Ancient Insights



The Nature of Things



Long ago there lived a pre-Socratic philosopher named Kryptos. Kryptos was interested in change and he had noticed an interesting fact about change: some changes leave an object in existence while other changes put an object out of existence. If you bend a stick or move it from one place to another, you effect a change in it, but it remains in existence, while if you cut it into pieces or burn it in a fire it goes out of existence. Kryptos named these types of change “preservative change” and “destructive change”, and was pleased to have hit upon such an important distinction. Further reflection led him to the idea that things have two sorts of properties: those that are required for the thing to exist and those that are not required for the thing to exist. He had no name for this distinction, but his vague thought was that some properties are more central to a thing’s identity than others. In line with this he made an observation that struck him as significant—a discovery about the nature of things: color is never central to a thing’s identity, but shape can be. Things can always change their color without going out of existence, no matter how extreme the change, but if you change a thing’s shape enough you will destroy it. That is what happens with fire: a burning leaf, for example, goes from its leaf shape to an amorphous pile of ash after undergoing a series of shape changes. Kryptos’ theory was that color change is always preservative but shape change can be destructive (yet it was puzzling to him that someshape change is preservative—what’s the difference?). He had discovered a general truth about things, change, properties, and existence. He felt he was onto something.

He struggled to find a verbal formulation for his discoveries; he needed a good label for the distinction he had unearthed. He decided to call the properties that were central to a thing’s existence “inherent attributes” and properties that were peripheral “extraneous attributes”. His crude thought was that the former are inthe object while the latter areoutsideof it (the Athens Greek Dictionarydefined “inherent” as “existing in something as a permanent or essential attribute”). The shape of a thing—its geometrical form–was inherent in it, while the spatial location of a thing was extraneous to it (as was its color). Clearly, not every aspect of shape was thus inherent, but it seemed to Kryptos that there is a sharp limit on how much change of shape a thing could undergo before ceasing to exist (a chariot, say, could not assume the shape of a quill pen and still exist). This was very obvious in the case of geometrical objects themselves: if you change the shape of a circle to that of a square, you put the circle out of existence. In geometry form is identity. He took to speaking of the “inherent-extraneous distinction” and explaining it to interested parties. He thought of it as an ontological distinction because it concerned the nature of being, i.e. what is involved in something’s existence. The attributes of things partitioned into those that were inherent and those that were extraneous, those that formed the core of an object and those that hung more loosely on the object. It would be possible to examine the object and determine which attributes fall where. He toyed with other labels for the distinction he had discovered: sometimes he spoke of “constitutive attributes” and “circumstantial attributes”, or of what was “intrinsic” and what was “extrinsic”, or of “internal properties” and “external properties”. These labels all had their merits and he was reluctant to be tied down. The distinction itself was what mattered.

A pupil of Kryptos suggested a simplification: call the cluster of attributes that form the core of a thing its “nature”, defined by the dictionary as “the basic or inherent features, qualities, or character of a person or thing”. True, everything about a thing is part of nature (more or less), but it seemed right to single some attributes out as constituting the specific natureof a thing; the others could be described as “accidental”. Kryptos adopted the suggestion and added something to it: he maintained that it is possible to analyzethe nature of a thing—break it down into its constituents. Things were generally complex and could be analyzed into simpler things. Thus some facts about a thing could be revealed by analyzing it, while others could not be arrived at in this way—those that were extraneous. We can analyze the nature of a thing and produce inherent truths about it, but we can also investigate it and discover extraneous truths about it. All this flowed from Kryptos’ initial insight about preservative and destructive change. He had identified a deep ontological distinction: the distinction between what is integral to a thing’s existence and what is peripheral to it—what is built into a thing and what is merely conjoined with it.

Before long Kryptos added to his basic theory: he noticed that what was inherent was (as he put it) “indispensable”, while what was extraneous was “dispensable”. He saw this as implicit in his original conception, though it now needed to be spelled out. We can say that some attributes couldnot be removed from a thing without destroying it, while others could be so removed: some are necessaryand some are not. He had no established terminology for this distinction, so he adopted the Greek word for mode; that enabled him to speak of a “modal” distinction. Thus he announced the “indispensable-dispensable distinction” and added it to the inherent-extraneous distinction. Then he made the following claim: the modal distinction mirrors the ontological distinction. What is inherent is indispensable and what is extraneous is dispensable. You couldn’t have a thing without its inherent properties, but you could have a thing without its extraneous properties. Another way to put the point was this: the properties that are discovered by analyzing the nature of a thing are indispensable, while those that are discovered by investigating the circumstances of a thing are dispensable. The two distinctions coincide; indeed, the modal distinction seems like a good way to articulate the ontological distinction. In any case, they were glued together. Things have an inherent nature that is essential to them (as Kryptos started saying), while also having extraneous properties that are merely accidental.

