sometimes describes social reality as being “observer relative” or “ontologically subjective” (see e.g., 1995, 2006, 2010, 2014).

  3. Thomasson argues that many social kinds (e.g., racism, recessions) are “conceptually opaque” (2003a, 275)—that is, they can exist even if we do not have any attitudes about them.

  4. Thomasson extends Searle’s view to include abstract social entities which are created by collective acceptance (e.g., corporations, laws) (2003a).

  5. According to Khalidi, some social kinds are such that they exist only if we have certain mental states about the kinds in question (e.g., money, war); other social kinds are such that they exist only if we have certain mental states about the kinds and their instances (e.g., permanent resident); still others are such that they exist only if we have certain mental states, but the requisite mental states need not be about the relevant kinds or their instances (e.g., racism, recessions) (2015, 99–102).

  6. Of course, my analysis of mind-dependence has modal implications. However, there is an important difference between defending a view of mind-dependence that has modal implications and defending a modal view of mind-dependence. I return to this point in Sect. 3, below.

  7. Griffith (2018a, 2018b, 2020) and Schaffer (2017) are recent exceptions. Griffiths and Schaffer employ a grounding framework rather than one that appeals to essence. For an overview and defense of the use of hyperintensional resources in metaphysics, see Nolan (2014).

  8. Though this sentiment is widespread, it is rarely expressed explicitly in print.

  9. The anti-essentialist tendency in feminist philosophy is so strong that, as Charlotte Witt puts it, “showing that a position is ‘essentialist’ can function in and of itself as a good reason for rejecting it” (1995, 321).

  10. An alternative way of responding to this line of argument is to deny the initial assumption that social kinds are mind dependent in the first place by denying the existence of non-causal dependence relations and by positing an explanation of why we are disposed to believe that non-causal dependence relations exist and underlie true metaphysical explanations (e.g., {d} exists because d exists), see Norton and Miller (2017) and Duncan, Miller and Norton (2018). For an account of what makes metaphysical explanations true without appealing to dependence relations like grounding, see Norton and Miller (2018).

  11. Thanks to Katherine Ritchie for helping me to refine MD2. See Searle (1995, 2010), Tuomela (2007), **Thomasson (2003a, 2003b) for versions of this view.

  12. Francesco Guala (2010, 2014) also argues against MD2. However, his argument is different from the one I offer here. Whereas I argue that MD2 is not a dependence relation, Guala argues that there are cases in which an entity is K but we do not collectively accept that some conditions are sufficient for being K.

  13. For example, Fine (1994, 1995), Koslicki (2012, 2013); Tahko and Lowe (2016) defend non-modal analyses of ontological dependence. See Bliss and Trogdon (2016) for an overview of recent work on grounding.

  14. NB: Kovacs (2019) argues that proper supervenience is hyperintensional: “fact A properly supervences on the B-facts iff (1) A supervenes on the B-fats, (2) not vice versa, and (3) A doesn’t supervene on any proper subset of the B-facts” (1974). Relatedly, Guigon (2018) argues that metaphysicians need not appeal to hyperintensional relations like grounding. Instead, Guigon develops a counterpart-theoretic interpretation of grounding discourse.

  15. See also Correia (2013), Correia and Skiles (2017), Fine (1994, 1995, 2015, 2016), Koslicki (2012), Wang (2019).

  16. Thanks to an anonymous referee who urged me to say more on this point.

  17. Thanks to Katherine Ritchie and Ned Markosian for helping me to refine this definition.

  18. I am grateful to Michael Raven for this example.

  19. I am grateful to Michael Raven for this objection, and to Nathan Wildman for subsequent discussion.

  20. Thanks to Michael Raven and Nathan Wildman for helping me to refine this definition.

  21. This claim stops short of being an endorsement of an essentialist analysis of metaphysical modality (e.g., Fine 1994). Recent work by Leech (2018), Wildman (2018), Romero (2019), and Teitel, (2019) challenges the idea that metaphysical modality can be reduced to, or analyzed in terms of, essence.

