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Coincident Entities and Question-Begging Predicates: an Issue in Meta-Ontology


Meta-ontology (in van Inwagen's sense) concerns the methodology of ontology, and a controversial meta-ontological issue is to what extent ontology can rely on linguistic analysis while establishing the furniture of the world. This paper discusses an argument advanced by some ontologists (I call them unifiers) against supporters of or coincident entities (I call them multipliers) and its meta-ontological import. Multipliers resort to Leibniz's Law to establish that spatiotemporally coincident entities a and b are distinct, by pointing at a predicate F() made true by a and false by b. Unifiers try to put multipliers in front of a dilemma: in attempting to introduce metaphysical differences on the basis of semantic distinctions, multipliers either (a) rest on a fallacy of verbalism, entailed by a trade-off between a de dicto and a de re reading of modal claims, or (b) beg the question against unifiers by having to assume the distinction between a and b beforehand. I shall rise a tu quoque, showing that unifiers couldn't even distinguish material objects (or events) from the spatiotemporal regions they occupy unless they also resorted to linguistic distinctions. Their methodological aim to emancipate themselves from linguistic analysis in ontological businesses is therefore problematic.

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  1. In van Inwagen's characterization, meta-ontology deals (a) with the meaning or intension of “being,” as distinct from its extension (so that, whereas the Quinean ontological question is, notoriously, “What is there?”, the corresponding meta-ontological question would be: “What are we asking when we ask ‘What is there’?”); and (b) with “questions about the proper method of […] ontology” (van Inwagen (2001), p. 3). Such famous Quinean mottos as “No entity without identity” or “To be is to be the value of a variable” therefore belong to meta-ontology, whereas other Quinean theses, such as the proposition that there are no propositions, belong to ontology (see van Inwagen 1998, p. 13).

  2. See Locke (1975), Essay, II-xxvii-1. Aristotle also seems to have taken this for granted: see Phys 209a, pp. 6–7.

  3. I will always use such expressions as “space–time region” in a physics-for-dummies fashion. This is what most metaphysicians do (including the philosophical contenders we are about to meet), probably believing that their discourses could be meticulously translated in physicist-friendly terms. I doubt it, but this is of little importance for what follows.

  4. Also called “individuative predicates,” “articulative predicates,” “substance names,” “shared names,” etc. (see Frege 1950, § 54; Strawson 1959, pp. 168–9; Quine 1960, § 19; Lowe 1989; Wiggins 2001, Chap. 3.

  5. See Strawson (1959, p. 137).

  6. To be sure, “boy” is also a sortal term and boys become men, but boy is, in Wiggins' jargon, a phased sortal concept. Now, “a phased or restricted sortal predicate can always be supplanted salva veritate by a comprehensive unrestricted sortal predicate or (as I shall say) a substance predicate” (Wiggins 2001, p. 63), and any object has to satisfy its own substance predicate throughout its career as an object. From now on, “sortal predicate” will be taken as a synonym of “substance predicate” in Wiggins' sense.

  7. See, e.g., Wiggins (1968, 2001).

  8. Noonan (1988, p. 222).

  9. See Pfeifer (1989).

  10. Among the multipliers who subscribe to this kind of argument are Lowe (1989), Johnston (1992), Baker (1997), and Thomson (1998). Some authors go even further and claim that also things of the same sort can be spatially co-located, yet distinct: see Kit Fine's “double letter” example in Fine (2000).

  11. For a thorough analysis of the difference, see Cartwright (1971).

  12. Compare Wiggins' example of the copse and the mereological aggregate of its trees, in Wiggins (2001, p. 52).

  13. Lowe (1989, p. 70).

  14. See, famously, Wiggins (1968).

  15. Rea (1997a, p. xxi).

  16. Ibid, p. xxiii.

  17. See the entry “Mereology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, § 3.2 (Varzi 2003).

  18. Puzzles of constitution and coincidence, such as “Dion and Theon,” “Goliath and Lumpl,”etc., are sometimes phrased in terms of matter (coincident objects share the same matter), sometimes in terms of spatial coincidence (coincident objects occupy the same space), and sometimes in explicitly mereological terms. Some authors (e.g., Fine 2003, pp. 197–8) have taken this fact as a conceptual confusion and have called for a distinction between different senses of “coincidence” and “constitution.” Others have claimed (e.g., Johnston 1992, pp. 93–5) that the notion of parthood employed in stating and/or solving most of these puzzles is not topic-neutral. I will stick to mereological formulations in the following, but this does not make a substantive difference for our meta-ontological issue: the counter-argument to be exposed below has been claimed by several mereologists to hold against a whole family of nonidentity arguments, also when they are phrased in terms of the material (as distinct from mereological) constitution of objects, and even when they are explained in terms of coincident events: see Varzi (2000, pp. 293–4).