So far Kryptos had said nothing about knowledge of things, only about things themselves. But he eventually began to see the epistemological implications. If a thing’s nature could be discovered by analysis, while learning of its circumstances required going beyond analyzing it, then there were two types of knowledge we could have of a thing—analytic knowledge and circumstantial knowledge. Again, he struggled with terminology (he was a conceptual trailblazer after all), since nothing in colloquial Greek quite supplied what he needed. After intense thought he hit upon what he took to be another insight: some knowledge of things is more basic than other knowledge of things. That is, some knowledge of things presupposes other knowledge of things—and hence is conceptually dependent on such knowledge. Specifically, knowledge of whata thing is is more basic than knowledge of howit is: for we can’t have the latter without the former. We first have to identifythings before we can investigatethem; or refer to them before we can predicate things of them; or form an adequate conception of them before we try to find out what is true of them (their laws etc). Thus knowledge of a thing’s nature comes before knowledge of its circumstances—knowledge of its inherent attributes precedes knowledge of its extraneous attributes. Analytic knowledge of a thing is prior to other knowledge of it; we find out the latter after we already possess the former. You first form an inventory of the things in the world, in which inherent attributes are specified (nature, essence, conditions of existence), and then you set about discovering the laws and accidental facts about these things. You couldn’t do the reverse. Kryptos christened this epistemological distinction the “prior-subsequent distinction”, for lack of better words (the intuitive idea seemed clear enough). He then took the obvious next step and announced that this distinction coincides with the other two: we have prior knowledge of the inherent indispensable attributes of a thing, while having subsequent knowledge of the extraneous dispensable attributes. The three distinctions—ontological, modal, and epistemological–all line up. Moreover, the ontological distinction is basic, since the others follow from it quite naturally. We can say, in Kryptos’ terminology, that analytic facts about a thing are both indispensable to it and known prior to extraneous facts. For example, we can say that facts about the chemical analysis of a substance are both modally indispensable and epistemologically prior. Likewise, the analysis of a triangle as a three-sided closed figure involves modal indispensability and epistemological priority, in contrast to the fact that (say) triangles are popular in Vladivostok.

Having established all of this Kryptos composed a treatise entitled Fundamental Distinctions of Nature, only fragments of which survive. In it he made gnomic pronouncements like, “Nature divides into the what it is and the how it is”, and “Some attributes are guaranteed by the existence of a thing while others are left to chance”, and “Some knowledge results from labor while some is in the knowing”. One of his main propositions was what came to be called among his disciples the Convergence Thesis, namely that his three distinctions converge: the ontological, the modal, and the epistemological map onto each other. We should observe that he never said anything about sentences or meanings or propositions; he spoke only of things and facts, natures and attributes. His dualisms were resolutely de re: they concerned existence, things, change, attributes, natures, essences, and ways of knowing. How any of this might be expressed in language and thought was not his concern—Kryptos cared only about reality and its divisions. His achievement was to identify these distinctions in reality and demonstrate their interrelatedness. Ontology, modality, and epistemology form a tightly connected package, not to be sundered.

Later philosophers introduced other terminology, intended to capture other distinctions, though reminiscent of Kryptos’ groundbreaking work. Thus we have the analytic-synthetic distinction, the necessary-contingent distinction, and the a priori-a posteriori distinction. Each of these has been much contested and their interrelations subject to controversy. Interestingly enough, one recent group of philosophers agreed with the Convergence Thesis, even accepting that something like Kryptos’ ontological distinction is fundamental. The logical positivists took it that the analytic-synthetic distinction is fundamental, with the modal and epistemological distinctions emerging as consequences. Kant had referred to this distinction as the “explicative-ampliative” distinction, and there are echoes in this of Kryptos’ distinction between the intrinsic nature of a thing and what holds of it as a matter of extrinsic fact. The difference is that Kant was thinking of the explication or analysis of concepts or meanings whereas Kryptos was interested in the explication or analysis of things—geometric forms, substances, species, persons, etc. To him the interesting distinction is between water being H2O (this being its chemical analysis) and the fact that there is water in this glass (an extrinsic non-analytic fact about water). He had no interest in “truth in virtue of meaning”, only in what belongs to the nature of a thing: for him “water is H2O” is an analytic truth because it gives the (chemical) analysis of water.[1]

Nor did he link the concept of prior knowledge to the concept of experience: his notion of priority is not that of knowledge a person has independently of all sense experience, since we know the nature of substances by sense experience. We could say that his notion of subsequent knowledge coincides with another use of the word “experience”, as when we say that someone has had a lot of experience of the world. Here we are referring to the person’s observing and interacting with many things over a substantial period of time, not to the state of consciousness called “sense experience”—as in a doctor saying, “I’ve had a lot of experience with malaria”. In this sense we can say that subsequent knowledge involves experience while prior knowledge does not, since you can know what something is while having very little experience of how it behaves. I might know what an octopus is by once seeing one (or reading a zoology text) but have had very little experience of octopuses and know nothing of their ways.  The contemporary modal distinction between necessary and contingent truths bears an obvious relation to Kryptos’ distinction between indispensable and dispensable attributes, though it too concerns language not things, and carries other baggage. So there is no simple mapping of Kryptos’ distinctions onto these later distinctions; they are certainly not different ways of saying the same thing, despite some overlap.

