Ontology, Identity and Modality: Essays in metaphysics
Van Inwagen (Peter)
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Cover Blurb

    This book gathers together thirteen of Peter van Inwagen's essays on metaphysics, several of which have acquired the status of modern classics in their field. They range widely across such topics as Quine's philosophy of quantification, the ontology of fiction, the part-whole relation, the theory of 'temporal parts', and human knowledge of modal1 truths. In addition, van Inwagen considers the question as to whether the psychological continuity2 theory of personal identity is compatible with materialism, and defends the thesis that possible states of affairs are abstract objects, in opposition to David Lewis's 'extreme modal3 realism'. A specially-written introduction completes the collection, which will be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in metaphysics.
    Introduction – 1
    Part I: Ontology – 11
  1. Meta-Ontology – 13
  2. Why I Don't Understand Substitutional Quantification – 32
  3. Creatures of Fiction – 37
  4. Why Is There Anything At All? – 57
    Part II: Identity – 73
  5. The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts – 75
  6. Composition As Identity – 95
  7. Four-Dimensional Objects – 111
  8. Temporal Parts and Identity Across Time – 122
  9. Materialism and the Psychological-continuity Account of Personal Identity – 144
    Part III: Modality4 – 163
  10. Indexicality and Actuality – 165
  11. Plantinga on Trans-world Identity – 186
  12. Two Concepts of Possible Worlds – 206
  13. Modal5 Epistemology – 243
    Index - 259


Cambridge University Press, 2001. Nice paperback copy.

"Textor (Mark) - Review of Van Inwagen's Ontology, Identity and Modality"

Source: Religious Studies, 39, Issue 04, Dec 2003, pp 475-479

Peter van Inwagen is one of the philosophers responsible for the recent interest in the metaphysics of material objects (See his "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings" (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1990)). "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Ontology, Identity and Modality: Essays in metaphysics" is a collection of his essays on this and other topics in metaphysics. The title makes no mystery about the main issues. The first group of papers discusses problems of A-ontology and meta-ontology. A-ontology pursues the question of what there is, meta-ontology the methodological question how A-ontology should be done and the semantic question what its key-term ‘existence’ means (B-ontology is structural or formal ontology, a discipline van Inwagen claims not to understand, 2f ). The second group of papers discusses ontological problems guided by the maxim: ‘retain the standard view of identity, and try to achieve theoretical coherency by a suitable choice of metaphysical principles’ (8). The topic of the final group of papers is the metaphysics and epistemology of modality1. Should we think of possible worlds as spatio-temporal objects (concretism) or as proposition-like abstract objects (abstractionism)? Van Inwagen finds concretism unbelievable, opts for abstractionism and tries to deflect the main arguments against it.

COMMENT: Review of "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Ontology, Identity and Modality: Essays in metaphysics"; 1st 5 pages of PDF (which includes other reviews)

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Meta-Ontology"

Source: Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 48, No. 2/3, Analytical Ontology (1998), pp. 233-250

Author’s Introduction
  1. Quine has called the question 'What is there?' "the ontological question". But if we call this question by that name, what name shall we use for the question, 'What are we asking when we ask "What is there?"'?
  2. Established usage, or misusage, I suggests the name 'the meta-ontological question', and this is the name I shall use. I shall call the attempt to answer the meta-ontological question 'meta-ontology' and any proposed answer to it 'a meta-ontology'.
  3. In this essay, I shall engage in some meta-ontology and present a meta-ontology. The meta-ontology I shall present is broadly Quinean. I am, in fact, willing to call it an exposition of Quine's meta-ontology. (We must distinguish Quine's meta-ontology from his ontology - from his various theses about what there is and isn't. Quine's meta-ontology comprises such propositions as his theses on quantification and ontological commitment. His ontology comprises such propositions as the proposition that there are no propositions.)
  4. Quine's meta-ontology may be formulated as a fairly short list of theses: about five, depending on how one divides them up. Let us say five. Some of the theses I shall list have never been explicitly stated by Quine - the first in the list certainly has not -, but I do not doubt that he would accept all of them.