  22. C.S. Jenkins (2005) likewise distinguishes between modal and essentialist definitions of mind-dependence. Jenkins argues that p’s being the case is essentially mind-dependent if and only if part of what it is for p to be the case is that our mental lives be a certain way (200). For example, suppose that part of what it is for S to be popular is that S is well-liked by others. It that case, S’s being popular is essentially mind-dependent in Jenkins’ sense because part of what it is for S to be popular is for our mental lives to be a certain way (i.e., sufficiently many people must like S, where liking S is a way our mental lives can be). Jenkins’ relation differs from EMD2 in at least two ways. First, it applies to something’s being the case rather than to kinds (199). Second, it is narrower than EMD2. Jenkins says that p’s being the case is essentially mind-dependent just in case our mental lives being a certain way are part of what it is for p to be the case. But some social kinds are not essentially mind-dependent in this way. For example, our mental lives being a certain way are no part of what it is for Biden to be the President-elect of the United States. What it is to be the President-elect is to have won at least 270 electoral votes and to be awaiting inauguration. By contrast, being President-elect is essentially mind-dependent in the sense of EMD2 because it is essential to being President-elect that if S is President-elect, then S is President-elect (partially) because certain mental states exist (i.e., the mental states of those who cast a ballot in the Presidential election, the mental states of the electors). However, anything that is essentially mind-dependent in Jenkins’ sense is essentially mind-dependent in the sense defined by EMD2. For example, if someone is popular, then they are popular (partially) because certain mental states exist. Thanks to an anonymous referee for spotting this connection with Jenkins’ notion of essential mind-dependence.

  23. Thomasson says that social kinds are mind dependent in the sense that our mental states “play a stipulative role in constituting” their nature (2003b, 590).

  24. The work of Brian Epstein and Sally Haslanger are notable exceptions. Thanks to Katherine Ritchie for helpful discussion on this point.

  25. For this reason, my view differs from Asya Passinsky’s account of social objects, which employs the relation of metaphysical grounding (2020). According to Passinsky, a material object (e.g., a river) constitutes a social object (e.g., a border) if and only if (i) the relevant authorities or individuals/entities with standing accept that the river constitutes a border and (ii) the fact that the river constitutes a border is fully grounded in the fact that the relevant authorities or individuals/entities with standing accept that the river constitutes a border (Passinsky 2020, 9). There is another significant difference between Passinsky’s view and my own. Passinsky’s view applies to social objects rather than to kinds. This is important because, unlike social objects, social kinds (e.g., marriage, poverty) are not plausibly constituted by material objects. However, social objects are also essentially mind dependent in the sense specified by EMD2. For example, it is essential to being a border that if an entity, x, is a border, then x is a border (partially) because certain mental states exist. Thus, my account of essential mind dependence is more general than Passinsky’s. Thanks to an anonymous referee for spotting this connection to Passinsky’s view.

  26. My immigration lawyer emphasized that this was the case after my interview at U.S.C.I.S. Following Ásta, I’ll call properties such as the property of being authorized to live and work in C permanently, without being a citizen of C, conferred properties (Ásta, 2008, 2013, 2018). A conferred property is a property that is instantiated in virtue of subjects’ attitudes towards the entity or entities that instantiate it. For example, my pen instantiates the property of being the pen I intend to write with just by my forming the intention to write with it. Likewise, my T-shirt instantiates the property of being my favorite T-shirt just because I like it more than any other T-shirt. If the essential properties of a kind, K, include conferred properties, then K is a conferred property kind. I think that many social kinds are conferred property kinds, including marriage and citizenship. Ásta argues that all social categories are conferred property kinds, including being female, being a woman, being straight, being white, or being “the wrong kind of brown” (Ásta, 2018a, 2018b). However, I doubt that conferred property kinds are quite so pervasive. For example, it is unlikely that abstract social kinds like laws and corporations can be accounted for within Ásta’s conferralist framework. This is because there is no object on which the property of being a law or being a corporation gets conferred; rather, when laws and corporations are created, entirely new objects come into existence. See Thomasson 2003a for a similar critique of Searle’s view. Ásta’s conferralist view works best for social categories that have people as members.

  27. NB: Heumer and Kovitz (2014) argue that causes occur simultaneously with their effects. However, they note that their view requires a conception of time according to which “every event is already a temporally extended whole, which can be divided into indefinitely many parts, each of which is itself a temporally extended event” (560). Wilson, (2018) argues that causation can be synchronic and that metaphysical dependence can be diachronic, but notes that most instances of the former are diachronic and most instances of the latter are synchronic (729–730).