What is interesting from Kryptos’ point of view is the recent contention that the Convergence Thesis is false (mainly due to Kripke). He would have no particular objection to the rejection of that thesis for the modern distinctions, but he would no doubt be anxious to point out that the kinds of examples produced by Kripke have no bearing on hisdistinctions. What are today called analytic truths contain no analysisat all by Kryptos’ standards: truth in virtue of meaning is not analytic truth in the literal sense, which requires breaking something down into constituents (consider “ais identical to a”).[2]Nor are his extraneous truths aptly described as “synthetic” in any meaningful sense: they don’t involve assembling parts into a whole (i.e. synthesis), as chemical parts can be combined to produce a composite substance. In his sense of “analytic truth” prior knowledge is of analytic truth and all necessity is analytic, since both concern the constitutive structure of a thing as opposed to what is extraneous to it and therefore known subsequently. Knowing what a hexagon is, for example, involves analyzing it into its essential components. Similarly, knowing what water is involves analyzing it into its chemical constituents (or grasping its superficial properties). So “water is H2O” is an analytic truth, a necessary truth, and a prior truth (in the sense that it can be known just by knowing what water is prior to any knowledge of further extraneous facts about water).  But Kryptos has no wish to argue over words: he wishes rather to insist that his distinctions are real, important, and convergent. In his opinion the later distinctions are distorted and misleading versions of his original ideas; but, be that as it may, his distinctions are solid, and they converge. There is no “necessary a posteriori” or “contingent a priori”, as hewould interpret these phrases. If an attribute is necessary it is part of a thing’s nature, in which case it is known prior to other facts about the thing; and if an attribute is contingent it is not part of a thing’s nature, in which case it must be known subsequently. Moreover, the necessary and the a priori, as he interprets these terms, coincide with the analytic, as he interprets that term—just as the contingent and the a posteriori coincide with the extraneous (“synthetic” if you must). Thus the three deep distinctions written into the nature of things line up according to the Convergence Thesis, whatever may be true of the newfangled notions. Those notions look like a mess to Kryptos, as he gazes down from his seat in Platonic heaven, while his notions have stood the test of time (none of the other philosophers up there with him have managed to make a dent in them in the last 3,000 years).  People should never have taken the linguistic turn to begin with, he thinks; that was never going to end well. Also, they became too obsessed with epistemology and what is certain (that was the fault of those later Greek skeptics, not to mention that parvenuDescartes). They liked their concept of a priori knowledge because it seemed to grant them certainty in at least one area, but the concept of prior knowledge in Kryptos’ sense affords nothing of the kind. We cannot be certain of the essence or nature of empirical things, but we can know these things well enough to be getting on with. Questions of doubt and certainty are beside the point when it comes to the nature of things. What matters is (a) that things have intrinsic natures and extraneous circumstances (ontological), (b) that some of their attributes are guaranteed by their nature while some are not (modal), and (c) that knowledge of their nature is more basic than, and prior to, knowledge of their other characteristics. We should not lose sight of these fundamental distinctions and their interrelatedness, whatever may be said of more recent distinctions.


Colin McGinn





[1]This is what might be called a “deep analysis” of water, but there is also the possibility of a “superficial analysis”, as when we determine the cluster of properties that belong to the appearance of water (transparent, tasteless, liquid, etc). Both may be said to constitute the nature of water. Neither concerns the meaning of the word “water”.

[2]It is an interesting question whether the modern notion of analytic truth can be assimilated to something like Kryptos’ notion. Consider “bachelors are unmarried men”: this can be interpreted as providing a de reanalysis of the attribute of being a bachelor, not as an analysis of meaning as such. Then a statement like “bachelors are happy” is not an analytic truth in this sense, but rather involves facts extraneous to the very nature of a bachelor. So Kryptos would agree that analytic truths in the modern sense coincide with analytic truths in his sense, at least in certain cases.

2 replies
  1. says:

    Prompted by some recent ( and allegedly professional) feed-back, I’ve a question: what would you think of a novel with no real plot-line or character arc? Such works are not without distinguished precedents, but the taste of the age currently tends more to melodrama—for which genre, regrettably, I believe I might have some aptitude. The narrator of my book, as I currently conceive him, is of a much more relentlessly detached ironic kind. The format of the book is episodic, the humor malicious, the language mellifluous, —and the prospects of publication zero. Now, if I could just finish the god-damn thing.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I think there should be meaningful development of some kind–if only of voice or outlook or inner life. The novel is a temporal form and needs change with time. But it doesn’t need to be dramatic in the conventional ways.

      I just had a strange experience with Alexa. Having just bought a sound system with Alexa in it, I was playing around with it and it suddenly for no reason started to recite my novel The Space Trap to me! And it wouldn’t stop. I have no idea why this happened, but it was eerie. Evidently the whole novel is in audio form somewhere on Amazon and it can be triggered by who knows what.


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