The Social Constructivist Debate: Reconsidering Wiggins

 An appreciation of David Wiggins’ Sameness and Substance

(there is some notation later in this piece that needs to be rectified – some characters were lost in the copy and paste)


The social constructionist argument takes the generic form of:

1. x need not have existed, or need be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by he nature of things; it is not inevitable

2. x is quite bad as it is

3. we would be much better off if x were done away with, or at least radically transformed.

This must rate as the argument generating the most heated debate within scientific circles, in philosophy, and indeed post-Sokel, right across academia. Yet, amidst the din nowhere is there to be found in the literature reference to David Wiggins’s sophisticated ‘synthesis’ formulated in his Sameness and Substance, a synthesis assimilating the virtues both of the realist and constructivist positions, assiduously avoiding their failings. What accounts for this neglect I can but only offer a few remarks in passing at the end of this article.


Wiggins’ critique of anti-essentialism

Wiggins is happy to accept that the convenient label ‘conceptualist realism’ is a species of realism (1980: 131). Perhaps Wiggins’ conceptualist realism can best be captured by his comment (1980: 67) that there ‘must still be something we can discover in spite of ourselves’ and this is what is meant to take existence and identity and truth seriously. Again, ‘the mind “conceptualises” objects, yet objects “impinge” upon the mind’ (Wiggins 1980: 101). His outline of a theory of individuation illustrates his realism (essentialism) and his conceptualism (sortals) position for if one can invent sortal concepts at will with no attempt at validation, ‘then the real content of the assertion that something lasted till “t” and then ceased to exist will be trivialized’ (Wiggins 1980: 66). I open with Wiggins’ hypotheses (diagnosis) of the sources of anti-essentialism. They are sequentially as follows:

Premise (1): Another life form different from ours might well have not discovered individual substances and might have singled out and individuated other kinds of things through very different principles of articulation and individuation.

Premise (2): That it is feasible for the discovery of a given substance to be conceptualised in at least two very different ways and that scientific progress consisted in conceptual refinement through ‘radically different ways’.

Conclusion: Conceptualisation and individuation are not real and independent phenomenon that exist in nature, and that the most disagreeable aspect of essentialism is its claims to show the necessities that exist independent of mind.

Premise (1) is plausible in Wiggins’ view. Surely, Wiggins asks, what substance can be conceptualised in radically different ways with different principles of existence and persistence? It is grossly incoherent to posit an entity with inconsistent properties for even if the singling out of and articulation of x could be dispensed with (x could be ignored), the essential specifications of x fixes x’s existence and possibility of being singled out.

Wiggins (1980: 136) holds Van Fraassen up as an example of arguing from (1) to (3) via (2). According to Wiggins, Van Fraassen first posits an ontology of bare particulars; understanding, explanation and discovery thereof, is mediated and ‘determined’ by the instrument of understanding. Wiggins detects a tension here. On the one hand a “completed” first stage ontology is posited, but on the other hand this ontology is then finally determined. This second stage is characterized by Quine, Geach and Wiggins as being an ideology. The anti-essentialists accept a range of basic sortals and then ‘adduce as a reason to depreciate the suggestion that any of these things “had” to be a horse, or a tree or a man, the anthropocentricity, of the viewpoint that underlies and conditions the attributes.’ There is no coherence in the notion that ‘of what’ one articulates, might equally ‘have been a prime number or a fire shovel, though in fact neither.’