  28. Being mind-independent is often taken to be a necessary condition on being real or objective. For this reason, some philosophers also embrace the idea that social kinds are not real, or are not “objectively real,” because they are mind dependent, see Passinsky (2020), Searle (1995), and Thomasson (2003b). Yet those who believe that mind-independence is criterial for realism typically do not wish to deny that psychological kinds are real. Thus, anti-realists about social kinds may wish to identify a more fine-grained relation of mind dependence that applies to the social but not the mental. Following Gideon Rosen (1994), I am suspicious of the legitimacy of the distinction between the real and the objectively real. Indeed, I am inclined to think that being mind-dependent does not impugn a kind’s reality in any sense. See Mason (2020) and Khalidi (2016).

  29. It is not the case that the essence of X is always definable in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions because some kinds may have primitive essences; in that case, no analysis of the kind’s essence is possible (Rosen, 2015).

  30. See Witt (2011b) for discussion. Although the real/nominal essence distinction has its origin in Locke, the view described in what follows is not his.

  31. Metaphysical vagueness does not pose a problem for the sense of identity at issue in premise one. Consider Tibbles the cat. Suppose that Tibbles is a vague object: there is no fact of the matter whether Tibbles is identical with some collection of molecules, m. This does not entail that Tibbles lacks an identity in the relevant sense. Suppose that origin essentialism is true—that is, suppose that Tibbles’s origin is essential to her. In that case, the property of originating from, say, Fluffy the cat and Whiskers the cat, is essential to Tibbles. This property constitutes Tibbles’s identity, i.e., what it is to be Tibbles. It is this property that makes Tibbles the very cat that she is, as opposed to some other cat (e.g., Mittens the cat). However, this does not settle the question of whether Tibbles (i.e., the cat that originates from Fluffy and Whiskers) is identical to some collection of molecules, m.

  32. One might try to resist this conclusion by arguing that the individuals classified by the nominal essence associated with a social kind terms do not belong to a kind in the first place; rather, they belong to a set or a class. However, social kind terms do not plausibly refer to sets or classes. This is because sets and classes are extensionally individuated, whereas, on the nominalist proposal, the plurality of individuals classified by the nominal essence associated with a kind term are not extensionally individuated. Rather, they are individuated intensionally, by the criteria which comprise the nominal essence associated with the kind term used to classify them.

  33. Note that premise 2 is not equivalent to the thesis that social kinds have essential properties. Rather, premise 2 is definitional: it states what it is to be an essential property of a kind. One may reject this definition of what it is to be an essential property, and yet affirm that social kinds are constituted by properties that are essential in a different sense (i.e., by embracing a modal conception of essence).

  34. Asya Passinsky (2019) and Michael Raven (forthcoming) enumerate further reasons for embracing essentialism about social items.

  35. Mason (2016) argues that some social kinds are natural kinds.

  36. Thanks to Charlotte Witt for raising this objection.

  37. Metaphysical realism is usually cached out in terms of properties or universals. See Armstrong (1978a, 1978b), Lewis (1983, 1984, 1986) and Sider (1995, 2011).

  38. Although they do not say so, I suspect that many feminists who deny that social kinds have real essences have a more heavy-weight notion of real essence in mind.

  39. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for this objection.

  40. NB: Jeffers does not explicate his view in essentialist terms. My point is that his view is hospitable to the version of essentialism that I espouse, even if Jeffers himself does not endorse essentialism about social kinds such as race.

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Acknowledgements

This paper has benefited from the feedback given at the Social Metaphysics Workshop along with generous and insightful comments from the two anonymous referees for this journal. Distant ancestors of this paper received hearings at the Vancouver Summer Philosophy Conference, the Workshop on Gender and Philosophy (WOGAP), the California Metaphysics Conference, California State University, Sacramento, the Canadian Philosophical Association, the Bay Area Feminism and Philosophy Workshop (BayFAP), and the University of Alberta.

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Mason, R. Social kinds are essentially mind-dependent. Philos Stud 178, 3975–3994 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-021-01633-0

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Keywords

  • Social kinds
  • Essence
  • Searle
  • Mind-dependence
  • Dependence
  • Grounding