Microessentialism: What is the Argument?



According to microessentialism, it is necessary to resort to microstructure in order to adequately characterise chemical substances such as water. But the thesis has never been properly supported by argument. Kripke and Putnam, who originally proposed the thesis, suggest that a so-called stereotypical characterisation is not possible, whereas one in terms of microstructure is. However, the sketchy outlines given of stereotypical descriptions hardly support the impossibility claim. On the other hand, what naturally stands in contrast to microscopic description is description in macroscopic terms, and macroscopic characterisations of water are certainly possible. This suffices to counter the claim that microdescriptions are necessary. Whether it counters the impossibility claim depends on whether all macroscopic descriptions are stereotypical (stereotypical descriptions presumably being macroscopic). In so far as systematic import of “stereotypical” can be determined, it would seem not. But some macroscopic characterisations have definite affinity with everyday knowledge, which presumably stands in conflict with the spirit of the impossibility claim. Since what is characterised are properties expressed by predicates like “is water”, the necessity of identity has no bearing here, and matters of interpretation pose problems for claims to the effect that science fixes the extension of “water” as ordinarily understood.