  19. Della Rocca (1996a), Varzi (2000, 2002). To be sure, in some of his papers, Della Rocca wants to save some form of essentialism (see Della Rocca 1996b), whereas Varzi's position is clearly extensional and unsympathetic towards sortalism. However, the line of reasoning pursued by the two against the multiplier is the same. Della Rocca has recently changed his views and abandoned essentialism. Also, David Lewis should be listed among the unifiers, as we shall see.

  20. Varzi (2002, 1 ff).

  21. Russell (1923, p. 62).

  22. See Varzi (2002, p. 19).

  23. Along this line, see also Robinson (1985), Lewis (1986), and Noonan (1991).

  24. See, e.g., Fine (2003, pp. 200–1).

  25. Della Rocca (1996a, p. 190). A similar point is made in Neale (1990, § 4.6).

  26. Ibid, p. 196.

  27. Hence comes also one of the positive arguments for identity the unifier can advance: the one based upon the so-called modal supervenience thesis (to be found in various forms, for instance, in Jubien 1993, Levey 1997, Sider 1999, and Olson 2001). We have seen that our multiplier is trying to ground differences in the actual world on modal intuitions. But modal differences in their turn have to be grounded on actual differences. How can this table and the mereological sum of its molecules differ in modal properties, when they coincide in their actual properties? After all, they have the same shape, size, weight, etc. Where could modal differences come out from? For a possible line of reply, see Rea (1997b).

  28. This was also David Lewis' position: “we have one thing. What we have two of, besides names for it, are ways of representing. There is some kind of equivocation built into representation de re, and the equivocation shows up when we get conflicting answers. […] It reeks of double counting to say that here we have a dishpan, and we also have a dishpan-shaped bit of plastic that is just where the dishpan is, weighs just what the dishpan weighs (why don't the two together weigh twice as much?), and so on. This multiplication of entities is absurd on its face” (Lewis 1986, p. 252).

  29. See Varzi (2002, p. 21).

  30. See Dummett (1973, p. 544–545).

  31. This extreme case will not be considered here but is examined in Fine (2003) as a useful analogy to understand the implausibility of the unifier's position.

  32. See Wiggins (1968, p. 92) and passim. See also Oderberg (1996).

  33. Contrast David Wiggins: “the singling out at time t of the substance x must look backwards and forwards to times before and after t” (Wiggins 2001, p. 7). As a parenthetic remark, it should be noted that the whole issue presupposes that contingent identity has been ruled out: if things can be contingently identical, then there is no problem in claiming that this table and the mereological sum of…, or Tibbles and Tib + tail, happen to be identical but can be different at different worlds or times (see Gibbard 1975). After the publication of Naming and Necessity contingent identity has lost much of its popularity—however, see Yablo (1987) and Gallois (1998) for approaches to the puzzles of constitution that reject the necessity of identity.

  34. See Anscombe (1979) for the pervasiveness of such a phenomenon.

  35. Wiggins (2001, p. 31 and fn. 13).

  36. See, e.g., Goodman (1951).

  37. This comes from Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, 19 (see Wiggins 2001, p. 65). As Wiggins admits: “if we could invent sortal concepts simply at will, then the real content of the assertion that something lasted till t and then ceased to exist would be trivialized completely. For if one were unconstrained in the invention of a substantial concept by which to represent that a thing persisted, one would be equally unconstrained in the invention of a substantial concept by which to represent that it failed to persist” (Ibid).

  38. This corresponds, roughly, to what Rea calls “realism about material objects,” defined as the position according to which at least some of our sortal terms pick intrinsic sortal properties of objects: see Rea (2004, pp. 8–11).

  39. Phaed. 265e.

  40. Notice that this is not mandatory, though, nor is it true of all the critics of the multiplier's arguments for nonidentity. For instance, Burke's essentialist solution to the puzzle of Dion and Theon consists in denying that there are different coincident entities while keeping kinds end essences, via the famous argument of the “dominant sortal” (see Burke 1992, 1994).

  41. Fine (2003, p. 200. On this metaphysical view, see Sidelle (1989), Heller (1990), and Jubien (1993).

  42. “Matter, or stuff, is the real, mind-independent stuff of the world. It is prior to objects because it is what we, more or less informed by our interests, carve up into objects” (Sidelle 1998, p. 432).

  43. Van Fraassen (1977, part IV).

  44. Some stuff theorists may claim that the only essential property around in the material world is being the occupier of some spatiotemporal region, but from the point of view of mainstream sortalism, this would be a trivial sortal property indeed.

  45. Defined by Talmy as “any aspect of meaning that is somehow represented in all languages” (Talmy 2008).

  46. See Talmy (2000, Chap. 1). Resorting to Talmy is somewhat ironic, since Talmy's theory has strongly anti-realistic features entailing that the world is literally structured by our cognitive and semantic apparatus.

  47. See Quine (1969).


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Berto, F. Coincident Entities and Question-Begging Predicates: an Issue in Meta-Ontology. Int Ontology Metaphysics 14, 1–15 (2013).

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  • Material Object
  • Temporal Part
  • Linguistic Analysis
  • Persistence Condition
  • Ontological Distinction