DSH, who knows a lot more about philosophy than I do, responded to Sandefur's post on essences and nature with two intelligent comments, reproduced below:
Thanks for sharing Sandefur's thoughts. Basically, he agrees. Essences don't actually exist, they are mental constructs (viz, epistemological, not ontological). I'm not sure I understood his juxtaposition of Matson vs. Dennett. Dennett's books (plural) are hardly novel in denying ontogical essences. Matson's epistemological essences, viz., “[p]ossession of the rational faculty is to be preferred to other characteristics that all and only men have, such as laughter, featherless bipedality, or even language, because of [its] greater explanatory scope, which warrants its designation as the essence of man—essence, not as a metaphysical ingredient apprehended by a mysterious special cognitive faculty, but as an epistemological notion.” Id. at 24. I think Matson is simply reiterating Saul Kripke's analysis of determinate meaning in another way. As most know, indeterminancy of meaning has been the cause celebre of the last century, epitomized in Derrida's deconstructionism. As Kripke demonstrates in his major work, "Naming and Necessity," we do create rigid designators for objects that not only stabilize meaning, but secure it. E.g., "a rose by any other name is still a rose." But Kripke's locus is linguistic, a natural category; Matson's locus is epistemology, which is an artificial construct. What's the difference?
As the cynics of ancient Greece and Rome (also known as "skeptics" and "pyrhonnists") demonstrated, knowledge and reason is always contingent, never necessary. Hume reinforced the fact. If one starts from a "physical" or "phenonmenological" perspective, sensory deception is always the petard (which Descartes exploits to its fullest). Our sensory experience, while always veridical, is not always true. The simple example of a viral cold that distorts ordinary smelling. If a rose smells foul (as with a cold), that's what one smells. Ordinarily, roses smell sweet. Is the "cold" experience false, then? By no means. So what property "inheres" to a rose? Essentialists can't answer that. Resorting to an "epistemological answer" simply shifts the experience of a "known quantity" to an "intellectual one." But that's the trouble. Is the phenomenological experience to be judged by (any) epistemological criteria? Ryle: Category mistake! How does one go from veridical sensory perception to intellection without jumping out of one category and into another?
Well, argue the essentialists, through reason (which, of course, is intellection in broad relief). We reason that the rose ordinarily smells sweet, except when we have a cold, THEN it smells foul. But what's it's "essential" property? Sweetness or foul? Well, sweetness when we're normal, and foul when we're not. So the "reality" of the rose is dependent on our particular disposition at the time of the experience? One time it's sweet, the next foul? How can x and not-x be both true, much less at the same time? So what's a rose's "real" essence? Well, sweet when "normal," and foul with a "cold." You're begging the question: What's the rose's essence? And so goes the discussion ad infinitum. One is stuck in epistemological gridlock. This is where Matson leaves us. And like Rand, entirely unsatisfactorily.
The "key" of the 20th C. is to take matters out of phenomenology and out of epistemology and locate them in linguistics. As Wittgenstein monumentally said, "use determines meaning." When I have a cold, I mean it smells foul; when I don't have a cold I mean it smells sweet. But the "thing" I rigidly designate a "rose" is one and the same thing, at least referently. A rose has no essence. But it's not entirely capriciously designated either. Enter Kripke. No indeed, both experiences have the "same" referent, even though the experiences are different. But the referent is a linguistic marker, not an epistemological one. My phenomenology is absolutely true. I really did experience what I experienced. I was not deceived (contra Descartes). What I "name" a rose is a rose, whether it smells foul or sweet, red or white, in bloom or out, or whatever. Language rigidly designates what I have picked out to be highly variable; by language I can mean the same thing through different experiences. "Use determines meaning," and Kripke's insight, "meaning determines use." It's a game of language. And when played by the rules, the same answer recurs. What "I think I know" has nothing to do with it, and reason is endlessly regressive. But I can relate experiences through my use of language, and by language "fix" the referent. Reason? We're playing the same "language game." Hence, essences are metaphysical nonsense. Not only do they not "exist," but there's nothing to "know." It's still a metaphysical construct, only categorically differentiated, which gets us nowhere.