"Williams (S.G.) - Review of Peter Van Inwagen's 'Ontology, Identity and Modality'"

Source: Philosophy - 79, April 2004, Issue 308
COMMENT: Review of "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Ontology, Identity and Modality: Essays in metaphysics"

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Ontology, Identity, and Modality: Introduction"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Introduction

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Meta-Ontology"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part I: Ontology, Chapter 1
COMMENT: Haven't checked to see whether this is the same as "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Meta-Ontology"

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Why I Don't Understand Substitutional Quantification"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part I: Ontology, Chapter 2

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Creatures of Fiction"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part I: Ontology, Chapter 3

Author’s Introduction1
  1. Some philosophers say there are things that do not exist. In saying this, they mean to assert more than the obvious truth that, on some occasions, sentences like "Mr. Pickwick does not exist" can be used as vehicles of true assertions: They mean to assert that there are, there really are, certain objects that have, among their other attributes (such as jollity and rotundity), the attribute of non-existence. Let us call such philosophers Meinongians and their doctrine Meinongianism. One argument for Meinongianism proceeds by examples drawn from fiction, or so the Meinongian would say. A typical anti-Meinongian, however, would probably want to describe a typical application of this method as follows: "My Meinongian friend uttered 'Mr. Pickwick does not exist' assertively. Then he described what he had done in uttering these words as his having 'given an example of a non-existent object'". Our typical anti-Meinongian has an obvious reason for so describing the Meinongian's argument. For he is, of course, going to go on to say something like: "But his description of what he did was incorrect; for even if the sentence he uttered was or expressed a truth, its subject-term, 'Mr. Pickwick,' does not denote anything. Therefore, he did not, in uttering this sentence, succeed in giving an example of anything, much less of something non-existent."
  2. So the Meinongian thinks that "Mr. Pickwick" is a name for something and that what it names is non-existent. The typical anti-Meinongian thinks that "Mr. Pickwick" is not a name for anything. It will be noticed that their positions are contraries, not contradictories. It would also be at least formally possible to maintain that "Mr. Pickwick" is a name for something and that what it names exists.
  3. In this paper, I wish to defend just this thesis. More generally, I shall defend the thesis that there are things I shall call "creatures of fiction," and that every single one of them exists. I shall show that this thesis has certain advantages over both the Meinongian and what I have called the "typical anti-Meinongian" theories of the ontology of fiction. Its advantage over the Meinongian theory is this: Meinongianism either involves a bit of technical terminology that has never been given a satisfactory explanation, or else necessitates an abandonment of what are commonly called "the laws of logic." And the theory I shall present does not have this drawback.

COMMENT: Originally in American Philosophical Quarterly 14.4: 299-308 (1977)

In-Page Footnotes ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - Creatures of Fiction")

Footnote 1:
  • Somewhat arbitrarily truncated, and
  • Two historical and exegetical footnotes on Meinong omitted.

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Why Is There Anything At All?"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part I: Ontology, Chapter 4

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part II: Identity, Chapter 5

Author’s Introduction1
  1. Many philosophers accept what I shall call the Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts (DAUP). Adherents of this doctrine believe in such objects as the northern half of the Eiffel Tower, the middle two-thirds of the cigar Uncle Henry is smoking, and the thousands (at least) of overlapping perfect duplicates of Michelangelo’s David that were hidden inside the block of marble from which (as they see it) Michelangelo liberated the David. Moreover, they do not believe in only some "undetached parts"; they believe, so to speak, in all of them. The following statement of DAUP, though it is imperfect in some respects, at least captures the generality of the doctrine I mean to denote by that name:
      For every material object M, if R is the region of space occupied by M at time t, and if sub-R is any occupiable sub-region of R whatever, there exists a material object that occupies the region sub-R at t.
    (It should be obvious that DAUP, so defined, entails the existence of the northern half of the Eiffel Tower2 and the other items in the above list.) This definition or statement or whatever it is of DAUP has, as I have said, certain imperfections as a statement of the doctrine I wish to describe certain philosophers as holding. One was mentioned in (the previous) footnote. Another is this: there are philosophers who hold what is recognizable as a version of DAUP who would not be willing to admit regions of space into their ontologies. Here is a third: this statement entails that material objects have boundaries so sharp that they occupy regions that are sets of points; and no adherent of DAUP that I know of would accept such a thesis about material objects. But these defects are irrelevant to the points that will be raised in the sequel and I shall not attempt to formulate a statement of DAUP that remedies them. For our purposes, therefore, DAUP may be identified with my imperfect statement of it.
  2. What I want to say about DAUP involves only two components of that doctrine;
    1. The arbitrariness of the parts - a part of an object is of course an object that occupies a sub-region of the region occupied by that object - whose existence it asserts (". . . any occupiable sub-region of R whatever . . .") and
    2. The concreteness and materiality of these parts.
    The second of these features calls for a brief comment. A philosopher might hold that, e.g., the northern half of the Eiffel Tower exists, but identify this item in his ontology with some abstract object, such as the pair whose first term is the Eiffel Tower and whose second term is the northern half of the region of space occupied by the Eiffel Tower. (If this idea were to be applied to moving, flexible objects or to objects that grow or shrink, it would have to be radically elaborated; I mean only to provide a vague, general picture of how one might identify parts with abstract objects.) This paper is not addressed to that philosopher's doctrine. It is addressed to DAUP, which holds that, e.g., the northern half of the Eiffel Tower is a concrete material particular in the same sense as that in which the Eiffel Tower itself is a concrete material particular.
  3. The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts is false. It is also mischievous: it has caused a great deal of confusion in our thinking about material objects. But I shall not attempt to show that it is mischievous. I shall be content to show that it is false.

