Department of Philosophy



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Henry Laycock (Queen's University)

   ‘Earth’ / ‘Air’ / ‘Fire’ / ‘Water’: Ontological Semantics

 There is no denying that we know somewhat more about the world than did the ancient Greeks. Nevertheless, the ancient doctrine regarding the ‘elements’ was at least 25% correct. The elements and compounds of modern chemistry, substances in an everyday sense, are the basic chemical constituents of reality. And they do, of course, include water – one of the four ancient elements. Today, such things (e.g. carbon, methane, plutonium, dioxins and the like) often loom large in new and different ways. But what is theoretically important about them, for current purposes, is that unlike mixtures, for which ‘anything goes’ (gin and tonic, anyone?) they have precisely defined identity-criteria. We understand exactly what is required, in order for something to count as the very same stuff or substance, here, there, or anywhere, wherever it occurs. But what, in any case, is such a thing, a chemical substance – to what metaphysical or ontic category does a substance such as water belong? The answer must I think be that it belongs to the category of universals – that’s to say, the very same substance (the very same liquid, the very same compound) can occur more or less anywhere. There is one problem about this, though. Unlike attributes or properties, which are sometimes thought of as ‘abstractions’ from the concrete particular, these universals seem to be concrete. As we’ll see,investigation of the ontology of substances proceeds chiefly through close investigation of the semantics of the corresponding nouns.


WATSON HALL, ROOM 517 @ 4:00 p.m.