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essences and natural kinds

Essences are the attributes or properties that cause a particular thing to be what it is. Another way of putting this would be to say that without a particular essence, a thing would no longer be that thing but rather some other thing. These characteristics are also known as natures. If you were to take ten different tables and show each one to a different person, it is likely that they would all be able to identify the object as a table. However, it is less likely that they would all agree on the same reasons for why the object is a table. The properties that make a table a table and not something else are difficult to define. Identifying the essence of a particular thing is a rather perplexing task, because the idea of essences cannot be supported logically or scientifically. In his essay "Natural Kinds," Quine concludes that the ability to recognize and categorize things based on their properties is in fact an animal instinct rather then a learned capacity.

The idea of natural kinds is similar to essences. A natural kind is a classification or group of things that have been categorized based on essences. However there is no way of determining the kind a particular thing belongs to in any non-negotiable way because, as noted before, there is no single set of rules that can be used when categorizing the world around us.

--Cole Ranze


Sources:
Quine, W. V. O. "Natural Kinds" in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, Columbia University Press, 1969.

Kemmerling, Garth. "Essence/Accident" in A Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names. http://www.philosophypages.com/dy/e9.htm#ess