No Problem for Actualism

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No Problem for Actualism Michael Losonsky The Philosophical Review, Vol. 95, No. 1. (Jan., 1986), pp. 95-97. Stable URL: The Philosophical Review is currently published by Cornell University.

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The Philosophical Review, XCV, No. 1 (January 1986)


Michael Losonsky


certain problem has been posed for actualism, the view that there are no non-actual, merely possible individuals. The problem, posed by Alan McMichael in this Journal,' is that it appears an actualist cannot handle iterated modalities as contained in the following sort of statement: (I) Jill does not have a daughter, but it is possible there is an x that is Jill's daughter and is snubnosed although possibly x is not snubnosed. This doesn't merely say that Jill, who in fact never had a daughter, might have had a snubnosed daughter and she might have had a daughter without a snubnose. (I) makes the stronger claim that the snubnosed daughter Jill might have had is such that she might not have been snubnosed. T h e problem is that in the absence of a possible individual, as well as an actual individual, it is difficult to see in virtue of what a snubnosed daughter Jill might have had can be the same individual as a non-snubnosed daughter Jill might have had. The solution that readily comes to mind is in terms of individual essences. An individual essence is a property that can be exemplified by exactly one object, which necessarily exemplifies it if the object exists, and no other object could exemplify it. Assuming that individual essences actually exist for all individuals that exist or might have existed, an actualist can handle (I) without non-actual, merely possible objects. Consider the individual essence being Zeta, which is not exemplified but could have been exemplified by a snubnosed daughter of Jill. A snubnosed daughter Jill might have had can be identified with a non-snubnosed daughter Jill might have had with the individual essence being Zeta. They can be identical (or counterparts) in virtue of exemplifying being Zeta. We can now say that even if there is nothing which is Zeta (that is, being Zeta is not exemplified), it is possible some x is Zeta, Jill's daughter and snub1"A Problem for Actualism About Possible Worlds," The Philosophical Review 92 (1983), pp. 49-66.

MICHAEL LOSONSKY nosed although it is also possible some x is Zeta but not snubnosed. What remains identical from possibility to possibility is the property being Zeta. Thus we are not committed to possible individuals, only possibly exemplified properties. McMichael objects to this solution. He claims that individual essences are either purely qualitative (that is, reducible to general properties) or they are haecceities, that is, "properties which necessarily characterize single individuals but which are not reducible to general properties" (p. 59). He then argues that qualitative essences won't do because there can be "symmetrical worlds" in which distinct individuals have exactly the same general properties, and that haecceities won't do because there are no unexemplified haecceities. I will ignore the argument against qualitative essences, although I find it difficult to accept that there could be symmetrical worlds. For the sake of argument, let's grant that qualitative essences do not necessarily characterize single individuals and turn to the argument against haecceities. McMichael conflates two types of essences that are not reducible to general properties. One kind are haecceities in the strict sense, that is, what Robert M. Adams calls "thisnesses."* We can say that a thisness of an object 0 is a property whose expressions always involve reference to 0, either with a proper name or an indexical. T h e other kind of individual essence not reducible to general properties are relational essences. A relational individual essence of an object 0 is a property whose expressions always involve reference to objects other than 0, either with proper names or indexicals. For the sake of simplicity we assume that relational essences are distinct from thisnesses. So the expressions of relational essences of some object x do not involve reference with names or indexicals to x. If the objects named or 'indexed' in a relational essence are in the actual world, then we have what Adams calls alpha-relational essences (p. 5). McMichael's argument works against thisnesses, not alpha-relational essences. He argues as follows: Since Haecceities are not reducible to general properties, expressions for Haecceities of individuals always involve proper names of individuals (or indexical~).. . . O n e can't help thinking. . . none of them [Haecceities] would exist if the individuals named in their expressions did not exist. Thus since Haecceities can't be cashed out in general terms, and since their expressions involve the names of individuals they supposedly characterize, Haecceities d o not exist in worlds where their corresponding individuals d o not exist. Consequently, there are no unexemplified Haecceities (p. 60).

2"Actualism and Thisness," Synthese 49 (1981), pp. 3-41.

DISCUSSION The first two statements may well be true of alpha-relational essences as well as thisnesses, but the conclusion (given the premises) holds only of thisnesses. If 0 does not exist, it follows from McMichael's premises that 0's thisness does not exist because the expressions of 0 ' s thisness always involve proper names or indexicals of 0 . But if 0 does not exist, it does not follow that 0 ' s alpha-relational essence does not exist. T h e objects named or 'indexed' in the expressions of 0 ' s alpha-relational essence may all exist although 0 does not exist. Consider the alpha-relational essence being the sole person that grows from this egg (of Jill's) and that sperm under such and such circumtances. (The mentioned circumstances may be purely qualitative or, as is more likely, involve haecceities.) In either case, let this property be the essence being Zeta. If the mentioned egg, sperm, and circumstances (if they involve haecceities) exist, being Zeta may exist even though it is unexemplified. Now, maybe the above sort of property is not an example of an individual essence. I think it is, although the circumstances are more significant than the sperm and egg. However, as long as there are alpha-relational essences and all possible individuals can be accounted for in terms of alpha-relational essences, the problem McMichael poses is no problem for the actualist. The problem can be handled without abandoning possible world semantics (as suggested by McMichael) or rendering actualism harmless (as suggested by M. J. White).Wf course, the task for the actualist is to provide plausible candidates for alpha-relational essences and show that all possible individuals can be accounted for in terms of those essences. One consequence of this sort of actualism is already clear. It is impossible that there be objects that are wholly unrelated to objects that also actually exist. Everything that could have existed is necessarily related to some actual objects.4

State University of New York at Oswego

"'Harmless Actualism," Philosophical Studies 47 (1985), pp. 183-190. 4The type of apparatus needed for this sort of actualism will be found in Adam Norton, "The Possible in the Actual," No& 7 (1973), pp. 394-407; and F. Mondadori and A. Morton, "The Extension of Might," in preparation. Also see "Modal Realism: T h e Poisoned Pawn," The Philosophical Review 85 (1976), pp. 3-20, on "The Extension of Might."