I am who I am: A critique of Kripke’s picture of essentialism

By: Pablo Velasco, MSc Philosophy 2015, University of Edinburgh

In this paper I will revise Kripke’s concepts of necessity and naming, and his ‘picture’ about essential properties, as they appear in Naming and Necessity. I will then show how substance and form can be reduced to the essential property origin, and how identity in natural kinds is nothing but the identity of an object with itself. Finally, I will demonstrate how Kripke’s picture about essential properties comes down to ‘A is A’.


A priori truths are those that can be known independently of any experience (e.g.: a triangle has three sides). Kripke points out that this is a concept of epistemology, while necessity is a concept of metaphysics.

One of Kripke’s point about necessity is that there can be necessary a posteriori (i.e. not a priori) truths. An example of this is the statement ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’. ‘Hesperus’ is the name given to a heavenly body in the evening. ‘Phosphorus’ is the name given to a heavenly body in the morning. Eventually, it was discovered that ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ referred to the same heavenly body (Venus). That ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’ is a necessary truth, but it is not an a priori one.

When Kripke says that something is contingent, he means that it might not have been. For example, Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander, but he might not have been. This doesn’t mean that we could discover that he wasn’t Alexander’s teacher, or that in some parallel world he isn’t. It means that the events could have gone in a different direction and Aristotle might have ended up doing something else than teaching. If something is necessary, it could not have been otherwise (if the object existed). For example, if Aristotle had been anything other than human, he wouldn’t have been Aristotle. ‘Aristotle was human’, if true, expresses a necessary truth.


By name, Kripke means “a proper name” (Kripke, p.24). He makes a distinction between names (e.g. Aristotle) and descriptions (e.g. the teacher of Alexander). A common term for both names and descriptions is ‘designator’. The Frege-Russell view (as presented by Kripke) is that a name is simply a definite description (DD) abbreviated or disguised. Aristotle would be an abbreviation for, for example, ‘the teacher of Alexander’. For Kripke, the problem with this view is that if we discovered that it is a legend that Aristotle taught Alexander, then Aristotle wouldn’t be Aristotle.

Many people have thus proposed using a cluster of descriptions instead. In Kripke’s view, the cluster-theory is given by six theses and one condition:

  • To every name or designating expression ‘X’, there corresponds a cluster of properties, namely the family of those properties ϕ such that A believes ‘ϕX’.
  • One of the properties, or some conjointly, are believed by A to pick out some individual uniquely.
  • If most, or a weighted most, of the ϕ’s are satisfied by one unique object y, then y is the referent of ‘X’.
  • If the vote yields no unique object, ‘X’ does not refer.
  • The statement, ‘If X exists, the X has most of the ϕ’s’ is known a priori by the speaker.
  • The statement, ‘If X exists, the X has most of the ϕ’s’ expresses a necessary truth (in the idiolect of the speaker).

C) For any successful theory, the account must not be circular. The properties which are used in the vote must not themselves involve the notion of reference in such a way that it is ultimately impossible to eliminate. (ibid., p.71)

Let’s imagine how this could work for Aristotle:

We take some descriptions (I use three but we would normally use more) of Aristotle: a) He was born in Stagira. b) He was a student of Plato. c) He taught Alexander. We weight their importance, for example, 0.52, 0.24, 0.24 (respectively).  In the actual world (as far as we know) all of the descriptions are true, and true only of Aristotle, therefore Aristotle is the referent of the descriptions, and therefore of the name ‘Aristotle’. If it turns out that he didn’t teach Alexander, Aristotle (the object) would still be Aristotle (the name). If it turns out that he wasn’t born in Stagira, Aristotle (the object) would not be Aristotle (the name), and some other object could be Aristotle (the name).

As Kripke points out, it is not “a necessary truth that Aristotle had the properties commonly attributed to him” (i.e. thesis (6) is false).  If Aristotle didn’t have any of these properties, we would still call him Aristotle, and he would still be Aristotle. Here Aristotle is a rigid-designator (i.e. it designates the same object in every possible world), while the properties of Aristotle are non-rigid (i.e. they designate different objects in different possible worlds). If instead of Aristotle, a different man born in Stagira had taught Alexander, Aristotle would still refer to Aristotle, not to that man.

A reader might wonder what then is a good theory of naming. Kripke is very careful not to give a theory, but a ‘better picture’ of naming, roughly:

”An initial ‘baptism’ takes place. Here the object may be named by ostension, or the reference of the name may be fixed by a description. When the name is ‘passed from link to link’, the receiver of the name must, (…) intend when he learns it to use it with the same reference as the man from whom he heard it” (p. 96).

