On the essence of empty properties


This paper deals with generalisations of modally based criteria for determining whether a given property is essential to an individual to the case of generic essences. These criteria usually presuppose extensionally individuated properties. The limitations of their generalisations are demonstrated using the case of the necessarily empty individual property and the necessarily empty individual office. I do not present a novel stance on the discussion of individual essences. The novelty of this paper lies in its claim that none of these criteria can be generalised to generic essences.

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  1. 1.

    We shall not confuse the essential properties of an office with the essential properties of the actual occupant of the office. For example, if I am a philosophy lecturer, it does not entail, that I essentially have the property of e.g. having a good first degree. The fact, that I only contingently have the property does not tell against that property being part of the essence of the property. What is relevant is that anyone, who is a philosophy lecturer must also have a good first degree. Thanks an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this clarification.

  2. 2.

    I do not presuppose that the uniqueness of the essence (at least in the way it is discussed in this paper) is not based on such properties, which are trivially essential to any x (e.g. being identical to x). Therefore, I do not hold the claim that is so widely contested. I do not claim that there is some non-trivially unique essence held by every individual, which uniqueness is not based on trivially essential properties.

  3. 3.

    I consider the TIL notion of a requisite to be a type of modal explication of the essences of properties (offices).

  4. 4.

    Throughout the paper, I do not discuss time variation. The results can be generalised.

  5. 5.

    The reader can find a similar specification e.g. in Wildman (2013, p. 765).

  6. 6.

    This is why Brogaard and Salerno present their account as epistemic.

  7. 7.

    For a good comparison of both accounts in general, as well as particular theories within the fields, see e.g. Jago (2014, 3rd chapter). For a structuralist approach, see e.g. Tichý (1988), Duží et al. (2010). For a non-structuralist approach, see e.g. Nolan (1997), Jago (2014).

  8. 8.

    If we remain in the realm of total functions. If we use partial functions, however, then there is an infinite number of different partial functions that can be used to model properties that no individual possesses.

  9. 9.

    Such functions are called degenerate. For more about such functions see e.g. Duží et al. (2010, pp. 50–51).

  10. 10.

    I remind the reader not to confuse my use of the term ‘individual essence’ with Mackie’s use (2006, chapter 2.2). I do not presuppose that the trivially essential properties within individual essences are not part of individual essence, as Mackie does. Therefore, there is trivially some individual property—such as being identical to x, for any x—which individuates every particular individual essence. Although Mackie allows for the existence of such trivial properties, she does not consider them to be a part of individual essence.

  11. 11.

    Thanks anonymous reviewer for raising this problem.

  12. 12.

    Steward (2015) discusses another type of problem for modal accounts of essence.

  13. 13.

    A stronger version of the assumption could be that, because no individual can possess (occupy) the necessarily empty property (office), the empty property cannot have any essential properties.

  14. 14.

    I do not presuppose that the term essential is modal.

  15. 15.

    Anonymous reviewer suggested the following possible objection to A1: “The essence of a property includes everything that is a consequence of having the property. If anything instantiated the necessarily empty property (occupied the necessarily empty office), then a contradiction would be true: namely, a property would be instantiated that cannot be instantiated. And if contradictions are true, anything and everything follows. So the essences of necessarily empty properties/offices should include everything.” My response is as follows. The force of Fine’s arguments against modally based explication of essences was in showing that such explication (based on instantiation across possible worlds) leads to many irrelevant properties being considered as a part of the (individual) essence. The same motivation is behind the assumption A1—simply, not all properties are relevant. If we use the instantiation based test to detect, whether a property is essential to another property, then it leads us to suppose contradiction in case of necessarily empty property. This could be seen as another motivation to seek non-instantiation based criteria for property essence. In other words, we shall be able to analyse the property essence without the need to suppose contradiction.

  16. 16.

    Such an agent respects such trivial claims as “H2O is H2O”, “the empty room is empty”, and “the empty set is empty”.

  17. 17.

    I suggest the reader to see the Sect. 3.3 of Wildman (2016). It contains investigations of different problems of Zalta’s theory of essence.


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I am indebted to anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. I thank also Marián Zouhar, Martin Vacek, Daniela Glavaničová and Matteo Pascucci for their comments on a previous version of the paper. I would also like to thank Carolyn Benson for correcting my English. This paper was supported by VEGA Grant No. 2/0049/16 Fictionalism in Philosophy and Science.

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Correspondence to Miloš Kosterec.

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Kosterec, M. On the essence of empty properties. Synthese 198, 491–507 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02036-1

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  • Individual essence
  • Generic essence
  • Property
  • Office
  • Necessarily empty property
  • Necessarily empty office