Skip to main content.
August 26th, 2004

I Don’t Understand Essentialists

I’m reading Kathleen Stock’s paper The Tower of Goldbach and Other Impossible Tales from Imagination, Philosophy and the Arts, and I just wanted to share one odd example. Stock argues that we cannot imagine impossible things. I might say a little more about this below. But for now I just want to note a very odd example of an (alleged!) impossibility.

I want to deny that one can imagine that a banana is a gun, in the sense that one imagines that there is an object such that it is both a gun and a banana.

Setting aside questions of whether this is imaginable, this doesn’t even strike me as prima facie impossible. If it’s possible to have a machine-gun cane, as Secret Squirrel did, why not a banana revolver? If we distributed all the workings of a gun throughout a banana, wouldn’t we have a banana gun? With miniturisation these days, I imagine this is, or soon will be, technologically possible. (Note to airport security – I obviously have no idea what I’m talking about vis a vis the technological challenges involved. No banana I take on board is also a gun.)

I guess the idea is that there would be two separate objects in such a construction, one of them a banana, the other a gun. But if the gun mechanisms were in part held together by the banana, and none of the mechanisms notably protruded from the skin of the banana (the nozzle being built into the stem) it seems to me we’d have a single ordinary object. And it would certainly be a gun. And I don’t think it becomes an ex-banana by putting things inside it, especially if they are very small relative to the size of the banana. This would make it inedible, but that’s no problem. A poisoned banana is still a banana. So why think the banana gun is an impossibility?

My diagnosis, and it’s horribly uncharitable, is that this is what happens when essentialism goes too far. People become convinced that objects have some of their properties essentially, and go overboard about how many such properties they essentially have. On occasions like this I’m inclined to react to the other extreme, and join Lewis in the class (plurality) of modern anti-essentialists.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

14 Comments »

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 26th, 2004 at 3:27 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

14 Responses to “I Don’t Understand Essentialists”

  1. Andrew says:

    Here’s a less horribly uncharitable diagnosis: by ‘banana’ she means ‘unmodified, common-or-jungle, everyday banana’ and it’s a point about the necessity of the right kind of subvening base. Careless phrasing if that’s what she does mean, but surely no obvious commitment to a crazy form of essentialism.

    Glad you resisted the urge to title the entry: ‘Yes, we have faux-bananas.’

  2. M. says:

    Whatever you do to that banana, it’s going to bruise and turn brown thereby looking suspicious. Imagine your banana gun as brown.

  3. John Quiggin says:

    I’d say the empirical problem with Stock’s claim is even more fundamental than Brian suggests. I can imagine buying a banana at the local fruit and veg, pointing it at a tin can, squeezing and blowing a hole in the wall behind the can (I’m not a very good shot). Try for yourself and I think you’ll find it’s not too hard.

    I know this wouldn’t actually work in real life. But if that’s the criterion, then Stock appears to be committed to the claim that I cannot imagine having sex with Sigrid Thornton, and certainly not with Elizabeth I, at which point I have to say she’s underestimated my imagination.

  4. Andrew says:

    I agree with John that we can imagine his scenario. The question is whether imagining an object such that, when you squeeze it, holes etc appear in other objects some distance away is thereby imagining a gun. Iím not so sure. I think being a gun involves having a certain internal functional organization. I can imagine a magic banana such that high velocity bullets appear directly in front of it when squeezed; I can imagine a gun that appears like a banana; I can imagine Brianís banana-modified-to-have-internal-functional-organization-of-gun; I can imagine having a gun whose functional organization I am ignorant of, or canít grasp, etc. But Iím not sure that I can imagine something that genuinely is a gun despite it lacking any kind of relevant organization, any more than I can genuinely imagine something that is a combustion engine despite it lacking any kind of functional organization.

  5. Rich says:

    I’m kind of with brian on this one. but going back to andy’s first comment. Even the arch-anti-essentialist himself (Lewis) is going to be happy with the idea that if we rigidly fix the term ‘banana’ to applying to all and only those unmodified things whose evolutionary history is the same as actual banana’s, then it’s true (in such a context) that you cant have a banana-gun. Maybe its so ingrained in our use of the term ‘banana’ that such contexts are salient by default. But i just dont think that it is so ingrained in our use. Sometimes, and maybe kathleen is even creating a context where the term has that use, but not surely always. Sometimes something yellow and banana-shaped will count as a ‘banana’. And this is precisely the kind of inconstancy that goes hand in hand with the inconstancy and context-dependence of our de re modal judgements. So i think that Brian’s anti-essentialist grumblings are half-right. But we anti-essentialist’s can still agree with Kathleen’s impossibility claim given her use of terms ‘banana’ and ‘gun’ (if she is using the terms that way).