For example, Aristotle is born, his parents ‘baptise’ him ‘Aristotle’, either by something like ‘this is Aristotle’, or with a DD that fixes the reference (e.g. Aristotle is ‘born in 384 BC, son of Nichomachus’). Then, the name Aristotle is spread (e.g. Nichomachus tells his friends ‘this is Aristotle’).

Essential properties

One has already to know (…) something in order to be capable of asking a thing’s name. But what does one have to know? (Wittgenstein, PI, §30)

There is a sense in which Kripke’s theory of naming presupposes essence. If I point to many instances of gold and name them ‘gold’, I am presupposing that gold exists as the kind with the essence ‘gold’. My intuition is that by naming, we presuppose that if an object has a stable external structure (i.e. properties; e.g. being a metal), then it has a stable internal structure (which in Kripke’s picture would be essence).

Kripke’s distinction between necessary and a priori are key to understanding his view about essential properties. Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander, but he might not have been, therefore, ‘being the teacher of Alexander’ is not an essential property of Aristotle. ‘Aristotle is the son of Nichomacus’, if true, is a necessary truth, because he would be a different person if he had had a different father. The necessary – a priori distinction is useful here. What we mean is not that in the actual world it is impossible that we discover a posteriori that Aristotle was a bastard child. What we mean is that if Nichomachus was the actual father of Aristotle, then it is so in every possible world in which Aristotle existed.


The previous example gives us Kripke’s first essential property of an object, origin: An object could not have come from a different origin than its actual origin and still be the same object.

In the rest of the paper, I will look at what I consider Kripke’s strongest candidates for essential properties, and show how they can be simplified down to the essential property of origin, and ultimately to self-identity (i.e. ‘A is A’).

Another essential property for Kripke is substance. If a certain table made from a certain block of wood had been made from a different block of wood it would be a different table. The human body replaces 98% of its atoms every year (Abersold, 1953). Does that mean that humans don’t have an essence? This would be misunderstanding Kripke. For him, substance is a question of necessity, not of time. What Kripke means is that “if a material object has its origin from a certain hunk of matter, it could not have had its origin in any other matter (p.114).”

The problem is that Kripke is not talking about substance, but about original substance. Original substance is already implicit in the essential property of origin. Necessarily, if the substance of a table at origin was a piece of wood, the original substance of that table was a piece of wood.

For Kripke, another essential property of a table is “being a table” (p. 115), which wouldn’t be the case if the original block of wood had been made into a vase. I will call this property ‘form’. The case is hard because a table is a human concept (tables don’t have internal ‘table’ structures as that of gold). Let’s imagine we put a bookcase horizontally in the middle of our living room and tell guests it’s a table, and they believe us, is it now a table? I believe that Kripke would call it a bookcase all along because it was a bookcase when it was made. The problem is that if you cannot define what a table essentially is (e.g. with a DD such as ‘four-legged furniture-piece to put things on’, and Kripke’s theory proves this doesnt work), the form of a table comes down to ‘being a table at origin’, which is only a logical development of the essentiality of origin, namely,

if an object had at its origin a certain form, then it could not have had its origin in any other form,

and therefore reducible to origin just like substance. It is already implicit in the essential property origin that the object had at origin the form that the object had at origin.

This section has showed that substance and form can be reduced to origin. The following section will take the essential properties of natural kinds and show how they can be reduced to self-identity. The conclussion will show how origin can also be reduced to self-identity, and explore briefly the problems that this entails.


For Kripke, some identities coming from scientific discoveries are essential properties. For example, ‘gold has the atomic number 79’ is necessarily true (metaphysically, not epistemically), because that is what gold is. To me, a case like this seems to be just identity between the object refered to by the name and the object that corresponds to the DD of the object. ‘Gold’ is the name we have given to gold based on its external features. ‘The element with atomic number 79’ is the DD for gold, based on its internal structure. Both the name and the DD refer to gold, and thus it is just an identity between an object and itself (which is a necessary truth, but not necessarily a priori). This is not very different than identity between proper names like ‘Tully is Cicero’. Both names refer to the same object, and the identity only expresses that the object refered to by one name is identical to the object refered to by the other (i.e. the object is identical to itself).

One problem is that Kripke doesn’t make a clear distinction between essential properties of kinds and essential properties of individual objects. How is one gold nugget essentially different from another? They both have atomic number 79. I think that in Kripke’s picture only origin can tell them apart. Nugget ‘A’ is the one that was nugget ‘A’ in its origin; nugget ‘B’ is the one that was nugget ‘B’ in its origin.

Gold can be made in a nuclear reactor by platinium irradiation, so it is easy to see how gold has an origin. Gold is made when an element with atomic number 79 comes into existence. However, origin is a more fuzzy concept when it comes down to objects that are not natural kinds.

