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Identity And Universals: A Conceptualist Approach to Logical, Metaphysical, and Epistemological Problems of Contemporary Identity Theory
by Carolyn Ray

Date: 11 Nov 98
Copyright: Carolyn Ray

I take the notion of identity both in the sense of unity amid diversity and in the sense of permanence amid change to be foundational--the fact of identity in these senses is a necessary condition for the activities that are distinctive of human beings: abstracting, reasoning, projecting, planning. But there is more to my project than this (almost) uncontroversial claim. I also claim that the concept IDENTITY is epistemologically axiomatic--i.e., the fact to which it refers is self-evident, incontrovertible, unprovable, and implicit in every act of awareness (to be aware of something is to be aware of something). When I claim that this computer is a good piece of equipment, I am talking about an entity that has determinate measurements along various determinate dimensions--i.e., an object that is some way.

In this framework, persons are included as things that have identity, but personal identity has a special role. There is the trivial claim that if I did not persist, then I could not engage in the writing of a dissertation. But I further claim that whenever I make any claim of persistence or unity about some object other than myself, I am implicitly committing myself to the claims that (1) I persist, and (2) the object about which I am making the claim measures up to me in a certain way. In other words, I make all identity claims with reference to my own existence as a determinate thing that persists for some determinate amount of time, and I could not do otherwise. For example, when I say that this computer is the same one that was in this room yesterday, I am making this claim with reference to myself in that I am comparing the length of its duration to the length of my own.

This fact seems almost too obvious to have to state; but given the problems that arise when it is not stated, apparently it is not immediately obvious. Yet it is imperative for the identity theorist to grasp this fact consciously and explicitly; if one does not take it into account, one cannot properly explain the process of concept-formation. If one cannot explain the process of concept formation, one is ultimately lead to either some form of realism with regard to universals, or to nominalism. Both these theories, I will argue, are in error.

These errors regarding concepts lead in turn to several other sorts of theoretical mistakes, including but not limited to

--logic as a self-contained endeavor isolated from the real world

--the analytic/synthetic dichotomy

--the logical possibility/natural possibility dichotomy

--the intrinsic/subjective dichotomy

These mistaken ideas are now part of the standard doctrine and method of mainstream philosophical inquiry, to the extent that questioning them elicits hostile response from the community. Yet they must be questioned because the results stemming from these dogmas are devastating to the philosophical enterprise and to our success as a community engaged in a productive discipline. Some of the results, as I will argue in my dissertation, are:

--the invalidation of the method of reductio ad absurdum

--the confounding of valid concepts

--unrestrained generation of spurious "puzzle cases"


--circularity in "refutations" of the validity of identity criteria

--the popular view that philosophy contradicts known facts

The mechanism which enables the dogmas to generate the undesirable results is the ill-posed thought-experiment. I argue for my views on both the proper and improper uses of thought-experiments in philosophy. Although the idea that there is a distinction between a good thought experiment and a bad one is gaining respectability from some mainstream philosophers, the reason for the misuse of science and science fiction is not generally recognized, and thus the key to the reparation of the damage likewise is not recognized.

That key is the aforementioned acknowledgment of both IDENTITY and CONSCIOUSNESS as axiomatic concepts. Recognition of identity and consciousness as fundamental, undeniable, self-evident facts leads to an objective view of concepts; in other words, it leads to conceptualism. Conceptualism is the theory that universals are mental entities or activities whereby a conscious subject categorizes objects according to noticed similarities. Concept-formation on this view will be detailed in the chapter on universals.

The method whereby the conceptualist succeeds in solving the problems brought on by the erroneous theories of universals is the method of objectivity, and one principal tool of the method is definition. The method of objectivity can be briefly characterized as a relentless commitment to answering a single question: "To what in reality do universal names refer?" In view of the importance of definitions for connecting concepts to reality, and in view of the pitfalls associated with equivocation, I include a glossary in which all key terms will be defined in terms of genus and differentia or otherwise explained.

The method of objectivity involves asking this question with explicit acknowledgment of the context in which inquiry takes place--in the context of a conscious subject observing reality, differentiating some existents from others and from their background and comparing their measurements along certain dimensions. Far from being either mysterious or arbitrary, concepts are simply mental integrations whereby the conscious subject sums up large amounts of information.

One of the contrast objects against which I will test my claims and those of other writers is the anterograde amnesiac. Unable to remember anything new after suffering brain damage, amnesiacs experience the world as a Heraclitean flux. These beings have no means of measuring the objects of their experience, because they have no selves to which to relate them. The loss of memory makes such beings incapable of reidentifying objects, indicating that it is always with reference to oneself that one makes identity claims; but if it is always with reference to oneself that one makes identity claims, it follows that the conscious subject must be accounted for in any theory of concepts.

But IDENTITY and CONSCIOUSNESS are concepts too. So conceptualism reforms contemporary identity theory by taking these to be our objective concepts, formed by us in the way that we form other concepts (with some slight differences), for the purpose of bringing indefinitely many concretes into the scope of our awareness. As such, they too are neither mysterious nor arbitrary. They refer to existents, and focus on one particular aspect of those existents: that each of them has some determinate nature and persists through change.

Conceptualism can solve the problems current in identity theory because it subscribes to none of the aforementioned dichotomies and dogmas. This theory of universals takes concepts to be mental integrations of units formed by a process of abstraction. Concepts reflect the natural structures of the world without positing additional structures of any kind. They are linked to the existents they subsume by means of definitions by genus and differentia.

Though they sometimes try, theorists with realist or nominalist leanings cannot adequately explain why science fiction is illegitimate because they are led by their commitments to accept, explicitly or implicitly, the analytic/synthetic, necessary/contingent, and logical possibility/natural possibility, or the intrinsic/subjective dichotomies. All of these false dichotomies lend credibility to the science fiction thought experiment--in fact, science fiction thought experiments cannot run without commitments to one or all of these. The result of the thought experiments is the blurring of valid distinctions that have their basis in fact, for the sake of adhering to the false dichotomies.

But because conceptualism holds that concepts are based on objects in reality, and that the reason for forming them at all is to enable the conscious subject to successfully navigate the world, it shows why science fiction cannot be useful for testing or rearranging the conceptual scheme. "Logically possible" science fiction cases get us nowhere in the study of identity because they fail to recognize the concept IDENTITY as objective. Thus, evidence that nominalism and realism are in large part responsible for the current state of identity theory will come from the fact that conceptualism can solve these problems.

More evidence for my claim that nominalism and realism and their failure to recognize the role of the conscious subject in identity claims has been a major cause of the problems in identity theory will come from my own conceptualist solutions to a variety of the standard types of puzzle cases: Geach's heralds, Frege's morning star and evening star, Russell's author of Waverly. The meaning of a proposition cannot be found in the sentence that expresses it, nor in some third realm of being. Conscious subjects use propositions to mean things; propositions are, after all, built up out of concepts, and in order for a conscious subject to mean something by a proposition, that subject must have done the required abstraction to form the concepts. On this conceptualist view of meaning, the puzzles are easily solved, many of them simply disappearing when light is cast upon the assumptions that lie behind them.

Please note that the following conventions will be used in this work. When referring to--or mentioning--a word itself, the symbol for the word will be enclosed in single quotes: e.g., the word 'dog.' When referring to the concept for which the word stands, the symbol will be written in all uppercase letters: e.g., the concept DOG. I borrow this convention from David Kelley's logic text, The Art of Reasoning. These conventions will help to avoid use-mention errors and equivocation, on the part of both author and reader.

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