  6. Andrew says:

    Agreed: that’s why I said that Kathleen’s phrasing was careless – she (understandably) didn’t make clear how she was using ‘banana’ – but also that there was a charitable interpretation available on which she comes out as saying something not obviously crazy.

  7. rich says:

    Also, Lewis’s approach to interpretation places a huge amount of emphasis on a really liberal principle of charity. When it comes to de re modal claims, its as though when you say anything you create a context in which what you say is true. Btw, kathleen was a tutor of mine when i was an undergrad in leeds, so all in all this thread is very leeds-tastic (old and current).

  8. John Quiggin says:

    “I think being a gun involves having a certain internal functional organization.”

    Does this mean that a child or a person from a pre-industrial culture, who has seen guns and knows what they do, but has no notion of their internal functional organisation (or even of their having any such organisation) cannot imagine a gun?

    Or does the essential content of the word “gun” depend on how much we know about guns?

  9. Andrew says:

    If the child/person really knows what guns do, then it seems to me they do have a rudimentary grasp of the fact that the gun has some relevant functional organization.

    If, in contrast, the child just takes it that there’s some magical connection between e.g. the trigger being squeezed and a high velocity bullet appearing – a connection that has nothing to do with any internal workings of the object – it’s not clear to me that they are thinking of it as a gun (as opposed to e.g. a magical device for making bullets appear ex nihilo).

    That said, it’s not clear what it takes to count as imagining a gun. There seems to be certain cases where we would ascribe imaginings using concepts the subject themselves lack, or possess only derivatively. (For example, we might say that small children can imagine being dinosaurs, without being happy to credit them with the concept dinosaur. Or, I might imagine that I was a great neurophysiologist, without really understanding what that involves.)

  10. V. Alan White says:

    I’m a bit more inclined to give Stock some stock on her claim. If we construe guns and bananas as kinds of an artificial and natural sort respectively, then her original claim might be (charitably) taken as saying that we cannot conceive of something that is both fully natural and non-natural, which is of the ilk of the classic case of a self-contradictory impossibility. Many of the posts above attempt to achieve something of a squircle by saying (analogously) that if an object is four-sided but those sides are curved then a squircle is imaginable. So it is—but that is not an object that fully both a curved and non-curved object.

    An aside. Does Chalmers in his primary conceivability of zombies attempt to collide a concept of a natural object (humans physically)with a non-natural one (computers, etc.)? What I’m suggesting is that his conceivability of zombies may deeply depend on a self-contradiction of the type that Stock is offering as an example. I don’t usually regard myself as a best friend of essentialism but maybe I’m on better terms with it than I’ve thought.

  11. Josh Brown says:

    Logs (i.e., fallen dead wood) seem to be a natural kind. Chairs are an artefectual kind. Suppose I go out into the woods, find an oddly shaped log, drag it home, and put it in my living room for people to sit on. My intuition is that I’ve got something that’s both a log and a chair—and so both natural and artefactual. I’m not sure what the qualifier “fully” means.

  12. rich says:

    the chair case and the gun case seem a bit different. Being a chair seems to be a matter of playing a certian functional role. Being a gun, andy suggested, was a matter of having a certain internal structure. there is no problem with the idea of a log (for the sake of argument, a natural kind) playing the chair-role. In the banana-gun case, the issue is a bit more difficult, since being a gun isnt just a matter of playing a certain role but rather having a certain internal structure. But as i’ve tried to stress, the essentialist need not have trouble with the idea that in her context, Kathleen said something true, when she denied the possibility of a banana-gun. It depends what ‘banana’ and ‘gun’ mean in a context on whether something could be both. So if we construe the terms in alan’s sense, then its fine to say you cant have a banana-gun, even by essentialist lights.

  13. Josh Brown says:

    Well, the chair case really was aimed only at Alan’s broad claim that nothing could instantiate both a natural and an artificial kind. (I’m ignoring the “fully” because I don’t know what it means for something to partially instantiate a kind.)

  14. Milky says:

    with regards to the chair/log, by dragging it home and putting it somewhere other then the woods you have not changed the fact that what you have (despite calling it a “chair”) is still just a misshaped log that you have moved. If you were to in some way alter the log then perhaps it would change it’s state to that of a “chair”, but without doing anything other then moving it, would it not remain a log?