Anti-Essentialism, Modal Relativity, and Alternative Material-Origin Counterfactuals

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In ordinary language, in the medical sciences, and in the overlap between them, we frequently make claims which imply that we might have had different gametic origins from the ones we actually have. Such statements seem intuitively true and coherent. But they counterfactually ascribe different DNA to their referents and therefore contradict material-origin essentialism, which Kripke and his followers argue is intuitively obvious. In this paper I argue, using examples from ordinary language and from philosophy of medicine and bioethics, that statements which attribute alternative material origins to their referents are useful, common in political and medical reasoning, and in many cases best interpreted literally. So we must replace the doctrine of material-origin essentialism with one that can make sense of ordinary discourse and the language of the medical sciences. I propose an anti-essentialist account of such counterfactuals according to which individuals' modal properties are relative to a given inquiry.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8379–8398
Number of pages20
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 28 Apr 2021


  • Anti-essentialism
  • Essentialism
  • Essentiality of origins
  • Kripke
  • Modality
  • Quine


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