Thursday, 11 March 2010


I have been involved in a debate elsewhere concerning the identity of particulars, specifically in relation to propositions which P F Strawson (pictured) describes as ‘feature placing’ sentences. The contention was that such sentences, e.g., ‘It is warm here’ do not have an object. In his book Individuals Strawson gives other examples, ‘There is water here’, ‘Now it is raining’. Now it was this assertion, which seemed to fly in the face of my grammar-school understanding of subject and predicate, that prompted me to delve a little deeper. Having delved I remain unconvinced by Sir Peter’s argument, but I am, hopefully, better informed.

My reasons, briefly, are these.

Before developing his thesis of subject and predicate in Part II of his book, in Part I Strawson spends time exploring how it is possible to identify (and re-identify) particulars at all. He settles on the fact that we can identify ‘things’ (material objects) because of their ‘location’ in a fixed spatio-temporal frame of reference. We use such a framework, he says, ‘not just occasionally and adventitiously, but always and essentially’ [Strawson, 1959, p.24]. But the frame of reference he describes, where individuals can agree on the location in space and time of a ‘thing’ is the Galilean frame of reference based on Newtonian mechanics. And it is wrong. Einstein has shown that observers in inertial frames of reference (i.e., in relative motion to each another) cannot always agree on spatial locations and dimensions or simultaneity. Now all frames of reference are inertial frames and so to base identification of bodies on their spatio-temporal ‘locations’ fails. It must be allowed that at an everyday level the Galilean / Newtonian worldview serves as a good approximation to the Einsteinean universe, otherwise we would not be able to wander around or catch a bus (without performing Lorentz transformations on the ‘timetable’). Strawson’s claims, developed from his framework definition of particulars, ought to be universally true, not just in the Galilean approximation of an Oxford Senior Common Room. Related arguments can be made from a quantum-mechanical point of view.

But let us allow Strawson to develop his argument based upon good approximations to reality. His thoroughly worked exegesis of subject-predicate relations leads him to conclude (inter alia) in relation to the types of expression we have been discussing (he calls them ‘feature placing’ sentences) that because (he says) they do not satisfy his antithetical criteria of completeness / incompleteness vis-a-vis subject / predicate, then they are objectless. He argues that adverbial quantifiers of time and place do not imbue feature placing sentences or propositions with sufficient completeness to fit his criteria. This may follow logically from his arguments but even he admits that it does not always follow in our grammatical usage. I do not accept that adverbial quantifiers do not have that function. I think that philosophers ought to define subject and predicate relations in terms which accord with normal grammatical usage and that Strawson does not do so. Regarding the completeness / incompleteness criteria of his definition, Strawson borrows a metaphor from Gottlob Frege, that of saturation / unsaturation. It is a good metaphor. As any chemist will attest, there are degrees of saturation and it is perhaps here that Strawson’s problem lies.

Strawson, P F, Individuals, 1959 [2006], Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon.

ISBN 13: 978-0-415-05185-9

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