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Identity And Universals: A Conceptualist Approach to Logical, Metaphysical, and Epistemological Problems of Contemporary Identity Theory
Chapter 9, Of Men, Cats, and Artifacts: Contextual Identity Versus Relative Identity
by Carolyn Ray

Date: 11 Nov 98
Copyright: Carolyn Ray

I have made reference to the idea that identity is sortally or contextually relative, in the sense that it is with at least implicit reference to a concept and its definition that identity judgments are made. I want to distinguish my view from the relative identity thesis, put forth by Peter Geach.

The justification for my position is that there are various ways of categorizing a given concrete, and there are different definitions according to the concept. For example, human beings can be categorized as animals for certain purposes, but can be differentiated from other animals in terms of the sort of consciousness we have. Human beings can also be categorized as physical entities. Thus, an animal may continue to exist, while the person ceases to exist; the animal may cease to exist, while the physical entity remains in existence. It is still possible in many contexts to understand what 'same one' means without answering the question "same what?" But for those contexts in which it matters, then the question must be answered.

Peter Geach's notion of relative identity is different. He claims that not only are identity judgments made relative to a sortal, but also that it is possible to have the following situation, where a and b are objects and F and G are sortal common nouns:

a is F

a is G

b is F

b is G

a is the same F as b

a is not the same G as b

Geach's most famous example deals with a peculiarity of British society, the herald (Geach, Reference, pp. 169-178). The following is my own interpretation, as an outsider. Heralds are men who make royal proclamations and keep everyone's coats of arms on file. At the Herald's College, the men are divided up into groups, and each group of heralds has a particular title associated with it. Two of the titles are 'Bluemantle' and 'Ulster.' One addresses a Bluemantle herald as 'Bluemantle,' and one addresses an Ulster herald as 'Ulster.' But apparently, one also refers to the entire group of men as 'Bluemantle' or 'Ulster,' and such a group of men is a herald, rather than a group of heralds. With regard to these facts, Geach claims that one can speak with the same herald on two different occasions but not speak to the same man:

John is a herald--say, Bluemantle.

John is a man.

Paul is a herald.

Paul is a man.

John is the same herald as Paul--i.e., Bluemantle.

John is not the same man as Paul.

This seems uncontroversial, until Geach insists that a herald is just a man, a claim that is incompatible, by Leibniz's Law, with the claim that John is the same herald but not the same man as Paul. One might expect Geach to reject 'John is the same herald as Paul' if a herald is just a man, but he prefers to give up Leibniz's Law, allegedly because it leads to semantic paradoxes.

The advantage of this view is that it enables even realists to subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity without appearing arithmetically disabled. For identity theorists without commitments to Biblical counting methods, however, this violation of Leibniz's Law is unnecessary. In either case, part of the problem seems to be, not in the naming, but in what happens in people's minds once a name has been bestowed. Two more examples will serve to illustrate.

Consider Geach's puzzle concerning 1,001 cats on a single mat. There is a cat named 'Tibbles' on the mat; she has 1,000 hairs. Call the largest lump of continuous feline tissue on the mat 'c'. The part of c that contains all but one hair is c1. Disregard another hair, and call the result c2--and so on up to c1,000. Since c is just a cat, and removing a hair from c does not generate a new cat, c1 must already have been on the mat too. But then there must have been 1,001 cats on the mat all along, including Tibbles. But this cannot be right; as Geach says, we do not talk this way about cats. So it must be that there is just one cat, and each of the lumps of feline tissue, though not identical to each other, are the same cat as any other (Geach, Reference, 215-216).

