The Waning of Essentialism

Joseph Agassi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


John O. Wisdom (1947) says, [new-style] analytic philosophy has resulted from a radical change in our theory of definition, and the resulting devaluation of the place of essential definitions in science and philosophy. Most traditional and most current metaphysics are deeply involved with essential definitions. This invites the support of the proposal of Stuart Hampshire to salvage as much of metaphysics as possible. It is the proposal to correct Wittgenstein’s erroneous demand to oust all metaphysics by limiting it to the demand to oust metaphysical systems that rest on essential definitions, and to rectify logic accordingly. This is tantamount to the suggestion to oust the pretense to know what scientific theories will win assent and keep it to the end of days. It is possible to restrict further: whenever possible, we should reinterpret essential definitions to read them as conjectures. Perhaps surprisingly this proposal tallies with comments made by even the most ardent and significant members of the analytic school, such as Neurath and Carnap, not to mention Hintikka: insofar as metaphysics was ancillary to science, they all agreed, they did not object to it. This concession fully reverses their radicalism. It was a great loss that they ignored Wisdom. The limitation of anti-metaphysics to anti-essentialism is a modification that tallies with the current pervasive dissent from Wittgenstein in the analytic school, namely, the rejection of any grammatical criterion of demarcation of metaphysics Wittgenstein-style. This allows for the possible recognition of the value of some metaphysics.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSynthese Library
PublisherSpringer Science and Business Media B.V.
Number of pages24
StatePublished - 2018

Publication series

NameSynthese Library
ISSN (Print)0166-6991
ISSN (Electronic)2542-8292


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