Wiggins, David (1933–)

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David Wiggins was professor of philosophy at Bedford College, London; professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, London; Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University; and a fellow of New College, Oxford. He has published in metaphysics, philosophy of language, moral and political philosophy, and the history of philosophy. His major works are Identity and Spatio-temporal Continuity ; Sameness and Substance ; Needs, Values, and Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Value ; and Sameness and Substance Renewed.

The most influential part of Wiggins's work has been in metaphysics, where he has developed a fundamentally Aristotelian conception of substance, enriched by insights drawn from Putnam (1975) and Kripke (1980). His works also contain influential discussions of the problem of personal identity, which Wiggins elucidates via a conception that he calls the "Animal Attribute View."

Wiggins's metaphysic of substance embodies several contentions. The first is that a distinction can be drawn between sortal and nonsortal concepts, the former providing answers to the question "What is it?" asked of a substance. If a and b are the same, there must be an answer to the question "The same what?" This answer can be provided by a sortal concept satisfied by both a and b. This thesis implies that any substance satisfies at any time some sortal or other.

Wiggins also maintains that any substance must satisfy the same substance sortal throughout its existence, though it will also satisfy various phase sortals that apply to it only at certain stages of its career. For example, "child" is a phase sortal, while "man," Wiggins says, is a substance sortal. Protean change is not possible. Following Quine (1960), some opponents of this view hold that substances are not to be distinguished from events or processes, and can be thought of as having temporal parts. These proponents of "four-dimensionalism," as the doctrine of temporal parts is commonly called, also typically hold that any temporal part of one object and any temporal part of the same or another object can be thought of as constituting a third object (Quine 1960, Lewis 1986). There is, for example, the object consisting of the first decade of Aristotle and the third decade of the Eiffel Tower. This thesis is sometimes referred to as mereological universalism, or unrestricted composition. Wiggins's thesis that any substance must satisfy some one substance sortal throughout its existence is intended to be inconsistent with mereological universalism. More fundamentally, Wiggins argues against four-dimensionalism.

Another significant component of Wiggins's metaphysics is his denial of relative identity. Wiggins maintains that identity is not relative to different sortals, in the sense that a and b may be the same f but different g 's. The relative-identity thesis was introduced into modern debate by Peter Geach (1972) and appears to be illustrated by familiar kinds of change. For example, an old general is the same person or human being as the young boy he was, but he is not the same child, since the old general is not a child. Again, if a piece of clay is reshaped to make different statues, it is the same piece of clay throughout, but not the same statue. To deal with such examples, Wiggins appeals to (1) the distinction between phase sortals and substance sortals and (2) the distinction between constitution and identity. The first type of example, he suggests, can be dealt with merely by paying proper attention to tense: The general was the same child as the boy, and the boy will be the same man as the general. In the second type of case he suggests that we must recognize that the piece of clay is distinct from all the statues it successively constitutes. We can correctly say that the clay is at one time a statue of Goliath, say. But this is because one of the meanings of "is" is "constitutes"a meaning that must be recognized in addition to the "is" of predication and the "is" of identity.

Wiggins opposes relative identity because he sees it as incompatible with Leibniz's Law, the principle that if a is identical with b, a and b must share all their properties. Some opponents of Wiggins have criticized his distinction between constitution and identity, which allows the possibility of two things in the same place at the same time (Lewis 1986). Others have questioned his positive argument that Leibniz's Law and relative identity are incompatible. Debate about these matters continues.

One sortal concept to which Wiggins has given special attention is that of a person. In Identity and Spatio-temporal Continuity (1967) and its successors, he developed his response to the problem of personal identity originating in the writings of John Locke, with particular reference to the writings of Bernard Williams (1973), Derek Parfit (1984), and Sydney Shoemaker (1963). In response to the famous Reduplication Argument against Lockean accounts of personal identity in terms of consciousness, put forward by Williams, Wiggins insists that the concept of a person, as a genuine sortal concept, must satisfy "the a and b rule," that whether later a is identical with earlier b can depend only on facts about a and b and the relations between them. This entails a rejection of the modified Lockean "best candidate" type of account of personal identity developed by Shoemaker and endorsed by Parfit.

Wiggins also rejects Parfit's thesis that identity is not what matters in survival. Finally, he rejects Locke's distinction between man and person, and endorses the thesis that persons just are animals (more specifically, human beings). Many philosophers have accepted the distinction on the basis of thought experiments in which, for example, brains are transplanted from one skull into another, with consequent transference of memory and character traits. Wiggins suggests that in such cases the same human being (not merely the same person) has different bodies successively. More fundamentally, he denies the real possibility of such cases. In the last position, he is influenced by the work of Kripke and Putnam. In this area too, Wiggins's position remains one of the options subject to current debate and development. The "animalist" position is developed in different ways by van Inwagen (1990) and Olson (1997), and is opposed by Shoemaker (1963).

See also Aristotle; Identity; Kripke, Saul; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Lewis, David; Locke, John; Meaning; Parfit, Derek; Personal Identity; Putnam, Hilary; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Shoemaker, Sydney; Williams, Bernard.


Geach, Peter. Logic Matters. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1972.

Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1980.

Lewis, David. On the Plurality of Worlds. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Olson, Eric. The Human Animal. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Putnam, Hilary. "The Meaning of 'Meaning.' " In his Mind, Language, and Reality. Vol. 2 of Philosophical Papers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

Shoemaker, Sydney. Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963.

Van Inwagen, Peter. Material Beings. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Wiggins, David. Identity and Spatio-temporal Continuity. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1967.

Wiggins, David. Needs, Values, and Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Value. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Wiggins, David. Sameness and Substance. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1980.

Wiggins, David. Sameness and Substance Renewed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Williams, Bernard. Problems of the Self. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Harold W. Noonan (2005)