P.F.Strawson  INDIVIDUALS  pp.15-37


1. The Identification of Particulars



As he says on p.15, Part of [his] aim is to exhibit some general and structural features of the conceptual scheme in terms of which we think about particular things.


Philosophically put, his claim is that our ontology comprises objectiveparticulars, which, in a less philosophical language, can be explained as: We think of theworld as containing particular things some of which are independent of ourselves; we think of the world's history as made up of particular episodes in which we may or may not have a part; and we think of these particular things and events as included in the topics of our common discourse, as things about which we can talkto each other. (underlines mine)


A few examples mentioned in the second paragraph are: historical occurrences, material objects, people, and their shadows.


He will be first concerned with the application of the phrase identification of particulars in that sense when the speaker refers to or mentions some particular and the hearer knows (or sometimes does not know) what particular is talked about. On p.16, he basically says that the standard function of some of the kinds of expressions we use to make references to particulars is to enable a hearer to identify the particular being referred to, and when a speaker uses such an expression to refer to a particular then he makes an identifying reference to a particular.(italics original)  But [it] does not follow of course, from the fact that a speaker makes an identifying reference to a particular, that his hearer does in fact identify that particular. Still, when a speaker makes an identifying reference to a particular, and his hearer does, on the strength of it, identify the particular referred to, then the speaker not only makes an identifying reference to, but also identifies, that particular. We have a hearer's as well as speaker's sense of 'identify'.


And why do we need to care about identification ?

That it should be possible to identify particulars of a given type seems a necessary condition of the inclusion of that type in our ontology. For what could we mean by claiming to acknowledge the existence of a class of particular things and to talk to each other about members of this class, if we qualified the claim by adding that it was in principle impossible for any one of us to make any other of us understand which member, or members, of this class he was at any time talking about? The qualification would seem to stultify the claim. (p.16)


About dependence.  Suppose . . . that there is a type of particulars, β, such that particulars of type β cannot be identified without reference to particulars of another type, α, whereas particulars of type α can be identified without reference to particulars of type β. . . .  in our scheme α-particulars [are] ontologically prior to β-particulars, . . . more fundamental or more basic than they. (p.17)



Story-relative identification. [I]dentification only relative to a range of particulars which is itself 

identified only as the range of particulars being talked about by the speaker. (p.18)


But he needs more than this. We need a requirement stringent enough to eliminate relative identification. The hearer is able to place the particular referred to within the picture painted by the speaker. This means that in a sense he can place the particular in his own general picture of the world. For he can place the speaker, and hence the speaker's picture, in that general picture of his own. But he cannot place the figures, without the frame, of the speaker's picture in his own general picture of the world. For this reason the full requirement for hearer's identification is not satisfied. (p.18)


So, he explores possibilities. A sufficient, but not necessary, condition of the full requirement's being satisfied is that the hearer can pick out by sight or hearing or touch, or can otherwise sensibly discriminate, the particular being referred to, knowing that it is that particular. (liberalize the condition to cover the cases where though one cannot at the very moment of reference sensibly discriminate the particular referred to, one could do so a moment before.)


Continuing on to p.19, this sufficient condition is satisfied only in the case of particulars which one can perceive now, or at least could perceive a moment ago.

More carefully put, An expression is used which, given the setting, can properly be taken to apply only to a certain single member of the range of particulars which the hearer is able, or a moment before was able, sensibly to discriminate, and to nothing outside that range. (p.19)


We shall say that the hearer is able directly to locate the particular referred to. We may also speak of these cases as cases of the demonstrative identification of particulars.


But this is not always easy. What happens when the particular is outside the range of the hearer or the speaker or both?  [C]onsider the cases where demonstrative identification is not possible because the particular to be identified is not within the range of those sensibly present. (p.20)

Neither names nor descriptions can help very much. (second paragraph on p.20)  [H]owever extensive the speaker's knowledge and however extensive the hearer's, neither can know that the former's identifying description in fact applies uniquely. (p.20)


