The Problem of Material Constitution
Rea (Michael)
Source: Philosophical Review, October 1995; 104(4): 525-553
Paper - Abstract

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Philosophers Index Abstract

  1. There are various puzzles that set our intuitions about composition and identity against one another.
  2. Four that are particularly well-known are the Ship of Theseus1 puzzle, the Paradox of Increase, the Body-Minus argument (usually presented by way of Peter Geach's familiar story about Tibbles the cat2) and Allan Gibbard's puzzle about Lumpl and Goliath (a piece of clay and a statue3, respectively).
  3. In this paper I argue that there is just one problem that underlies these four puzzles and their many variants. I also provide an exhaustive taxonomy of possible solutions to that problem.

Author’s Introduction
  1. There are various puzzles that set our intuitions about composition and identity against one another. Four that are particularly well known are the Growing Argument (also known as the Paradox of Increase), the Ship of Theseus4 Puzzle, the Body-minus Argument (usually presented by way of Peter Geach's story about Tibbles the cat)5, and Allan Gibbard's puzzle about Lumpl and Goliath (a piece of clay and a statue6, respectively). Such puzzles have received a great deal of attention in the literature over the past thirty years, and there is an impressive and growing variety of solutions available for each of them. Surprisingly, however, no one has really discussed how all of the different puzzles, and their solutions, are interrelated. On the surface, they seem to raise different problems; but clearly the puzzles are related somehow. They raise similar questions and generate similar sets of possible solutions. But, as yet, nothing has been said about how far the similarities extend.
  2. What I intend to show is that there is one problem underlying these four familiar puzzles (and their many variants). This problem I will call "the problem of material constitution." I say it underlies the four puzzles for the following reason: every solution to the problem of material constitution is equally a solution to each of these four puzzles, though not vice versa. One might therefore view each of the four puzzles as a more or less imperfect statement of the problem of material constitution. I have chosen these puzzles in particular because they are [the most widely discussed7 and because they are typically treated in isolation from one another. They have been used as points of departure in discussing a variety of different topics (for example, contingent identity8, arbitrary undetached parts, temporal parts, indeterminate identity, mereological essentialism, and so on); but it is not always obvious how or whether these different discussions are related to one another. Thus my aim in showing that one problem underlies these puzzles is to re veal the common thread that unifies this group of otherwise apparently disparate discussions. Moreover, once it is clear what the common problem is, it will be possible to provide an exhaustive taxonomy of solutions-something which thus far has not been available9.
  3. In what follows, I will show that there are five individually plausible and jointly incompatible assumptions underlying each of the puzzles under consideration. The problem of material constitution just is the fact that these five assumptions are both plausible and incompatible10. I will begin by providing a very general statement of the problem. I will present the five assumptions and provide a short argument showing how they conflict with one another. Then, in subsequent sections, I will go on to show how these assumptions underlie each of the four puzzles. I will conclude by providing an exhaustive taxonomy of possible solutions to the problem.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 7: Though the Growing Argument is not nearly as widely discussed as the other three.

Footnote 9: Of course, there are many lists of possible solutions for particular puzzles available. (See, for example, Burke 1994a; Doepke 1982; Heller 1990, 3-4; and Simons 1987, 119-120.) But no one has provided the kind of exhaustive taxonomy of solutions to the problem of material constitution that I will offer at the end of this paper. On the distinction between a list and a taxonomy, see note 32.

Footnote 10: All four puzzles raise the problem within the context of an ontology of three-dimensional enduring objects; but only the fourth raises the problem within the context of an ontology of four-dimensional perduring objects. I defer detailed discussion of this point to the end of section 4.


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