Review of 'Kinds of Being: A Study of Individuation, Identity and the Logic of Sortal Terms' by E. J. Lowe
Simons (Peter)
Source: Mind, New Series, Vol. 101, No. 403 (Jul., 1992), pp. 581-582
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  1. The basic theses of Jonathan Lowe's interesting and lively monograph are that particulars are always instances of some sort, that sorts come provided with criteria of identity, which are semantic, not epistemological principles, and that individuals with different criteria of identity cannot be identical. This last claim, which one might call the criterial exclusion principle, is made with a definiteness which invites scepticism, but despite trying, I could think of no convincing counterexample. Different sorts may share the same criterion of identity, by virtue for instance of being co-ordinate species of one genus. The basic ingredients in this position are now fairly familiar, but Lowe picks his own distinctive way through the alternatives, and adds ingredients of his own. After a preliminary exposition and account of the roles of sortals and criteria of identity with which I found nothing questionable except the rather determined realism about sorts, Lowe mounts probably the most sustained attack on Geach's thesis of the relativity of identity, driving another nail or two into what is by now widely regarded as a defunct position. Further chapters on identity and constitution, and part/whole are full of good sense. The last four chapters deal with persons, laws of nature, dispositions, and the logic of sorts. The idea of laws of nature as norms concerning sorts is an interesting though complex one. It avoids certain standard problems of scientific explanation like the raven paradox, though I think the rejection of a statistical account of norms for biological kinds is too hasty, and the description of sorts without abnormal exemplars as "semi-ideal" (p. 174) is questionable. However, I shall comment further on just two issues: sortal realism, and persons as a basic sort.
  2. Lowe is a realist about sorts: we quantify objectually over them in laws of nature and elsewhere. Sorts are stratified: Socrates is to Man as Man is to-what? Mammalia, Hominidae? In fact, what biologists call "higher taxa" are by no means obviously objectively stratified. How many ranks is the sort Chordata above Socrates? There must be some fact of the matter here for Lowe, but biologists waver much more. Lowe considers but rejects substitutional quantification for sortals, because of the analogies with proper names. The analogies are imperfect, and the facts about laws and definitions which lead Lowe to treat sortal terms as referential can also be reasonably explained by a kind of nominalism he does not consider, namely trope nominalism.
  3. A basic sort is one for which no informative criteria of identity can be given, and Lowe considers persons to be a basic sort, distinct from material bodies or biological organisms. The basis of the account is Lockean. First, Locke's convincing arguments for distinguishing organisms from masses of matter (or aggregates of material particles) are rehearsed. Lowe declares more than once, e.g. on p. 26, that he is no slave to idiom, but the argument on p. 99 that a gold atom cannot be golden because it is not made of gold seems to bow too low to ordinary usage: if one gold atom is not golden, how many are? Two? But if one atom is not gold, how can two atoms be gold, not being made of gold? And if not two, when? A gold atom is the natural minimal unit of gold, so it is much more sensible to gently bend the phrase is made of to include the limiting case of one gold atom than to worry about such trifles. The statement on p. 107 that it is not contingent that rivers are made of water seems to be a slip: could there not be rivers of methane or lead on alien planets? But otherwise this part is a plausible continuation of the discussion of constitution. The chief claim is that living organisms are essentially material.
  4. When the discussion moves to persons, things become much more questionable. Having given Locke's self-consciousness account of the nature of persons, Lowe argues that it does not follow from the Lockean characterization that a person must be embodied, that there is no absurdity in speaking of a disembodied person as there is in speaking of a disembodied tree, so persons are not essentially material or alive like organisms, and hence, since they have a different (albeit, as it turns out later, uninformative) criterion of identity, by the criterial exclusion principle, no man or woman is a person (!).
  5. If, as Lowe says, we find no absurdity in thinking of persons as disembodiable, I see no reason to deny this possible privilege to other things. The Torngak spirits of the Eskimo are not confined to humans: aside from bears, whose spirits are the most powerful and most feared, trees, stones, winds, rivers, indeed everything in nature has its own spirit or innua, which can survive after the destruction of the physical thing. That does not seem absurd to the Eskimo, and the spirits of inanimate things need have no more exalted mental powers than their corporeal counterparts, so the idea of a disembodied tree, despite its unfamiliarity to Western thought, is not obviously more incoherent than that of a disembodied self- conscious thinker. Even a Lockean person "can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing in different times and places" (my emphasis), which at least suggests essential sometime embodiment. The obvious counter to Lowe's proposal is that "person" is not a simple sortal term, but that persons are acting, perceiving, self-conscious material things of some suitable sort, borrowing their criteria of identity from the sort or sorts in question. (I agree with Lowe that we cannot rule out a priori the possibility of non-organic persons.) Lowe considers this alternative but rejects it because "the difficulty resides in deciding in a principled way what sortal term... should figure in the analysis" (p. 116). But surely it is a strength of the concept of person that it is an open question precisely what kinds of physical system can support personal characteristics. By denying that persons form a sort with its own criterion of identity, we who read his book can happily resume believing that we are both persons (accidentally and for only part of our lives) as well as human beings (essentially and throughout). Lowe does not believe that persons are incorporeal Cartesian souls, but the idea of persons as a distinct sort would be more secure if he did.


Review of "Lowe (E.J.) - Kinds of Being: Study of Individuation, Identity and the Logic of Sortal Terms"

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