In defense of essentialism

Philosophical Perspectives 20 (1):333–372 (2006)
Abstract
If an object has a property essentially, it has that property in every possible world according to which it exists.2 If an object has a property accidentally, it does not have that property in every possible world according to which it exists. Claims about an object’s essential or accidental properties are de re modal claims, and essential and accidental properties are de re modal properties. Take an object’s modal profile to specify its essential properties and the range of its accidental properties. Note that “world” as I am using it is a term of art: a modal realist believes that there are many concrete worlds, while the actualist believes in only one concrete world, the actual world. The ersatzist is an actualist who takes nonactual possible worlds and their contents to be abstracta. Essentialism is the view that objects have properties essentially, but one should distinguish deep essentialism from shallow essentialism. Deep essentialists take the (nontrivial) essential properties of an object to determine its nature— such properties give sense to the idea that an object has a unique and distinctive character, and make it the case that an object has to be a certain way in order for it to be at all.3 As Stephen Yablo (1987, 297) describes it, the essence of a thing is “an assortment of properties in virtue of which it is the entity in question,” as well as “a measure of what is required for it to be that thing.” Intuitively, on the deep essentialist picture, an ordinary object has essential properties, and it must have its essential properties in order for it to exist. On this view, objects’ essential properties are absolute, i.e., are not determined by contexts of describing (or thinking, etc.) about the object, and truths about such properties are absolute truths.4 Shallow essentialists oppose deep essentialists: they reject the view that objects can be said to have essential properties independently of contexts of description or evaluation, and so substitute context-dependent truths for the deep essentialist’s context-independent ones..
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