Saturday 8 July 2017

An Attempt to Diagnose the Disagreement over the Relational Explanation of Identity

Here is what I have to say in response to the schmidentity challenge as posed to the sui generis view of identity statements. (See also these two related posts from several years ago.)

OK, so we can grant that you can introduce a 'schmidentity' predicate in the way Kripke describes. We can also grant that this predicate could then get used to do what we do with identity statements. But can we, having granted these things, nonetheless deny that the meaning and function of identity statements is explained with the object-relation story?

I am strongly inclined to do all of this. Why? Because the characteristic function of informative identity statements and their denials - the way they get us to merge and separate mental files, or concepts of individuals - is passed over in this explanation. Going along with the object-relation explanation seems to render this incidental, instead of the main point. That explanation makes it look as though the main function of an 'a is b' statement is also fulfilled by the corresponding 'a is a' statement, which of course it is not.

But, someone may argue, does the object-relation explanation really create this false appearance? And here it would be easy to be dogmatic. There would be something silly about insisting that yes, this sort of explanation really does create this false appearance. After all, my opponent - the philosopher who wants to say that the object-relation story is perfectly adequate, and that there's no problem here, and that anyone who thinks there is is in a muddle - doesn't actually seem to be confused about the fact that 'a is b' statements are often useful in a way that the corresponding 'a is a' statements are not. They would happily admit that. So the difference between us seems to be in whether we are happy to leave this out in our primary explanation, so to speak, of identity statements.

And it is important that I allow that the object-relation explanation of identity statements does show something. It's not as if it is a sheer mistake. It shows that we can so to speak depict identity statements as a special case of relational statements, i.e. statements like 'John loves Mary'. I do not want to deny this, or deny that it is of philosophical interest.

There is something neat or cool about this sort of observation, too. It has a charm to it, similar to the charm possessed by clever hacks (in the sense of computer culture). I think that the philosopher who wants to defend the object-relation story lacks a proper place to put this. They feel the charm, the strikingness, of the explanation, and - not wanting this to elude them - wrongly place it in the "primary explanation" place in their thinking, instead of a place marked something like "striking and potentially instructive thing you can say". So long as we only focus on the "primary explanation" place, it looks like the defender of the object-relation story is missing something and proposing something maddeningly objectionable, but it also looks like the antagonist of the object-relation story is missing something. It is not until we consider other possibilities for the significance of the object-relation story that we are able to give both parties their due.

This, I now think, is a very important point (even though I may not have expressed it very well). I regret that I didn't manage to arrive at this point in my paper on this topic. I also think my predecessors were missing something in this regard.

So, we can grant the possibility of the schmidentity predicate, and the possibility of it coming to be used to do the characteristic work of identity statements, but nonetheless deny that the object-relation story should take pride of place in our explanation of the meaning and function of identity statements. A leftover question here is: should we also deny that the meaning and function of statements made with the 'schmidentity' predicate, if they are being used in the way we use identity statements, is explained by their stipulated semantics? And the answer, I think, is Yes. If they are being used in that way, then the object-relation story should not take pride of place in their explanation. But it is understandable that we should hesitate here, since 'schmidentity' was introduced and defined by means of the object-relation story, and this invites us to look at their use - when they are being used in the characteristic way we use identity statements - as a kind of secondary thing, a happy side-effect.

(I feel like saying something more at this point, which may be more objectionable, about what other use (schm)identity statements may have, apart from their practical use which has to do with merging and separating. A metaphysical use, so to speak. And about what attitude we take to this use, or whether it might be a kind of illusion. And this relates to one of the old posts linked to at the beginning. But I won't do more than make this hint, since these are treacherous waters and I wouldn't want to abuse the goodwill of a differently-minded reader.)