PHIL 3330

Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics

Chapter 2 (Individuality)

Mostly a summary. I've added some comments and references in green.

Individual Things and Non-Individual-Things

What is an "individual thing"? van Inwagen tries to clarify the concept by contrasting it with a variety of non-individual-things (they could be non-individual things either because they are not individual, as in the case of collections, or because they aren't things at all, as in the case of modifications). In the literature, the term "particular" is often used for pretty much the same concept as van Inwagen's "individual thing."

  1. modifications (compare Descartes on "modes")
        a. the wrinkle in the carpet
        b. a smile
        c. a hole in a piece of cheese
            (cover of Roberto Casati and Achille Varzi, Holes and Other Superficialities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994))
  2. collections
    I have to say I find van Inwagen's example, the army, completely unconvincing. The reason he gives for thinking that the army is merely a collection of soldiers, namely that the same army at different times can be composed of different soldiers, seems to me to actually count in exactly the opposite direction. Surely if something is merely a collection of items, then it can't survive a change in its items.
        I doubt that we give names to collections. I think probably the best we can do is something like: "the collection consisting of the sun, my fingernail clippers, and my cat Elsa." (But even then I don't see any reason to deny that the resulting entity is an individual thing of a rather strange sort.)
        Perhaps the fundamental question about collections vs. individual things is this: given something that is composed of other things, when is it nothing but the things of which it is composed, and when is it (in some sense) something more? Here's a tower built of three blocks:
    Is the tower nothing but the blocks? Well, no. If I knock it over, I have:
        A    B    C
    The blocks are still there, but the tower is gone. So the tower can't be nothing but the blocks. Not that there are any other things that go into making up the tower: rather, the tower is the blocks arranged in a certain way.
        I'm not sure we ever normally talk about "mere collections," assuming I'm using that expression in the sense van Inwagen intends. The only thing you could really call a mere collection is a mereological sum of individuals (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on mereology, written by none other than . . . Achille Varzi!). But that's a technical notion that doesn't seem to correspond to anything in ordinary usage.
  3. stuffs
    a. water
    b. flesh
    c. steel
    d. hydrogen
    e. sealing wax
    Quine calls terms like "water," "steel," etc. "mass terms." (See Word and Object, section 19.) One way to mark the difference between stuffs and individual things: we measure quantity of stuff by "how much," of things by "how many." We say "how many people are in the room," not "how much people are in the room." Similarly, we say "how much water is in the glass," not "how many water is in the glass." Individuation and counting go together.
  4. universals (things with instances)
    a. War and Peace
    (not to be confused with Laura Rozen's blog)
    b. numbers (hmm . . . the instances are supposed to be "things that are four in number" (p. 24), like the four points of the compass. This makes me uneasy.)
    c. properties (e.g. wisdom, the color white)
    d. relations (being to the north of)
  5. events and processes
    a. the death of Ceasar
    b. the Second World War
    (here's a well-known description of an event from Donald Davidson, "The Logical Form of Action Sentences," in his Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 105: "Strange goings on! Jones did it slowly, deliberately, in the bathroom, with a knife, at midnight. What he did was butter a piece of toast." The point is that "it" here refers to an action; Davidson wants to argue that actions and events are, after all, individual things.)

How Many Individual Things are There?

  1. None: Nihilism. Not the view that there is nothing at all -- it's hard to imagine how one could maintain that! -- but the view that there are no individual things, perhaps because there is really only stuff, in the sense of 3 above. (Q: are there examples of philosophers who hold this view? van Inwagen strongly suggests that it has been held, but does not offer any examples, and I can't think of any.)
  2. One: Monism.
    a. "things" are modifications of the One (Spinoza)
    b. things other than the One don't really exist (Absolute Idealism, esp. Hegel)
    c. every thing is identical with every other thing (Hinduism???)
  3. Many: Pluralism.

Interestingly, no one defends the only other possible view, that there are not many but more than one (say, two or three).

Last update: August 26, 2007
Curtis Brown | Metaphysics | Philosophy Department | Trinity University