On the other hand, "family resemblances" brings out the nuance of linguistic use. Lots of things resemble a rose, especially other roses. And that's what I MEAN when I use the word "rose." It's a linguistic device to pick out something in the language game we've been taught to use. Essences? What's an essence? I haven't been taught to use that expression meaningfully.
I hope I haven't belabored obvious points. But I really want to address "Sandefur's" ethics. And I want to make sure we're talking about the same thing.
Ethics is a question of value; it has no factual basis other than that. What do I value? That's the question only ethics can ask and answer. Logically? Probably not. Based on things in "nature?" Even more doubtful. Indeed, I want to recall the "fact" vs. "ought" dichotomy; the two do NOT cross paths. One simply cannot interpolate from natural facts to what it is that I value. The two are categorically unique and impassible. Natural law, based on the perception that nature has something to teach us about values, is simply incoherent.
Sandefur raises the specter of a "naturalistic ethic." Let's be clear about which we are talking. If Sandefur means by "naturalistic" that which defines human nature, I'm along for the ride. Conversely, if he means that what defines "nature," I pass. The latter embeds us in the naturalistic fallacy, trying to derive "ought" from "is." Such speculations may entertain others, but I take ethics seriously. What I value has little if anything to do with what actually is. I confess to being an idealist in the sense that I value certain ideals. But those ideals cannot be obtained from looking at what is in nature. To me, there's no there, there.
Probably the two best works on ethics recently is Matt Ridley's "Origin of Vitues" and James Q. Wilson's "The Moral Sense." Both appeal to a "naturalistic ethics," but neither has in mind anything remotely to do with natural law. By "naturalistic," they mean "according to our nature." Suddenly, we are thrust again back into essences, for what does it mean to speak/write about "our human nature" unless some apriori concept of "human" and "nature" is entailed. To even concede that we have a "nature" is troubling in itself (review the rose concept). It seems to resurrect essences, when that's the last place we want to go. So, for the sake of analysis, I stipulate that humans have a nature. But whatever that "nature" is, it's not grounded in metaphysical speculation. So I am already guarded.
What Ridley and Wilson have in mind is what Degler wrote "In Search of Human Nature." By "nature," all appeal to our biological nature. What constitutes humans according to the laws of biology? Not what we speculate human essences to be. Does biology have a notion of what it means to be "human," and if it does, can we extrapolate from biology certain aspects that are seemingly common to all species of Homo sapiens? Degler, Ridley, and Wilson (along with Sober and Elliot) claim that we do have a biological (vis-a-vis metaphysical) nature, it is distinctly human, and it is distinctly grounded in the scientific method (as opposed to apriori reason). The biological laws are the Modern Synthesis (Darwin and Mendelianian inheritance), and the anthropological construct is distinctly Homo sapiens (although all borrow heavily from ethology). What can we possibly make of this confluence of ideas? And what relevance, if any, does a "human nature" have on our values?
Not suprisingly, all three "scientists" reach back to three moral philosophers of the 18th C.: Smith, Hume, and Hutcheson. And it's not difficult to see why. The English "moralists" were decidedly empirical even more than they were moralists. They simply observed what they thought to be common to our species and made numerous generalizations about it. For the very first time, ethics was conceived as an empirical enterprise, rather than a metaphysical construct. (In fairness to Aristotle, who did the same thing centuries earlier, Aristotle got lost in the practical syllogism. Whenever he reached an impasse, he'd resurrect metaphysics. He didn't do it often, but he still did it.)