Strawsons position is that doubts about the possibility of non-demonstrative identification are unfounded. And he mentions one possible line of argument which though adequate, is not ideal.  [F]or a speaker to use the words of a description with a certain reference-whether or not the intended reference and the understood reference are in fact the same- it is at least required that each should know of a particular which the description fits. . . . But each may know of only one such particular; and each may have conclusive reason to suppose that the other knows of only one such particular, and that the particular the other knows of is the same as the particular he himself knows of. Or, even if this condition is not satisfied in full, each may still have conclusive reasons for thinking that the particular which one is referring to is the same as the particular which the other takes him to be referring to. (p.21)


The argument supposes that where the particular to be identified cannot be directly located, its identification must rest ultimately on description in purely general terms. But this supposition is false. For even though the particular in question cannot itself be demonstratively identified, it may be identified by a description which relates it uniquely to another particular which can be demonstratively identified. (p.21)


He concludes on p.22 that the reduplication argument poses no threat to the possibility of non-demonstrative identification. And to the question Is it plausible to suppose . . . that of every particular we may refer to there is some description uniquely relating it to the participants in or the immediate setting of, the conversation in which the reference is made?, he answers as follows. For all particulars in space and time, it is not only plausible to claim, it is necessary to admit, that there is just such a system: the system of spatial and temporal relations, in which every particular is uniquely related to every other. The universe might be repetitive in various ways. But this fact is no obstacle in principle to supplying descriptions of the kind required. For by demonstrative identification we can determine a common reference point and common axes of spatial direction. (p.22) [I underlined the phrase in principle to emphasize the fact that this is a theoretical solution to a theoretical problem, according to what Strawson writes on the first line of the next paragraph.]



Having given a theoretical solution to a theoretical question of identity, he now seeks its connexion to the practical requirements in identification.

It seems that the general requirements of hearer-identification could be regarded as fulfilled if the hearer knew that the particular being referred to was identical with some particular about which he knew some individuating fact, or facts, other than the fact that it was the particular being referred to. To know an individuating fact about a particular is to know that such-and-such a thing is true of that particular and of no other particular whatever. One who could make all his knowledge articulate would satisfy this condition for particular-identification only if he could give a description which applied uniquely to the particular in question and could non-tautologically add that the particular to which this description applied was the same as the particular begin currently referred to; but we need not insist that the ability to make one's knowledge articulate in just this way is a condition of really knowing who, or what, a speaker is referring to. This, then, is the general condition for hearer-identification in the non-demonstrative case; and it is obvious that, if a genuine reference is being made, the speaker, too, must satisfy a similar condition. To rule out merely 'story-relative' identification, we must add a further requirement: viz. that the known individuating fact must not be such that its statement essentially involves identifying the particular in question by reference to someone's discourse about it, or about any other particular by reference to which it is identified. (p.23)

He observes that though we do not often, in practice, explicitly relate the particulars of which we speak to ourselves or to other items in the present situation of reference, but It is a necessary truth that any new particular of which we learn is somehow identifyingly connected with the framework, even if only through the occasion and method of our learning of it. Even when the identification is 'story-relative', the connexion with the framework remains, through the identity of the story-teller. (p.24-25)


He continues. Of course, nothing in what I say has the consequence that a man is unable to identify a particular unless he can give precise spatio-temporal location for it. This is by no means required. Any fact uniquely relating the particular to other, identified elements in the framework will serve as an individuating fact. A description, itself in no way locating, may be known to individuate within a very extensive spatio-temporal range of particulars; all that is then required is that that range should itself be located in the framework at large. (p.25)


But why must the connecting relations should exclusively be spatio-temporal, he asks. All that is formally required is a kind of relation such that, given an already identified object, O, it is possible for us to know that there is, in fact, only one thing answering to a certain description which is related by that relation to O. (p.25)


He answers by claiming that because it has a unique comprehensiveness and pervasiveness. Every particular either has its place in this system, or is of a kind the members of which cannot in general be identified except by reference to particulars of other kinds which have their place in it; and every particular which has its place in the system has a unique place there. There is no other system of relations between particulars of which all this is true. (p.25-26)