COMMENT: Also in "Rea (Michael), Ed. - Material Constitution - A Reader"

In-Page Footnotes ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts")

Footnote 1: Most footnotes omitted.

Footnote 2:
  • More precisely: DAUP entails that, for any time t, if the Eiffel Tower exists at t, and if the northern half of the space it occupies at t is then occupiable - and I think no one would want to deny that — then there exists an object at t that occupies that space, an object it would certainly be natural to call "the northern half of the Eiffel Tower."
  • There is a thesis that DAUP intuitively "ought" to entail that my statement of it does not entail. Consider two times t and t'. Suppose that the Eiffel Tower exists and has the same location and orientation in space at both these times. Suppose that at both these times it consists of the same girders, struts, and rivets, arranged in the same way. The thesis: the thing that is the northern half of the Eiffel Tower at t is identical with the thing that is the northern half of the Eiffel Tower at t'.
  • I regard the failure of my statement of DAUP to entail this thesis as a defect in that statement. (I think this entailment fails to hold. It certainly cannot be shown formally to hold. For all I know, however, there may be some feature of the concept of a material object in virtue of which it does hold.)

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Composition As Identity"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part II: Identity, Chapter 6

Author’s Introduction
  1. Mereology is a theory about parts and wholes, and, more generally, about composition. If it is formulated in terms of plural variables and plural quantifiers (in addition to ordinary variables and quantifiers), it consists of the logical consequences of the following two axioms:
    → Parthood is transitive.
    → For any xs, those xs have one and only one fusion.
    The range of the variables of Mereology is usually taken to be unrestricted, but in this paper I shall consider only material objects (whatever those are) and their parts – if material objects can have parts that are not themselves material objects. (Some people would not be comfortable with the idea that, say, quarks and electrons are "material objects"; but most people would want to say that material objects have quarks and electrons as parts. And then, of course, there are – or, rather, in my view, there aren't – "tropes" and "immanent universals1" and various other things that some people think are parts of material objects and yet are not themselves material objects.)
  2. David Lewis has recently advanced2 the thesis that Mereology is "ontologically innocent." One can well imagine this thesis being received with incredulous stares. There might be speeches behind some of these stares. Here are two speeches that I can imagine.
    1. I believe only in metaphysical simples, things without proper parts. This makes for a neat, manageable ontology of the material world, although (I concede) I have to do a lot of hard philosophical work to explain what's "good" about typical utterances of 'There are three apples in the bowl' and "bad" about typical utterances of 'There are three pixies in the bowl'. (For, by my lights, the world is, in the strict and philosophical sense, as empty of apples – which would be composite objects if they existed – as it is of pixies.) If I were to accept Mereology, I'd have to believe in all sorts of things I don't believe in now. I'd have to believe that all sorts of properties that I now believe have empty extensions had non-empty extensions. I'd face all sorts of philosophical problems that I don't face now – problems about the identities of composite objects across time or across worlds, for example. Tell me that if I accept Mereology I'll end up with a more satisfactory metaphysic, and I'll listen. Tell me that the new problems I'll face have solutions or are more tractable than the problems I currently face, and I'll listen. But don't tell me that Mereology is innocent. If you tell me that, you're no better than the salesman who tells me that a new Acme furnace is free because the money it saves me will eventually equal its cost. "Innocent" is like "free," and "free" does not mean the same as "well worth it."
    2. I believe that the statue and the lump of gold3 that constitutes it are numerically distinct. I believe this because I believe that the statue4 and the lump have different properties. Even if God created the statue5 (and, of course, the lump) ex nihil, and the statue6 remained in existence and unchanged for a year, after which God annihilated the statue7 (and the lump), the lump had the property could survive radical deformation and the statue8 did not have that property. And the statue9 had the property is necessarily conterminous with a statue10, and the lump did not have this property. But there are certain gold atoms such that the statue11 was one fusion of those gold atoms and the lump was another. My thesis (I concede) faces philosophical problems. Ask me how each of the two properties I've mentioned manages to get associated with one of the fusions of the gold atoms and not with the other, and I'll agree that I need to address that very serious question. But don't tell me that any theory that – like Mereology, with its unique fusions – is incompatible with my ontology of the material world is innocent.
  3. Lewis has an argument for the innocence of mereology. Sometimes he puts the argument like this: Composition is a kind of identity. Therefore, in accepting fusions, you are accepting only something that is identical with what you have already accepted, and nothing could be more ontologically innocent than that. And Mereology asks you to accept nothing more than fusions of what you already accept. Lewis eventually qualifies the thesis that composition is a kind of identity, and his qualifications seem to me to be significant enough that I should want to call the argument based on the qualified premise a statement of a new and different argument. For the present, I shall consider only the unqualified argument.

