Review of 'Kinds of Being: A Study of Individuation, Identity and the Logic of Sortal Terms' by E. J. Lowe
Noonan (Harold)
Source: Philosophy, Vol. 66, No. 256 (Apr., 1991), pp. 248-249
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  1. E. J. Lowe's new book is a study of the issues in metaphysics, logic and the philosophy of language involved in debates over the nature of sortal1 concepts, the concept of a criterion of identity, and the relativity of identity. A substantial part of the book is devoted to a discussion of the problem of personal identity and a defence of a view of persons as simple entities for which no criterion of identity can be given – personal identity, Lowe argues, is primitive and ungrounded.
  2. Lowe writes with clarity and vigour and his book is a useful contribution to its series (the Aristotelian Society Series). In the rest of this review I wish to focus on two of his central themes: the necessity of criteria of identity for individuation2, and the wrongheadedness of the idea of relative identity.
  3. It is a familiar idea, which Lowe endorses, that reference to an individual (and hence the possibility of baptizing it with a proper name) is only possible against the background of a sortal3 concept supplying a criterion of identity – if one says 'Let us call this "N"', one must be able to answer the question 'This what?' But why is this so? Surely I can refer to an item if I can identify it and I can identify it if I can specify a property (possibly a complex property involving an egocentrically defined spatio-temporal location) that it alone satisfies? The ability to provide a criterion of identity satisfied by the entity cannot be an additional requirement. But if not, then the thesis has to be that without specifying a criterion of identity one cannot identify an individual, and this could only be so if in any spatial location at a given time there are several individuals indistinguishable in their properties at the time but distinct in their histories. Thus the thesis that criteria of identity are essential to individuation4 implies an ontological thesis – a thesis about the sorts of individuals there are in the world.
  4. Now from a certain point of view this ontological thesis is utterly trivial. It is so, for example, if one accepts a Quinean 'four-dimensional' picture. But Lowe is emphatic in his rejection of this picture and draws attention in his discussion of Geach's relative identity thesis to what he regards as an unwelcome ontological commitment of Geach's view – the existence of concrete, spatio-temporally intermittent entities (heralds) coinciding in their histories with the histories of different men at different times. I do not think that a limited ontology of the sort Lowe appears to favour can support his acceptance of the orthodox view that reference is only possible against the background of a criterion of identity.
  5. Lowe's argument against Geach's relative identity thesis turns on the idea that a counter-example would be an individual satisfying two sortal5 concepts conveying distinct criteria of identity. But Geach requires no such thing. All he requires is that it be possible for two individuals to be identical in their non-historical properties at a particular time, but distinct in their histories. (Tib and Tibbles, after Tibbles' unfortunate accident would be such a pair of individuals.) Geach's argument for relative identity then turns on the claim that a sortal6 term like 'cat', in its predicative use, may be defined in terms of a subset of the non-historical properties possessed by the two individuals. Geach may be wrong about this, but the thesis is certainly not an incoherent one. Nor do large issues turn on the matter, as Lowe suggests. The substantive issue here is rather the ontological one – whether one can always find individuals identical in their non-historical properties and distinct only in their histories. On this issue Geach is at one with Quine, and Lowe is at odds with both of them. It is, I think, only if one takes the Geachian or Quinean line that one can make serious use of the notion of a criterion of identity – at least with reference to spatio-temporal individuals.
  6. It will be evident from the above that the extent of my disagreement with Lowe is considerable. But none the less, I enjoyed this book and found it very thought-provoking. Lowe's argumentation is clear, honest and unpretentious; it is worth getting to grips with.


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

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