Wilson summarizes the whole endeavor most succinctly: They were all concerned with basically four concepts: (1) Fairness, (2) Equality but not egalitarianism, (3) Empathy, and (4) Self-control. Now these are simply conceptualizations. They are not essences. What humans, qua humans, seem to value the most are these four characteristics, and indeed, with just these four characteristics, one can substantiate an empirical model for all human behavior. Most of it fell on deaf ears. Bentham and Mill and their utilitarianism came to rule the roost. Not until Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, et alia came to symbolize utilitarianism's worst instincts did it finally fall into disfavor. Many, like Bernard Williams, went back to Aristotle. Rand too. But Aristotle is simply too complicated for the average Joe to understand, which Aristotle admits frankly. His is an elitist ethic. It just doesn't reach the common man.
But a naturalistic ethic based on the Modern Synthesis, using 18th C. concepts to reinvigorate the masses? Reading Wilson, one can see his discomfort at pulling it all together. Frankly, it's a mess. Ridley only alludes to the Enlightenment Empirical Ethic. He can only bring himself to see cross-species' behavior that supports it. Elliot and Sober are even more obscure. They just give the foundations. So where does that leave us? Well, the hyper-rationalism of Aristotle, Kant, and Rand is simply untenable. Aquinas is even more opaque and obscure. Smith, despite his clarity and vigor, is too much associated with capitalism to be "tolerated," much less consulted. Hume is the most direct and palpable; but the overt hedonism seems to subvert the whole enterprise.
Enter deontological biblicalism. Maybe not simple, but it's entirely straightforward, and one doesn't have to think too hard to get it. The reality that fundamentalists have so abused basic Christian tenets creates a credibility problem. That Christianists truly consider importing Levitical Code of Holiness into our daily laws is unfathomable. Plus, Nietzsche had a few choice words that are apropos.
Bottom Line: For all the clarity that the 20th C. achieved, it's remarkable that Islamic and Christian fundamentalists seem to be in the driver's seat. When the overwhelming majority of Americans believe the Genesis account of Creation, the hope for a naturalistic ethic doesn't even rise to the occasion. America has become an intellectual wasteland. Is it any wonder that the current President has misled us all so astray? And even those who have a hint of Wilson's ethical orientation are like prophets in the wadi. Indeed, we can't even communicate with each other.
On reflection, I believe I was too dismissive of epistemology without adequate explanation. It deserves a little more consideration. Epistemology is the study of knowledge: “What do you know, and how do you know it?” Great Questions! All of us could ask ourselves these questions more often. Unfortunately, the first Western thinker to give it much thought was Plato/Socrates in several of the dialogues, “Republic” and “Theatetus” the prominent. In the latter dialogue, Plato claims “knowledge is justified opinion.” Not bad, but not satisfactory for the obvious reason: What constitutes “justified?” But his more indelible position from the Allegory of the Cave and the Line of Knowledge in “Republic,” is that we really do not have knowledge of particulars or things at all, only their “Forms.” (Substitute “Ideas” or “Essences” if you prefer.) In other words, knowledge is ethereal (okay to a point), that everyday experience is like a shadow of reality (why a shadow? Why not just “it?”), and that the only real knowledge is of a thing’s Form or Essence (what’s this?). Well, it’s akin to an Idea in the kingdom of Ideas where reality exists and ordinary things are merely reflections or shadows. Only the Idea or Essence really exists; the thing you perceive with your sense organs is transitory and illusory; it’s not real, but the eternal and immutable Idea of it is.