Consider Michalangelo’s David, which he chiseled out of a single block of marble. At what point of the chiselling process did the block become the David? It is hard to find the essential properties (even origin) of an object that doesnt have an internal structure like natural kinds do. The problem is that a lot (if not all) of Kripke’s essential properties are nothing other than the essential properties of the object at origin. The problem with objects such as the David is that we might not be able to know what its origin was. Some may say that the David began being the David when Michaelangelo began to chisel it, but then, would it still have been the same Michaelangelo if he had stopped after a couple of minutes?

A more plausible option is that the David began being the David when Michaelangelo finished chiseling it, but what if he had in mind to chisel it even further but ran out of time? In a possible world in which Michaelangelo had chiseled the David for another half an hour, would it still be the David or would it be a different David (as Michaelangelo would have finished chiseling at a different point and therefore the David would have a different origin)?  I think that the only possible answer to these kind of questions would be something rather circular, like: The David began being the David when it began being the David, even if we cannot figure out when that is.

An even more important issue is that even internal structure might not be an essential property for some objects originally belonging to a natural kind. Imagine you bought a pet butterfly and call it ‘Pap’ in larvae form. In chrysalis and imago form you would still call it ‘Pap’, and it would be the same object. The internal structure that is essential for being a larvae would have changed when Pap metamorphosed, but the object (Pap) would still be the same object. Here essence becomes a matter of intuitions. Maybe someone calls a gold nugget ‘Aurelian’, and still calls it ‘Aurelian’ if it melts or becomes mercury through irradiation, believing that it is essentially the same object. An object could be the same object as long as it was the same object at origin, regardless of other purportedly essential properties (such as the essential properties of its original natural kind[1]).

Conclussion and Further Discussion

After revising Kripke’s picture of naming, I have showed how substance and form are reducible to origin. I have then showed that the identity of natural kinds (such as gold) is the identity of an object and itself.

The problem is that if we only have identity and origin as essential properties we have a picture which comes down to the following statement:

1) ‘A’ is that which ‘A’ is when ‘A’ begins to be that which ‘A’ is.

This raises two questions: a) when does a thing begin to be what it is? b) When does a thing stop to be what it is? The answer to (a) is:

2) ‘A’ begins to be that which ‘A’ is when ‘A’ begins to be that which ‘A’ is.

Answer to (b) is:

3) ‘A’ ceases to be that which ‘A’ is when it ceases to be that which ‘A’ was when it began to be that which ‘A’ is.

Which in its turn means (by substitution of terms in (1) and (3)):

4) ‘A’ ceases to be that which ‘A’ is when ‘A’ ceases to be that which ‘A’ is.

Using (1) and (4):

5) ‘A’ is that which ‘A’ is when ‘A’ begins to be that which ‘A’ is; and ‘A’ ceases to be that which ‘A’ is when ‘A’ ceases to be that which ‘A’ is.

The problem (due to the circularity of the definitions) is that the picture can be reduced to:

6) ‘A’ is ‘A’

This should not come as a surprise. Identity requires the essentiality of origin and essentiality of origin requires identity. It is unimaginable how an object can be itself and be something different than that which it was when it began to be itself; and it is unimaginable how an object can be itself when it begins to be itself, without the object being itself.

If ‘A is A’ is what Krikpe’s essentialism offers, it becomes hard to explain through his picture the origin of objects without internal structure, or the essential differences between individual objects of the same kind, among other problematic cases for which I don’t have space to discuss in this paper.

Another worry is that there is not much room left for the rivals of essentialism, unless they are supposed to defend that “‘A’ is ‘A’” is not true. There are two ways in which I could imagine a way to deny Kripke’s picture, which I will sketch for further discussion:

  1. Negating necessity (or negating identity).
  2. Separating metaphysical necessity from logical necessity or metapysical identity from logical identity, and putting the metaphysical at a higher level than the logical.

I am afraid that (a) leads to nihilism and to questions such as : How can you negate negation? The problem with (b) is that a metaphysical truth could have the form ‘A is not A’ in its reduction to logic. I do not want to say that such a thing is impossible (some Zen Buddhishts seem to believe that that’s how the world actually is), but it would mean that truths of the highest order might very well not be apprehensible for human minds (at least as we know the mind to be).



Abersold, P. C. “Radioisotopes—New Keys to Knowledge, Washington.” Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1953.

Kripke, S. A. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations. Anscombe, G.E.M. and Rhees, R. (eds.), Anscombe, G.E.M. (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell. 1953.


[1] As Kripke points out “to the extent that such properties [colour and metallic properties] follow from the atomic structure of gold, they are necessary properties of it” (p.125). The problem is that this works well for a natural kind (used as a concept), but objects might originally belong to a kind, without the essential properties of the kind being the essential properties of the object.

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