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Fr. 703

January 12, 2016

We shall now consider Mogensen’s take on individual identity from a more critical angle. More specifically, we shall bring to light four questions of methodology from which it would be possible to level serious charges against the account presented.

These questions can be summarized thusly:

  1. Is Mogensen’s quest to isolate formal a priori criteria for identity centrality flawed?

  2. Are all propositions, trivial and evaluative, to be considered as homologous?

  3. Is it sound to isolate meanings of identity without specifying the purpose which they are to serve?

  4. If our intuitions about individual identity stem from psychological essentialism, can we nonetheless check candidate principles against those intuitions?

  1. Is Mogensen’s quest to isolate formal a priori criteria for identity centrality flawed?

The author subjects different candidate criteria (i.e. durability, uniqueness, depth and breadth of influence, reflexive attitudes) to tests for universality, necessity and sufficiency. If a single criteria does not enable us to distinguish central from peripheral traits across all cases, that trait thereby demonstrates its lack of a priori status. In other words, it does not alone suffice to explain a trait’s centrality or peripherality. Whatever intuitive or predictive explanatory power the trait may seem to propose, its inability to account for all cases outweighs.

The method here would proceed from what we might term an a priori formalism wherein emphasis is placed on the search for a priori universals, independent of experience and present across all cases. Indeed, this method enjoys considerable popularity and currency in the field of philosophy, be it in metaethics’ quest for a moral principle, epistemology’s attempt to define knowledge or political philosophy’s interest in personhood. In all, practitioners are on the hunt for what is common to all.

Yet this method finds a certain number of detractors among pragmatists and philosophers of language (of a Wittgensteinian persuasion) for whom a priori formalism partakes in methodological essentialism, for lack of a better term. When a priori formalism attempts to isolate those elements which enjoy universal, necessary and sufficient status, it seeks a status similar in kind to that of an essence, for which there may exist no corresponding formation in the “object” under consideration. In the end, this fixation on a priori universals can lead to puzzling cases, false problems and unintuitive conclusions.

To take but one example with which the author is most likely familiar, consider the quest to define “knowledge” in contemporary epistemology. Many philosophers have devoted works in the attempt at such a definition and, through their efforts, given rise to different schools within the field. For the early practitioners, knowledge could be analyzed in terms of “justified true belief”. If an agent’s belief was both true and justified in being true, then such thinkers could not help but consider that belief an instance of knowledge across all cases.

But, with the demonstration of Gettier cases, these same philosophers soon recognized that accidental environmental factors, beyond the agent’s control, could alter cases in such a way that this agent’s belief would be both justified and true, but not what we would intuitively consider an instance of knowledge. Hence, as per a priori formalism, “belief”, “justified” and “true” lacked the universality, necessity and sufficiency to be considered a priori universals. Knowledge might well include these, but we can not rely on them exclusively to distinguish instances of knowledge from lucky guesses. So, the search was on to find other candidate traits which did capture all the relevant aspects of knowledge, as checked against our intuition.

This gave rise over the years to different subfields or -movements within epistemology, of which virtue ethics, reliabilism and contextualism are but only a few. It would be of little use to summarize the stated purpose and the shortcomings of each and every one, for the same pattern emerges over time. The subfield or -movement makes good on its promise to overcome the failings of its predecessors but opens up or leaves unanswered questions, new and old, when subjected to additional testing by epistemologists. No theory now available has proven itself capable of isolating those traits which enable us to distinguish knowledge from mere luck across all cases, accounting for all possible alterations in environmental factors.

Strikingly, the lesson that we should draw from this progression is not that knowledge is an illusion. Rather, like the pragmatist and Wittgenstein’s inheritors, we should consider that the quest for knowledge sets out from a false problem. Practically speaking, any and all are capable of recognizing instances of knowledge, as we do so on a daily basis with great reliability (within limits). Moreover, when considering a case an instance of knowledge or mere luck, the everyday inquirer has no recourse to analysis in terms of certain a priori universal traits. Instead, that inquirer tends to recognize instances of knowledge through a sort of family resemblance: a case may not possess all traits, but it possesses enough important ones to qualify as an instance thereof. (Wittgenstein’s question on the definition of “game” or analogy of the city remain today influential illustrations of just this point.)

These are so many considerations why Mogensen’s manner of proceeding may at times appear suspect. Certainly, he takes care to allow for the possibility of simultaneous instantiation of or recourse to different candidate criteria, such that the inquirer would need to consult several criteria at once. But this does not shield his process from all doubts. For, if it proves impossible to eliminate criteria based on the lack of universality, necessity or sufficiency across all cases, then testing for such qualities loses much of its appeal. In the end, a priori formalism seems perhaps as wedded to forms of essentialism as does that psychological essentialism which Mogensen takes such care to dismantle.

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