How then to moderate this extreme conceptualism? A first step, requires that the conceptualist reject the idea that horses, leaves, the sun, etc., are artefacts. It needs to finely balance the reciprocal relation between our conceptual creativity and nature, allowing nature to intimate, regulate and inform the concepts. An acceptable conceptualism must not entail the denial that the extensions of any concepts could not have an independent existence (‘a particularly unappealing form of idealism’ 1980: 141), but can only licence the notion that our capacity to single out draws upon a ‘conceptual scheme which has itself been fashioned or formed in such a way as to make it “possible” to single them out (1980: 139). ‘The anti-conceptualist realist is not necessarily a man confused by anything at all except the difference between good and bad conceptualism.’ Just as there is an unacceptable exaggerated vulgar realism ‘myth of the “self-differentiating object”, the idea being an object supplying “raw” datum to the mind. There must be ‘something in the singling out that makes it determinate which principle is the principle of individuation for the entity and under what family of individuatively parallel sortal concepts it is to be subsumed’ (1980: 140). Negotiating the two extremes of the realist and conventionalist as characterized above, Wiggins’ central claim ‘was only that what sortal concepts we bring to bear upon experience determines what we can find there – just as the size and mesh of a net determines “’not what fish are in the sea, but which ones we shall catch” (1980: 141, my emphasis). The thesis is that the concepts under which experience is articulated and things singled out determine the persistence conditions of what is singled only because such concepts determine “what” is singles out’ (1980: 141), thus expunging any idealism by tying the persistence condition to the creative act of mind.

Is there any scope for manoeuvre in freedom or choice in the articulation of reality? The freedom exists at (1) where an interest is developed (but is exhausted at 1, p142), but then a set of sortal concepts is fixed upon to realize an interest and ‘nothing that we who have the concept can do will determine whether or not something at a certain place actually “satisfies” a given concept or not’ (1980: 142).

The anti-conceptualist realist is concerned with what happens beyond the point at which objectivity has been secured (as best as it can be independent of mind). His concern is not merely to act as guardian of objectivity in human thought, but ‘to preserve its prospects of passing beyond the most narrowly anthropocentric’ (1980: 142). In a footnote (1980: 101; note 25) Wiggins marks his awareness that his position can be misread. When Wiggins says that ‘the mind “conceptualises” objects, yet objects “impinge” upon the mind’, the first half of this claim seems to some ‘to carry the suggestion that “the very same objects” could have been conceptualised in different ways, had the mind been differently constituted.’ This is not the way that Wiggins intends the sentence to be understood.

Our concepts are open to being regulated by reality and as a consequence our understanding approaches a realm not sensitive to the practical. The realist critic ‘has nothing to offer as a proof that all genuinely explanatory insights “have” to be framed at the deepest level of fundamental theory’ and ‘our conceptual scheme surely represents a respectable, however unimpressive, stage in some however gradual process of the revelation of reality’ (1980: 144).

Wiggins makes the distinction between the scientific worldview and the ‘less theoretical’ view of reality, i.e. the world of practice, morality and meaning. Many great scientific developments do not impact upon our ontology but rather result in the jettisoning of certain explanatory ideas, and new answers are framed ‘under the new order by bridge principles.’ Should the old ontology undergo a genuine revision, it can easily accommodate the improvements (Wiggins 1980: 88 takes an example from biology showing that the discovery that tadpoles became frogs changed conceptions, not concepts). Further, if scientific progress abandons an old ontology, that does not in itself render the old ontology redundant or ‘discredited’ – on it own terms it operates quite adequately. Though we live in a world that is aware of the indeterminacy of particle physics, we still operate for the most part in a Newtonian world. Microscopic discoveries do not affect ‘the familiar macroscopic entities in which we “cannot” abandon our interest’ (my emphasis). And finally, a new world view and its accompanying ontology ‘will not come bare of individuative concepts or of “de re” necessities of its own . . . what generates these will be the requirement that everything conceivable of the new entities be co-conceivable in the new theory.’

For Wiggins the relativity theorist typically exaggerates the autonomy of though in the singling out of objects of reference, by the same token so-called Bare Absolutists take too lightly the conceptual preconditions of singling out and it has been Wiggins’ task to mediate a position between these two extremes by offering his thesis of Sortal Dependency of Identity.