Aristotle, Plato’s student, rightly had problems with this. He wasn’t prepared to deny the existence of particulars (things sensed). So he raised the concept of “substance” and created a whole metaphysic around it so that Essences could be found in particular things. Per Aristotle: It’s not an either/or situation, it’s an and/both situation. A particular thing has both: a substance that is real and concrete and an essence that inhere’s to it ontologically. The Form is what gives the substance its properties. There’s only one substance, but there are a variety of different Forms. The Forms “inform” substance to make it what it is. If you don’t get it, you’re not alone. Aristotle’s notion of “substance” has held scholars’ imaginations for centuries. But at least it preserved some of our common sense thinking. So which view prevailed? Aristotle? Right? Nope, Plato’s. Christianity’s Saint Paul was enamored with Plato, a perfect metaphysical “fit” into Christianity’s conception of an immortal soul and a perishable body. The soul is real (but I can’t see it) and the body is illusory (but I can see it). Plato’s view remained dominant until Aquinas resurrected Aristotle in the 12th C. Aquinas was initially deemed a heretic for it, but later, after the bishops thought they understood it, he became the “angelic doctor.” The man was totally brilliant. With an encyclopedic mind. Most important, he reaffirmed the reality of things like “the body.” Of course, he had to keep the soul as well. But at least common sense was back in the play of “reality.” Bodies really do exist. So what if a lot of metaphysical stuff had to be added? Great compromise? Well, the Church actually liked it. Indeed, it still does.
Descartes flipped the whole thing upside down. But here’s sort of a secret. He wasn’t the first. A Roman Greek by the name of Sextus Empiricus (2nd-3rd C.E.) really gave any hope of “knowing this or that” a total run for its money. He was known as a “skeptic.” What skeptics claimed was that all sensory experience is ultimately unique and unshared and doesn’t always correspond to other people’s perceptions, much less to actual reality; indeed, even one’s own perceptions vary from moment to moment (he has a point) and frequently are contradictory. Even worse, if we appeal to “reason,” specifically Aristotlean logic, but in general any kind of reason, we ultimately engage in an endless regress. Every conclusion requires another conclusion ad infinitum (Two for two). Bottom Line: No one knows anything at all! Can’t. But the Church just ignored all this. But it continued to bubble for centuries. Descartes in 15th C. resurrected it. He began by doubting everything, just as the skeptics had. But what he couldn’t doubt was the fact that he was doubting (brilliant). He really succeeded in doubting everything, but his doubting, or thinking itself, could not be doubted. Eureka! I think, therefore I am. Okay, what I am is not secure, but that I am a thinking thing, I cannot doubt. Just doubting itself proves the reality of my thinking. So because I think, I know I exist.
Let’s leave epistemological history here. Descartes’s epistemology is brilliant, but it also created a maelstrom of problems (not the least of which is the mind/body coexistence). But his admittedly brief overview should give one a sense of what philosophers do when they do epistemology. It’s significantly more complex than I am making it. But it explains what one means in asking the question: “What do I know, and how do I know it?” And the problem, while certainly less interesting today than it was in the past, still persists. If you want to explore a modern philosopher’s epistemology, Karl Popper is a good place as any (plus he’s fairly accessible). But this is what Sandefur and I are talking about.
So let’s look again at Sandefur’s solution (from Matson) is to move Essences from ontology (what is real) to epistemology (what is known and how). In other words, essences don’t really exist in the real world, they just exist as mental constructs for justifying our knowledge. Am I the only one who sees that this bird doesn’t fly? Like penguins and ostriches, it has wings, but it just doesn’t fly. Let me explain what I hope is obvious. Essences were created in order to answer the questions of epistemology. Prior to asking the question, “What do I know, and how do I know it?” no one bothered with essences for the obvious reason they don’t exist. Essences were specifically created in order to answer the epistemological questions in the first place. So giving an answer that essences are just epistemological constructs to answer epistemological questions begs the entire question and puts the entire matter in an endless regress. I can only hope I’ve made this clear, but I admit it’s exegetically challenging. So Matson’s response just doesn’t hold water. All it “really” does is move the question from one category to another, from ontology to epistemology, but epistemology is the very category that constructed essences out of the air in the first place to answer the questions of epistemology. Some might think this is patently circular. I certainly do. In philosophy, at least, that’s enough to sink it.
I hope I’ve not bored anyone. Let’s remember, the original matter was “natural law,” which I think equally false. But trying to rescue essences from legitimate oblivion by moving it from ontology to epistemology only begs the question.