COMMENT: Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 8, Logic and Language (1994), pp. 207-220

In-Page Footnotes ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - Composition As Identity")

Footnote 2: in "Lewis (David) - Parts of Classes", pp. 81-7.

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Four-Dimensional Objects"

Source: Haslanger (Sally) & Kurtz (Roxanne) - Persistence : Contemporary Readings

Author’s Introduction
  1. It is sometimes said that there are two theories of identity across time. First, there is "three-dimensionalism," according to which persisting objects are extended in the three spatial dimensions and have no other kind of extent and persist by "enduring through time" (whatever exactly that means). Secondly, there is "four-dimensionalism," according to which persisting objects are extended not only in the three spatial dimensions, but also in a fourth, temporal, dimension, and persist simply by being temporally extended.
  2. In this paper, I shall argue that there are not two but three possible theories of identity across time, and I shall endorse one of them, a theory that may, as a first approximation, be identified with what I have called "three-dimensionalism." I shall present these three theories as theories about the ways in which our names for persisting objects are related to the occupants (or the alleged occupants) of certain regions of spacetime.


"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Temporal Parts and Identity Across Time"

Source: Monist, Jul2000, Vol. 83 Issue 3, p437, 23p

Philosopher's Index Abstract
  1. Focuses on the relationship of temporal parts and identity across time.
  2. Identity across time according to Michael Tooley;
  3. Definition of temporal parts;
  4. David Lewis' explanation of temporal parts;
  5. Definition of temporal identity-sentences;
  6. How to understand the facts of temporal identity;
  7. Sample problems about temporal identity-sentences.

COMMENT: Also in Bottani - Individuals, Essence and Identity, 2002

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Materialism and the Psychological-continuity Account of Personal Identity"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part II: Identity, Chapter 9

Author’s Introduction
  1. I am going to argue that a materialist should not accept a psychological continuity1 theory of personal identity across time.
  2. I will begin by arguing that a materialist cannot consistently admit the possibility of a certain kind of case beloved of the proponents of psychological-continuity theories, so-called bodily transfer cases, and then attempt to generalize the essential point of the argument for this conclusion to show that a materialist should not accept a psychological continuity2 account of personal identity.

COMMENT: Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 11, Mind, Causation3, and World (1997), pp. 305-319

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Indexicality and Actuality"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part III: Modality, Chapter 10

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Plantinga on Trans-world Identity"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part III: Modality, Chapter 11