Sortal dependency of identity

As the reader might recall from section I Wiggins rejects Geach’s relativity thesis. Geach’s thesis is that one cannot simply ask whether a thing “x” and a thing “y” are one and the same. It must be specified “the same what” for, “x” may be the same “F” as “y” though “x” is a different “G” than “y”. Geach’s point seems to be partly vindicated if we recall the example of the gramophone record being turned into an ashtray. Wiggins (1980: 18-20) argues that Geach’s relativity thesis is incompatible with Leibniz’s Law. Suppose that Leibniz’s Law applies to the statement ‘The ashtray is the same matter as the gramophone.’ Then the ashtray and the gramophone record have the same properties. Since the gramophone record has the property of being the same artefact as the gramophone record, the ashtray must have that property. Therefore it could not be true that the ashtray is a different artefact than the gramophone record. Undeniably there are innumerable sortal concepts used to single out some individual but the fact that:

some individual “a” does not in itself imply that there is a possibility of getting different answers to the question whether “a” coincides with some mentioned individual “b” in the way relevant for “a”. For all the alternative procedures of individuation under alternative covering concepts might, when they yielded any answer, yield the same answer to that question (‘same what’, footnote 4). My contention is precisely that they “must” do. The reflexivity and congruence of identity provide logically compelling reasons why, if “a” is “b”, or if “a” is the same something or other as “b”, (same horse, same tree, same planet, or whatever), then all different procedures of individuating “a” (provided they really do individuate “a”) must, if they yield any answer at all, yield the “’same“’ answer with respect to “a”s coincidence with “b.” (Wiggins 1980: 18)

Suppose that relative identity is expressed by a true statement of the form “a” is the same “F” as “b” and “a” is a different “G” than “b”. One conclusion that might be drawn from Wiggins’s argument is that instances of relative identity are not instances of strict identity since relative identity holds between the ashtray and the gramophone record, strict identity does not hold. This much Geach would not deny, but perhaps Wiggins’s point is that relative identity is not properly identity. The challenge is not to find instances of relative identity, that’s commonplace. The challenge is rather to provide instances of strict identity. Geach’s relativity thesis implies that the “only” notion of numerical identity we have is that of relative identity, rendering strict identity as incoherent. The notion of strict identity is simply the notion of a relation that holds only between a thing and itself.

Wiggins (1980: 47-48) advocates the thesis of Sortal Dependency of Identity and disassociates it from Geach’s sortal-relative thesis by making two claims.

(1) if “a” is the same as “b”, then it must also hold that “a” is the same “something” as “b”.

This claim is generated by conception in our ordinary language. The second claim is that:

(2) the “elucidation” of identity “a” = “b” depends on the kind of thing that “a” and “b” are.

The consolidation of the above gives a threefold doctrine:

“D”: “a”= “b” iff there exists a sortal concept f such that:

(1) “a” and “b” belong to a kind which is the extension of f;

(2) to say that “x” falls under f – or that “x” is an f – is to say what “x” is (in the sense Aristotle isolated);

(3) “a” is the same f as “b”; or “a” coincides with “b” under f, i. e. coincides with “b” in the manner of coincidence required for members of f, . . .

If the thesis of Sortal Dependency is true, then, although the statement that “a”= “b” will always entail that there is an f such that “a” = “f b”, it will not specify what the sortal concept is. Nor indeed the man who says or knows that “a”= “b” know which concept it is.

A ‘sortal’ is supposed to be a term which in some sense tells us ‘what the thing is’ and needs to be able to correctly characterize those successions which correspond to persisting object, would have to cover instances where object (artefacts) can be taken apart and reconstituted for part of our concept of object-identity is that throughout all its changes an object must at least remain an object of the same sort. But what is meant by the same ‘sort’? I offer a definition of what ‘sortal’ might be:

The general term F is a sortal means: It is a conceptual truth (a rule of language) that any spatio-temporally and qualitively continuous succession of F-stages corresponds to (what counts as) stages in the career of a single persisting F-thing.

Wiggins uses the example of a sortal called ‘tree’. Adjectives such as ‘brown’ and ‘wooden’ are not sortals. If “a” is a brown wooden tree, the thesis of sortal dependency implies that “a”‘s identity somehow depends on “a”‘s being a tree in a way that “a”‘s identity does not depend on “a”‘s being wooden or brown (a continuous succession of stages of trees typically must add up to the stages of one and the same tree, a continuous succession of stages of brown or wooden things may jump from one brown or wooden thing to another).I offer an explication of this in terms of the following principle:

The Sortal Rule. A sufficient condition for the succession S of object-stages to correspond to stages in the career of a single persisting object is that:

(1) S is spatio-temporally continuous; “and”
(2) S is qualitatively continuous; “and”
(3) there is a sortal term F such that S is a succession of F-stages.

