Ontological explanation without reduction: Exploring the real definition of social kinds


Much work in metaphysics tries to answer questions of the form “What is X” or “What are Xs?” “What is a mind?”, we ask, “What are numbers?” “What is causation?” “What is a person?” and so on. My aim in this paper is to contribute to understanding these questions, and in particular to argue that a close look at certain cases in social ontology may affect how we approach or answer them.

In the last few years, understanding “what is X” questions has been substantially advanced by important work on “real definition” and by casting a number of such questions into the form “what is it to F?” (Correia, Dorr, Rayo, Rosen, Fine, Correia and Skiles, and others). This literature is not only helping to clear up the logical form of some key inquiries in metaphysics, but is also beginning to explore the interactions between such notions as essence, grounding, identity, and metaphysical explanation.

Most of these approaches have been quite general and top-down: they explore these metaphysical notions directly, and use cases to illustrate and refine theories that are motivated on general grounds. In this paper I will take a different approach. Instead of approaching “what is X,” “what is it to F,” and real definition from a general or abstract perspective, it is informative to work with a specific case in all its detail. The complexity of a real case, I will argue, introduces new wrinkles and desiderata that our approaches to “What is X” questions need to treat.

The particular case I will examine is the metaphysics of social groups. A great deal of work has been done in recent years on the topic, mostly with the aim of reducing social groups to some other kind of entity. It is sometimes asserted in this literature that there are two options to choose from in answer to the question “What are social groups”: either social groups are identified with some other kind of entity, like sets or fusions (or one of a number of other options), or else they are understood to be “sui generis” entities. I am not entirely sure what is meant by the latter option or how bad that is, but if the claim is that one must choose between identifying social groups with one of those kinds and leaving them mysterious, then that is surely incorrect. A dive into social groups shows that it is very unlikely that any such identification will be successful, yet we can construct a full metaphysical explanation of the nature and metaphysical sources of social groups. The details of that explanation then help bring out characteristics that accounts of “what is X” questions must include, with implications for real definition and related notions such as ontological reduction, generalized identity, and full essence.


7 thoughts on “Ontological explanation without reduction: Exploring the real definition of social kinds

  1. Roth, Abe says:

    I very much enjoyed the talk; sorry I missed part of your session – had trouble getting logged back in.

    I’m not up to speed on the issues here, but I was wondering whether the real definition theorists could reply to you as follows: yes, our regimentation for getting at the nature of F might leave out something interesting: for example, the sort of process that led to this particular F coming into existence is such as to necessitate the creation of Fs. Admittedly, this is different from the sufficient conditions satisfied by the individual x which necessitate and ground x’s being F. But does this point about the process leading to F, interesting though it is, have to be a part of the nature of F’s. Why isn’t it more a part of the nature of the sort of process that led to this F? [I see now that this is Olivier Massin’s point.] And if you insist that a part of the nature of F’s that it was created by a process that necessitates F’s, then couldn’t the regimentation include as part of the essence conditions for x being F that is was created by some process that necessitates F’s?

    1. O Conaill, Donnchadh says:

      Hi Abe,
      This is a really nice comment – it captures much more clearly what I was trying to get at.
      Just to add: I think the point can be sharpened into a dilemma. Suppose that a process of a certain type necessarily leads to an F coming into existence; and that this fact is not included in a proposed real definition of what it is to be an F (i.e., to be an F is to be a G).
      Either this fact is essential to something’s being an F, or it is not. If it is not, then it is hardly a problem if it is not included in the proposed real definition. If it is, then surely this shows that the proposed real definition does not provide a full analysis (assuming that a full analysis of what it is to be an F will include everything essential to something’s being an F). Either way, the proposed real definition’s omitting this fact does not count against understanding real definitions as analyses.

  2. O Conaill, Donnchadh says:

    Hi Brian,
    Thanks for this talk – very interesting. I have a comment which I think chimes with some of those made above (specifically, Olivier’s (i) and Dan’s suggestion about richer kinds).