Author’s Introduction
  1. "Plantinga (Alvin) - The Nature of Necessity" is a treasure-trove. Among its treasures are Plantinga's treatments of the problem of evil and the ontological argument, his examination of the question whether there are nonexistent objects, and his discussion of the so-called problem of trans-world identity.
  2. Plantinga's discussion of trans-world identity is a masterpiece of destructive philosophical analysis. Its virtues are a product of his virtues. He is a philosopher of exquisite clarity and a philosophical craftsman of the very highest order. The Nature of Necessity is founded upon a set of definitions of certain concepts that cluster round the concept of a "possible world." This set of definitions bears the unmistakable marks of Plantinga's clarity and craftsmanship. (If you think these definitions are obvious or trivial, you are the victim of an illusion: the mastery of an art consists in making the difficult look easy.) Anyone who brings Plantinga's definitions to an examination of the problem of trans-world identity will find his work half done for him. If he attends to the conceptual content of Plantinga's definientia rather than to the mental pictures (and other such distractions) that the definienda may have set drifting about in his mind, he will see that there is no problem of trans-world identity. He will find that all attempts he knows of to formulate the supposed problem are either incoherent or else have such obvious "solutions" that they do not deserve to be called problems. He will realize that it was all done with mirrors - that is, with empty words and confused pictures.
  3. There is, therefore, no longer any excuse for talking as if there were a "problem of trans-world identity." And yet many philosophers persist in talking as if there were a problem that went by that name1. Some of them have even read the relevant parts of The Nature of Necessity. I can think of only one explanation for this: the empty words and confused pictures are capable of exerting a firmer grip on the philosophical imagination than Plantinga has supposed. What I mean to do in this essay is to examine what are, as I see it, the most important sources of the confusions that underlie the belief that there is a problem about trans-world identity, and to try, by bringing these sources into the open, to allow us to "command a clear view" of them. My hope is that one who commands a clear view of them will be no longer subject to the confusions of which they are the source and will, as a result, see that there is no problem of trans-world identity.
  4. The present essay, therefore, is not a critical essay. It is not an attempt to correct Plantinga where he is wrong. It is rather an attempt to remove certain barriers to appreciating something he has to say that is right.
  5. Before turning to this topic, however. I shall briefly outline the set of definitions I praised a moment ago - or those of them that are relevant to our purpose. Doubtless most of the readers of this book will be familiar with them. Anyone who is not in need of a review may skip the following section. But it must be constantly borne in mind that when I use the terms I shall define in Section II. I mean by them just what I say I mean by them and nothing more than or less than or different from what I say I mean by them. If I am charged with being unduly insistent on the point. I reply that, given the history of the reception of Plantinga's arguments, I am only being prudent. Several of Plantinga's critics have not only neglected to reproduce his definitions for the benefit of their readers, but have written as if these definitions did not exist - have written as it Plantinga had never explained what he meant by such terms as "possible world" and "exists in." But one cannot discuss Plantinga's philosophy of modality2 with anyone who is unaware of Plantinga's definitions. This is not a matter of opinion: it is a simple statement of fact, the truth of which is evident to anyone who has read The Nature of Necessity. I cannot imagine what these critics supposed all those definitions were for.

In-Page Footnotes ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - Plantinga on Trans-world Identity")

Footnote 1: We are referred to "Brody (Baruch) - Identity and Essence" and a critical notice by Michael Tooley.

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Two Concepts of Possible Worlds"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part III: Modality, Chapter 12
COMMENT: Also in "French (Peter), Uehling (Theodore) & Wettstein (Howard) - Midwest Studies in Philosophy (Vol XI) - Studies in Essentialism"

"Van Inwagen (Peter) - Modal Epistemology"

Source: Van Inwagen - Ontology, Identity and Modality, Part III: Modality, Chapter 13

Author’s Introduction
  1. Philosophy abounds in modal arguments. A surprisingly high proportion of these arguments have the following features: they are formally valid; one of their premises is far more controversial (doubtful, disputable, problematic) than any of the others; it is a modal premise.
  2. In all the most interesting arguments of this sort, the "crucial" modal premise is an assertion of possibility, a statement of the form 'it is possible that p'.
  3. I would suppose that we find arguments that proceed from assertions of possibility more interesting than arguments that proceed from assertions of necessity for two reasons.
    1. First, we are inclined (at least initially) to regard assertions of possibility as easier to establish than assertions of necessity.
    2. Secondly, we are inclined (at least initially) to find it surprising that anything about how things are or must be can be deduced from a premise about how things might be; but it is hardly surprising that conclusions about how things are or must be can be deduced from premises about how things must be.

COMMENT: Originally published in Philosophical Studies, Vol. 92, No. 1/2, A Priori Knowledge (Oct., 1998), pp. 67-84

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