The sortal rule states “only a sufficient”, not a necessary, condition of persistence. This principle exhibits a sense in which “a”‘s identity might be said to depend on “a”‘s being an instance of ‘tree’ rather than on “a”‘s being an instance of either ‘brown’ or ‘wooden’. The difficulty is to find some way of moving from this sort of example to Wiggins’s general idea that any thing’s identity must depend on ‘what it is’. One aspect of this difficulty is brought out by contrasting a thing’s diachronic unity with the thing’s synchronic unity. If “a” is a brown wooden tree, the principle of sortal dependency provides a rough analysis of what the diachronic unity of “a”‘s successive stages consists in, and this analysis depends in a certain way on “a”‘s being a tree. There appears, however, to be no comparable analysis of the synchronic unity of “a”‘s contemporaneous parts which depends on “a”‘s being a tree. But the thesis of sortal dependency, as Wiggins apparently intends it, would imply that “a”‘s identity through space as well as through time depends on ‘what it is’. I suggest that a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for F to be a sortal is that F be non-dispersive but he recognises the need to tightened up the condition to be anti-dispersive:

‘F is anti-dispersive’ means: It cannot conceivably happen that different F-things overlap extensively.

The non-dispersiveness of our standard count nouns is what guarantees that we can employ them as sortals and trace unambiguous careers under them for the dispersiveness of mass nouns such as wood disqualifies theses terms from being sortals. It should be understood that the sortal rule should not be construed as being exact: it can do no more exact than our ordinary concept of persistence. To trace the career of a tree is more relevant to our concerns than does the tracing of a patch of brown.

Suppose we view the world as made up of various spatio-temporal segments of reality, most of which are discontinuous and heterogeneous, but a select number of which count as ‘genuine things’ or ‘substances’. All trees enjoy this special status but not all brown or wooden portions of reality do, since most of these will combine stages of different brown or wooden things. Looked at in this way, ‘what a thing is’ provides it with the credentials required to count as a genuine thing, and any genuine thing “must” have such credentials. This may be one way to explain the thesis of sortal dependency. On this explanation, the thesis would not imply that we can give any analysis of a thing’s diachronic or synchronic unity, let alone an analysis which depends in some special way on the thing’s sortals. We appeal to the thing’s sortals, rather, in justifying its status as a genuine thing.

There is, however, the risk that the thesis so understood trivializes the distinction between a ‘genuine thing’ and a ‘mere portion of reality’. There seem to be three positions that can be adopted with respect to this distinction. First, it may be accepted as ultimate and unanalysable. But that would seem to imply that the distinction does not depend on sortals. Second, one may attempt to provide a general sortal-independent analysis of this distinction. My argument is that there is an important, albeit limited extent to which we can analyse our concept of an object’s identity without taking cognisance of what sort of object it is proposing an analysis which preserves its sortal-neutral character. Of course, if any such sortal-independent analysis can succeed, the thesis of sortal dependency is rejected. The third possibility, which is the one implied by the thesis, is that genuine things are analysed as things that are instances of a certain list of sortals. The trouble is that this third possibility seems to imply that genuine things really have nothing in common which sets them apart from other portions of reality. It is as if a genuine thing is being defined as any portion of reality that is either a cat, or a dog . . . or a mountain or a river . . . . .This makes it difficult to see how there could be anything deep or important in the distinction between genuine things and portions of reality that do not so qualify.