On p.26 he addresses a general doubt about a fact (given by a description) succeeding in individuating particulars by analyzing the notion of descriptions. There are three sorts of descriptions. 1) Descriptions can be framed which begin with phrases like 'the only . . .' or 'the first . . .' and thus proclaim, as it were, the uniqueness of their application. Let us call them 'logically individuating descriptions'. 2) [We] can also frame logically individuating descriptions which are altogether free from such features [i.e. proper names, dates, etc.]. Let us call these 'pure individuating descriptions'. 3) Besides pure individuating descriptions we may recognize a class of quasi-pure individuating descriptions, which depend on the setting of their utterance to determine their application only in the sense that their application is restricted to what existed before or exists at the same time as the moment of utterance. (p.25-26)


Then he considers the possibility of (quasi-) purely logical description. "Now surely, it might be said, we can sometimes know that a pure or quasi-pure individuating description has application; and granted that such a phrase has application, its acceptance by both hearer and speaker is sufficient to guarantee that each understands by it one and the same particular. Our individuating thought about particulars need not, therefore, involve incorporating them in the single unified framework of knowledge of particulars." (p.27)


But he wants to reject this possibility and for that purpose investigates what that possibility amounts to.

"Suppose a speaker and a hearer claimed to have identified a certain particular by agreement on a pure or quasi-pure individuating description; and suppose they accompanied the claim with the remark that they knew nothing else whatever about the particular in question. That is to say, they were quite unable to locate the particular concerned within any definite spatio-temporal region of the common framework, however extensive, or to connect it in any definite way with any item which they could so locate; they were quite unable even to relate it to any occasion of discourse which they could connect with some item in the common spatio-temporal framework. . . . In general, they disclaimed any ability to connect the particular of which they claimed to speak with their general unified framework of knowledge of particulars, and disclaimed any ability to recognize any such connexion, if it were to be suggested to them, as one which they had been aware of, but had forgotten." (p.27)

This sort of claim is deemed 'frivolous' by Strawson, and he goes on to explain why. "[In] general, to elaborate the description sufficiently to eliminate the one risk, without increasing the other, [It may be of interest to compare this situation to the Russelian analysis of definite descriptions where the two factors, that of existence of the entity satisfying the matrix, and the uniqueness of it, work together to secure the unique existence: ɩxP(x)=y iff P(y)∧∀z(P(z)z=y), here, unlike ‘x’ and ‘z’, ‘y’ is not bound, and so the conjunct P(y) is to be interpreted as claiming the existence of y satisfying P, i.e. it has the existential import. One could, of course à la Free Logic, employ the existence predicate ‘E’ and write as in the following as well: ɩxP(x)=y iff (E(y)P(y))∧∀z(P(z)z=y) ] would be to draw on our actual knowledge of stretches of the world and its history; but in so far as we do this, we can no longer sincerely claim to be unable to connect our description at any point with items belonging to the unified framework of our knowledge of particulars. This reply is tantamount to disputing that it is possible to know an individuating fact about a particular unless something is known about the relations of that particular to identified items in the spatio-temporal framework." (p.28)

And he concludes that "So long as our knowledge of it retained this completely detached character, the particular would have no part to play in our general scheme of knowledge".

Then he reiterates his aim. "[It] is a single picture which we build, a unified structure, in which we ourselves have a place, and in which every element is thought of as directly or indirectly related to every other; and the framework of the structure, the common, unifying system of relations is spatio-temporal."(p.29)

He then asks whether it is necessarily so "that any scheme which provides for particulars capable of being the subject-matter of discourse in a common language . . . should be a scheme of the kind I have just described." And responds by remarking that "[c]ertainly, it does not seem to be a contingent matter about empirical reality that it forms a single spatio-temporal system." (p.29)


On p.30, he reviews his argument against scepticism in this section. "[The] belief that however elaborate a description we produce of a network of spatially and temporally related things and incidents, we can never be sure of producing an individuating description of a single particular item, for we can never rule out the possibility of another exactly similar network. To experience this theoretical anxiety is to overlook the fact that we, the speakers, the users of the dating and placing systems, have our own place in that system and know that place; that we ourselves, therefore, and our own immediate environment, provide a point of reference which individuates the network and hence helps to individuate the particulars located in the network." (p.30)