    The counterexamples you present seem to each indicate that a proposed analysis is insufficient. E.g., it is not enough to say that for some x to be a K, x must have been generated by a speech-act of a certain kind; we also need to say that whenever a speech act of that kind is performed, a K is thereby generated. In other words, the real definition of a K must include certain sufficient conditions for a K, as well as certain necessary ones.

    That sounds good to me. But the conclusion you draw from this example is that even a full analysis of what it is for x to be a K fails to capture the nature of Ks. But this seems to be the wrong conclusion to draw. After all, a full analysis of what it is for x to be a K would include both the sufficient conditions you indicate are missing, as well as the necessary ones.

    So I don’t yet see how your counterexamples work against the view of real definitions as a kind of (metaphysical) analysis, i.e., as stating certain necessary and sufficient conditions for x to be F. Rather, they seem to count against the thought that certain real definitions suceed in providing a full analysis (because they fail to capture some of the sufficient conditions which are relevant to the essence).

  3. Williams, Robert says:

    Initial Clarificatory question: Is the worry here that we can’t infer the existence of the Tufts committee from a “to be F is to be G” claim, because G will have to be some (probably extrinsic) property of the thing in question (eg being created by a procedure P) so the mere fact a procedure was performed won’t entail that anything was created by it? I.e. because the object x appears on both sides of the definition, we can’t ever derive an x-free condition for x to exist. If so, I was wondering whether the real definition fan might concede your point narrowly, but claim to be able to get around it by more real definition facts. For example, we might give a real definition of what it is for F to be instantiated: it is for H(F). H(F) needn’t make reference to the thing which is F. This could either be construed as generic on arbitrary F, or perhaps nongeneric, different for different Fs.

  4. Rowland, Richard says:

    Hi Brian, Thanks, really interesting talk. Quick naive question.
    Suppose that X is K iff some member of S performs a particular speech act.
    Won’t a member of S’s performing a speech act correspond to some property – or rather create one. E.g. X will have the property of being the object of the appropriate kind of speech act conducted by a member of S. In that case, current approaches to real definition do not face problems in the kind of cases you’re discussing?

  5. López de Sa, Dan says:

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks for this!!

    In “The Metaphysics of Gender”, Witt submits a version of Aristotelian “unification essentialism” so that a feature is “uniessential” for an individual when its instantiation explains why the individual is generated and unified as something new, numerically distinct from its parts (and their sum)—main traditional examples being biological organisms and artifacts. So, I was thinking, these cases so conceived may also serve as further counterexamples to the conception of Rosen/et al. you object on the basis of your view on social groups. More generally: wouldn’t “rich”/”inflated” kinds (depending on one’s sympathies) provide such counterexamples—when thse are the kinds whose instances are “new” things?

    (In this conference I defend with John Horden reductivist alternatives, both in the case of Witt’s essentialism and in the case of social groups, but never mind that now :)).

  6. Massin, Olivier says:

    Hi Brian, thanks for the nice presentation ! Let’s say promises generate promisory obligations. What it is to be a promissory obligation?

    -Fine & al would say sth like “it is to be an obligation generated by a promise”.
    -You want to add: “not just that, it is also to be generated by a type of act —promises— which whenever it is performed, generate obligation.”

    If I’m getting this right, I’ve got two questions:
    (i) How is your view not an instance of “to be F is to be G” with a disagreement about the G, instead of an alternative “to be F is to be G” ?
    (ii) I do not quite see why the fact that [whenever a promises is performed and obligation ensues], should be part of the nature of the obligations. This seems to be part of the nature of promises. Likewise I do not quite see why it is part of the nature of of being a committee that whenever a given procedure take place, a committee starts to exists. This seems to be part of the nature of the procedure (perhaps you want to say that this part of the nature of both the promise and the obligation/to procedure and the committee ?)

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