Natural kinds

The best candidates to play the roles of sortal and substantial predicates are natural kind words. A ‘natural kind concept “c” must make some link between the relevant questions of identity and the empirical ascertainable causal and dispositional properties of members of the kind as we find them in the actual world. “But how can the concept make this link?” (Wiggins 1980: 77), and even supposing the link is made ‘how will that provide a principle that is necessary and sufficient to articulate, to individuate . . .’ The principle of individuation has been used in prior discussion to mean something other than a property individuates, say Aristotelian matter. Wiggins seems to be saying that every sortal term carries with it a principle of individuation and that the tradition of nominal essence is of no assistance since it trades on appearances: they leave unexplained the evolution of a sortal that still specifying the very same natural kind. Wiggins draws upon Putnam’s doctrine of natural kinds, the determination of a natural kind fails or succeeds with the existence of nomological principles known or unknown and which will gather together its actual extension around an arbitrary good representative of the extension. It is not an implication of the doctrine that people (primitive mentality to proto-scientific) who use natural kind terms will know the true scientific theory of that kind but its insight lies in explaining how words enter language on the most provisional of theories offering just enough to recognise the extension ‘and draw credit on a draft that Nature may “or may not” finally honour’ (Wiggins 1980: 82). A particular continuant “x” belongs to a natural kind, or is a natural thing:

iff “x” has a principle of activity corresponding to the nomological basis of that or those extension-involving sortal identifications which answer truly the question ‘what is “x”?’ (Wiggins 1980: 89)

and for the purposes of a theory of individuation it is of no concern whether the thing in question was fabricated ‘but the difference between satisfying and not satisfying this condition that makes the fundamental distinction’ and objects that fail this crucial condition are termed artefacts (artefacts are also still subject to the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry).


Artefact identity

Most of the discussion heretofore concerned natural substances though Wiggins holds that his sortal dependency of identity thesis could mutatis mutandis cover words denoting natural organs such as heart, liver, foot, brain and even extend to geographical or geological terms like river, lake, glacier etc. The latter cases one might appropriately talk in terms of principles of activity, the former in terms of activity and of “modes of functioning” or “operation” (Wiggins 1980: 86). There are artefact-words such as clock and table to which Putnam’s account would not be applicable and there is scant nomological sentences that could apply to cover artefacts. Though artefacts are subject to the laws of physics and chemistry they”

are collected up not by reference to a theoretically hypothesized inner constitution but under “functional descriptions that have to be indifferent to specific constitution and particular mode of interaction with environment. (Wiggins 1980: 87, my emphasis)

This description amounts to what is a Lockean nominal essence with no scientifically palpable real essence with. Let us recall that for Wiggins:

a particular continuant “x” belongs to a natural kind, or is a natural thing, iff “x” has a principle of activity corresponding to the nomological basis of that or those extension-involving sortal identifications which answer truly the question ‘what is “x”?’

Now the for the purposes of his theory of individuation it is of no relevance whether a thing was fabricated but the difference between satisfying and not satisfying the above condition that really matters. Wiggins discusses two artefacts, namely a mechanical clock and Hobbes’ famous ship of Theseus.

The clock first. When a clock stops because it hasn’t been wound, the pause does not compromise its persistence. Again however long it may be out of action due to repairs, its persistence is not affected. What matters is its nominal essence which must somehow stipulate that the nominal essence of a clock is its capacity to tell time, but this is too strong a stipulation. A weaker stipulation requires only that an irretrievable loss of this capacity, or functional redundancy, counts against the persistence of a clock. For any of the above interruptions does not mean the cessation of the clock – the clock had only one beginning (Locke argued that no object can have two beginnings of existence) and a pause is an unreasonable notion of cessation. Supposing that one clock was identified by a description applying at the time it was functioning normally from “clock” – coinciding in a manner sufficient for identity, each identified under a description applying to it after some substantial repair, the coincidence of one thing with two things contravenes Wiggins’s sortal dependency of identity. We cannot even speak of the central focus or nucleus of the clock that would give some help here.

With regard to Theseus’ ship I will not set up the already very familiar puzzle. Suffice to say, just like the two-clock example previously we now have two ships. Wiggins (1980: 96) writes that there is not a single proposal which,

(a) justifies the whole corpus and every reasonable seeming extension of the corpus of identity judgements about artefacts we commonly accept as true,

(b) allows total freedom of disassembly “and” part-replacement,

(c) meets “D” (iii) (“a” is identical with “b” iff there is some concept f such that:

(1) f is a substance concept under which an object that is an f can be singled out, and distinguished from other f entities and other entities;

(2) “a” coincides under f with “b”;

(3) “Ç” coincides under f“ë” stands for a congruence relation: i.e. all pairs “’ that are members of the relation satisfy the Leibnizian schema “⨔x” â “y” (Wiggins 1980: 68).