Notice once again that Geach has been giving out names, and they lend weight to the claim that it is meaningful to say that one is picking out a lump of feline tissue and that it is just a cat. We are confused by this puzzle because we all have a bit of the realist namer in us. Let us not be fooled by the names, but rather ask "What in reality gives rise to the concept CAT?" I distinguish objects that move around, make noise, and seem to respond consciously to their environment, from things like plants and rocks, which just sit quietly in one place. Some of these things are like me to a great extent: other human beings. Others are not so much like me. These go around on all four limbs and have coats of fur. I distinguish those that can be domesticated from those that cannot. Two different types are of particular interest to humans: we call those 'dogs' and 'cats.' Dogs bark, show a great deal of enthusiasm and a great deal of interest in humans, are remarkably bad at climbing trees, and gallop around in an undignified manner. Cats meow, are more tolerant of humans than interested in them, and glide gracefully on land or in trees. Although I do not know how to define the word 'cat' in a biologically rigorous way, I can tell you these distinctive things about cats and dogs. Now to what in reality does the concept TISSUE refer? Animals and plants are composed of matter that is organized into cells, masses of cells, and organs. When animals die, all that remains is their tissue. Under what circumstances would we say that a cat is identical to its tissue? Only after the cat is dead, because, coincidentally, tissue is the sort of thing that, like rocks and plants, just sits around quietly. Someone might choose to refer to his cat as a lump of tissue; and of course people are free to use any names they want to refer to objects. However, if he points to his cat balancing on the fence and says, "There is my lump of feline tissue!" he will not be understood to be pointing out a lump of tissue. He will be understood to be calling his cat 'a lump of feline tissue,' rather than calling it 'a cat.' Thus, I contend that all Geach is doing is equivocating on the phrase 'lump of feline tissue,' by which he at one time means 'cat' and at another, 'tissue.' We can only "see" the puzzle if we follow him in the equivocation. Another way to put this is, he has only changed the name of the cat from 'Tibbles' to 'c' and he alternates freely between these to make the puzzle run.

This is what the doctrine of relative identity amounts to. I have summarized it here to distinguish it from the view that identity is sortally relative. In what follows, I provide a solution to a venerable puzzle using the latter view.

The Ship Of Theseus

The Ship of Theseus is a respectable old puzzle in identity theory. Its resolution is deemed by many identity theorists to be of paramount importance in understanding personal identity. My own view is that this puzzle has nothing to do with the resolution of personal identity problems, and that, on the contrary, it is our own identity as persons together with our intentions toward given heaps of matter that supply the resolution of the Ship of Theseus puzzle. In this, I concur with John Locke's opinions concerning animals and machines:

The case is not so much different in brutes but that any one may hence see what makes an animal and continues it the same. Something we have like this in machines, and may serve to illustrate it. For example, what is a watch? It is plain it is nothing but a fit organization or construction of parts to a certain end, which, when a sufficient force is added to it, it is capable to attain. If we would suppose this machine one continued body, all whose organized parts were repaired, increased, or diminished by a constant addition or separation of insensible parts, with one common life, we should have this difference, That, in an animal the fitness of the organization, and the motion wherein life consists, begin together, the motion coming from within; but in machines the force coming sensibly from without, is often away when the organ is in order, and well fitted to receive it (Locke, Essay, II, xxvii, 6).

Without its particular configuration and the intentions of some conscious subject, a ship is nothing but a heap of matter. When we talk about the identity of a heap of

matter, we must talk about it with reference to the concept MATTER. The identity of the heap changes as bits of matter are lost or gained.

We conscious subjects can construct artifacts from loosely-piled heaps of matter; we can make unity from the matter for some purpose. The phrase, 'for some purpose' is key. A unity comes into being, in the sense that there are definite metaphysical boundaries that manifest themselves in the form of physical boundaries. That unity is some way on its own. But the making of that unity into a ship requires someone's conscious intention. It does not matter if not all people have that intention toward the unity; all that matters is that one person have it. Thus it can be said that ships cannot persist on their own--someone has to keep up the pretense. A "ship" is easy enough to reidentify, in the sense of being easy to pick out of a crowd of other items, even out of a crowd of other ships and sometimes even when the conscious subject has not formed the concept SHIP. But as for a ship's independent existence and persistence through time and change, there is nothing beyond the materials out of which it made. That is why the puzzle is so intractable: there is nothing intelligible to say about the identity of the Ship of Theseus in and of itself and without reference to a conscious subject's intentions toward it. Once one begins to take it apart plank by plank and put it back together again plank by plank, this fact is evident. In the case of artifacts, we must ask not only, "Same what?" but also "With respect to who, and for what purpose?" An example will illustrate what I mean.

The Ship of Theseus fails to weather a storm, capsizes, and eventually floats up onto a beach. Some people living in the vicinity find it, drag it further up the beach, turn it upside down, and set up house in it. They refer to it as their "new house." What is this heap of wood now? Is it a ship? Or is it a house? What if Theseus survives the wreck, finds the heap and says, "Hey! That's my ship!" Who is right?

