Necessity and Essence: A Defense of Conventionalism

Dissertation, Cornell University (1986)
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Plausible recent arguments for the existence of necessary truths a posteriori have led many philosophers to believe, at least implicitly, that conventionalism about necessity is false, and that necessity is in fact a real-world quantity. Necessary truths, on this view, are no more independent upon our linguistic conventions than any other truths; assertions of necessity and essential predications are, like any other claims, true or false as they correspond or not to a wholly independent reality. I believe that this view is not supported by the finding of necessary truths a posteriori, and further, that we have excellent reason to reject this realism about necessity, and to accept instead a conventionalist account. My dissertation attempts to argue for this view, and to present and defend such a conventionalist account. ;In Chapter One, I present a conventionalist explanation of necessary truths a posteriori, and thus argue that the existence of such truths does not establish realism about necessity. My account makes use of general conventions which I call 'general principles of individuation.' If these principles are products of our conventions, then we can both allow for and explain how there can be such 'empirical' necessary truths within a conventionalist framework. ;Chapter Two argues that conventionalism about necessity and essences has traditionally been grounded in metaphysical worries about necessity, not upon now outdated epistemological and semantic views, as is often claimed by the opponents of conventionalism. ;In Chapter Three, I present my central arguments for conventionalism and against realism about necessity. I argue that only conventionalism can explain how we have the knowledge that we do of what is necessary, and further, that it is not even clear that we can make sense of necessity as an independent feature of the world. Chapter Four responds to worries stemming from the fact that my account requires that there be systematically important analytic truths. ;Finally, in Chapter Five, I attempt to apply my findings to the theory of reference. I argue that if conventionalism about necessity and essences is true, then empiricist semantics must be basically correct, and that causal theories of reference must thus be either compatible with empiricist semantics, or false



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Alan Sidelle
University of Wisconsin, Madison

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