(d) satisfies the “Only a and b” condition.

There seems little or no hope of artefactual identity regardless of how relaxed the identity criteria are and Wiggins asks does this then mean that the project should be abandoned if one held to Quine’s ‘no entity without identity’. Wiggins is not so pessimistic for the possibility of an ontology of artefacts and the possibility of treating artefacts as continuants for he feels that a sufficient condition of artefact identity, suggested by Helen Morris Cartwright’s (cited in Wiggins 1980: 97) application to the category of stuff may be applied to artefacts: the condition does not exclude change, but excludes all addition or subtraction of matter whatever. Artefactually, ‘it also requires the however vestigial continuance of the capacity to subserve whatever roles or ends the artefact was designed as that very artefact to subserve’.

The thesis of scientific constructivism asserts that all scientific facts are constructed. Do they believe that all scientific facts in our possession are constructed, or do they believe that all scientific facts that we might ever come to posses must be constructed?

Scientific constructivism comes in two varieties, instrumental constructivism and <????>. Narrowly conceived instrumentalism is the view that our claims about the world can be divided into the observational and the theoretical, and that only the former are truth-valuable. Theoretical claims are regarded as merely linguistic, uninterpreted tools for systemizing observations and making predictions. Broadly conceived, instrumentalism is any view that regards theoretical claims as epistemically or metaphysically deficient in comparison with observational claims. The deficiency may be that theoretical statements have no truth-values, or that the truth-value of theoretical claims is epistemically inaccessible, or that theoretical claims can be dispensed with by translating them into observational language. In this latter sense, that van Fraassen falls. The instrumentalist position should be contrasted with the one that maintains that the only independent facts are social facts and that moreover materialism and phenomenalism don’t exhaust the class of conceivable monisms and its conceivable that the ultimate constituents of reality are social episodes and that both he physical and the mental are constructions out of this primordial social material – Kukla calls this metaphysical socialism, the locus classicusfor this discussion being Wittgenstein’s PI wherein some social facts are regarded as unanalyseable into anything else, beliefs and intentions cannot be said to exist outside the context of a social milieu. Now this is not so say that Wittgenstein endorsed metaphysical socialism. What is needed in addition to the Wittgenstein doctrine is that there is a deeper social analysis of all non-social phenomena.


So why has Wiggins been overlooked? When Wiggins’s Identity and Spatio-Temporary Continuity came out in 1967, it exerted a considerable impact. It had the charm of idiosyncrasy – a defence of the Aristotelian substance philosophy – along with (for Oxford) considerable technical sophistication. Here was someone evidently au fait with philosophical logic. It was something different. When Sameness & Substance, the revamped version of the earlier text, appeared in 1980, the effect was muted. Wiggins was espousing basically the same position, with quite a bit of elaboration and qualification. The substance philosophy was not regarded as a serious contender by Quine (and others), who also disputed the technical competence of the work. None the less Wiggins was still au fait with the latest work in philosophical logic. That book had that much going for it. Unfortunately, it seems that the prospects for the latest incarnation Sameness & Substance Revisited (2001) are perhaps more bleak. Again, it takes the same basic position, but now and despite Wiggins reworking this under his tenure of the Wykeham chair, Wiggins’s interest has for the last 20 years been in the field of ethics, not philosophical logic. What it comes down to then is that Wiggins is merely defending a 30-year-old position without having kept up with the best technical work. And further, writing in 2001, he is not engaging with the prevailing wave of constructivist literature. Wiggins the metaphysician not a philosopher of science would not surprisingly be overlooked.


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Fraassen, B.C. van. 1980. The Scientific Image. Oxford.
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Lovibond, S. & Williams, S.G. 1996. Identity, Truth and Value: Essays for David Wiggins, Aristotelian Society Series, Vol. 16, Oxford: Blackwell.
Wiggins, D. 1967. Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wiggins, D. 1980. Sameness and Substance. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wiggins, D. 1997. ‘Natural Languages as Social Objects’, Philosophy, 72, 499-524.
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Wiggins, D. 1987. ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’ in Needs, Values, Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Value, Oxford.