Realists find this sort of puzzle deeply distressing, and they and their intellectual heirs are always haggling about them. Nominalists apparently enjoy creating these puzzles, since they do not think that names and concepts have any metaphysical significance. My intention is not to generate puzzles, but to demonstrate what lies at the bottom of our distress over them. Notice that the name of the thing has changed (in other words, it has been categorized under a different concept), and that is contributing to the difficulty.

Recall the discussion of split personality syndrome. Identity theorists worry that there might be more than one person in one body, and one of the reasons that they give is that the different personalities "have names." In fact, this seems to be one of the distinguishing marks of split personality as opposed to a simple shift in response formats: the person whose malady it is disowns some part of his or her own psychology, memories, personality; and to truly separate it as a thing apart, it is given a name. Then the search for "the other thing" that has been named ensues.

Something similar seems to happen when realists posit individual entities to go with concepts. Concepts have names; they would not work for us otherwise, since they stand for a potentially unlimited number of concretes. 'RED' is the name of concept that subsumes red things. But names name things, do they not? So what is the thing that the concept RED names?

Similarly, 'ship' is a name. There must be something there that is the ship, not to be put out of existence by some tribe of beachcombers who turn it upside down and live in it. We can all agree that this is a pile of wood, that the wood goes out of existence when it is burned; but we are not sure what to do about a ship that still has all its wood but is being used as something else. What is the difference?

Consider the standard puzzle, so that we can see what goes wrong. The standard puzzle has Theseus repairing his apparent lemon of a ship piece by piece while it is in service, until none of the original material is contributing to his voyages. Some merchants looking for a business opportunity find all the pieces; knowing that the Ship of Theseus will fetch a hefty price, they build a ship and hope that hero-worship will do for them what their engineering prowess cannot. Which one is actually the Ship of Theseus--the one he is sailing in, or the one the merchants have dragged to market? Ordinarily, we would allow Theseus to take his own ship apart in his garage and reassemble it, the same ship. Why are we confused when the merchants claim to reassemble the same ship?

Artifacts are something special. They come into existence as a result of the conscious subject's concept. The difference between a pile of wood and a ship is in the conscious subject's intention toward the pile of wood. The beach people are right: it is their house. Theseus is also right: it is his ship. As far as ownership is concerned, depending on the laws of the land, Theseus may have a claim to the pile of matter, and he can call his pile of matter anything he wants.

It is taken as essential to the traditional formulation of the puzzle that (1) the bits of matter are all the same, and (2) Theseus has a ship in service throughout the repairs. But there is a shift in focus, back and forth between the bits of matter, and the intentions of the conscious subjects involved. Can we say of any particular bit of matter in the merchants' ship, that it is Theseus's bit of matter? Yes. Can we say that it is the same heap of matter? No! Heaps of matter cannot sustain the loss and replacement of bits. Now, is it the same ship? Most certainly not. Theseus's ship has remained in existence due to his intention toward the bits of matter that he has. Bits of matter do not make a ship on their own; merchants make the new ship, and it is their intention, their use of the concept SHIP, that keeps it in existence.

Animals are not like this. They have lives of their own, independent of whatever anyone chooses to call them. Suppose the animal that I call a 'dog' is called by someone else a 'worker.' I use the dog for play and friendship and aesthetic value, and someone who is paralyzed uses the dog to turn on lights and pick up the phone. I can make a worker cease to exist by wrestling with it, playing frisbee with it, and never making it do household chores; if someone wants his working companion back, he will have to recreate it out of the raw material we call 'dog.' Through all of this naming and renaming and various uses, the thing to which we refer has an identity, a unity, and the ability to persist on its own--not as just a pile of matter, but as matter organized into a fit organ for a single life.

Persons, of course, are the organizers. As such, whatever we say about the Ship of Theseus, we must say from the perspective of the conscious subjects who make that pile of matter a ship. For this reason, what we say about the Ship of Theseus cannot help us with personal identity. Persons are characterized by a connectedness over and above their molecular bonds and some other conscious subject's intentions toward them: namely, consciousness and memorial connectedness that intimately involves and integrates all of their "parts," even when their "parts" include transplanted hearts or artificial limbs which become part of that intimate integration and consciousness and connectedness.

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