Also, he says that another error is to suppose that 'here' and 'now' and 'this' and all such utterance-centered words "refer to something private and personal to each individual user of them." Those sceptics think that "there are as many networks, as many worlds, as there are persons. Such philosophers deprive themselves of a public point of reference by making the point of reference private. They are unable to admit that we are in the system because they think that the system is within us; or rather, that each has his own system within him... 'here' and 'now' and 'I' and 'you' are words of our common language, which each can use to indicate, or help to indicate, to another, who is with him, what he is talking about." (p.30)


2. Reidentification


He now investigates the notion of reidentification which he believes is indispensable for the certain unity of the framework. "The system is unified in this sense. Of things of which it makes sense to inquire about the spatial position, we think it always significant not only to ask how any two such things are spatially related at any one time, the same for each, but also to inquire about the spatial relations of any one thing at any moment of its history to any other thing at any moment of its history, when the moments may be different." (p.31)


But how do we do this? "[We] must have criteria or methods of identifying a particular encountered on one occasion, or described in respect of one occasion, as the same individual as a particular on another occasion, or described in respect of another occasion. For the sake of terminological clarity we may, when necessary, distinguish between referential, or speaker-hearer, identification on the one hand, and reidentification on the other." (p.31)


On p.32, he asks (again) "Why are criteria of reidentification necessary to our operating the scheme of a single unified spatio-temporal framework for referential identification?"

One way of seeing this is, according to him, the following. "Evidently we can sometimes referentially identify a member of the spatio-temporal framework by giving, or being given, its position relative to others. No less evidently we cannot make the identification of every element in the system in this way relative to that of other elements. An immediate answer is that we have no need to, because we can identify some elements by different location. But this answer, by itself, is insufficient. For we do not use a different scheme, a different framework, on each occasion. It is the essence of the matter that we use the same framework on different occasions. We must not only identify some elements in a non-relative way, we must identify them as just the elements they are of a single continuously usable system of elements. For the occasions of reference themselves have different places in the single system of reference. We cannot attach one occasion to another unless, from occasion to occasion, we can reidentify elements common to different occasions."


Whatever the level of clarity he achieves in the above explanation, he goes on next to place an important constraint on our methods/criteria of reidentification, namely, that "they must allow for the facts that we cannot at any moment observe the whole of the spatial framework we use, that there is no part of it that we can observe continuously, and that we ourselves do not occupy a fixed position within it. . . . there is no quesiton of continuous and comprehensive attention to . . .  Whatever our account may be, it must allow for discontinuities and limits of our observaton." (p.32-33)


But allowing for the possibility of un-observed change may seem to be open to a Humean-attack. So he observes that we are in a dilemma. "But now it might seem that if we do in fact lean thus heavily on such recurrences, then either we are driven to scepticism about particular-identity or the whole distinction between qualitative and numerical identity comes into question, except when it applies to what falls within the field of an uninterrupted stretch of observation." (p.33) [At this point, during the presentation, I drew the diagram from p.33 on the white board where the top left figure and the bottom right one are identical in shape and the top left one is positioned above a circle and left of a parallelogram. Thus, the top left figure=the bottom right figure would express qualitative identity whilst the top left figure=the figure above a circle and left of a parallelogram would express numerical identity. ]  


So, the critic is charging him for blurring the numerical-qualitative distinction. But he counterattacks using the diagram on page33 to illustrate. "[We] have a simple case of using 'the same' to speak of qualitative identity. Where we say 'the same' of what is not continuously observed, we think we can as clearly make just this same distinction. But can we? Since spatio-temporally continuous existence is, by hypothesis, observed neither in the case where we are inclined to speak of qualitative identity nor in the case where we are inclined to speak of numerical identity, by what right do we suppose that there is a fundamental difference between these cases, or that there is just the difference? There are differences, certainly; but they are just differences in the ways in which observation-situations or scenes resemble and differ from one another; or in the ways in which certain features of observation-situations or scenes resemble one another and differ from one another. To take a Hume-like position, we might say: these differences suggest to us an unobserved continuity in one set of cases and its absence in another set, make us perhaps imagine this; and thus we are led to confuse these differences with the difference between numerical and qualitative identity. But really all we have, in the case of non-continuous observation, is different kinds of qualitative identity. If we ever mean more than this in talking of identity, in cases of non-continuous observation, then we cannot be sure of identity; if we can be sure of identity, then we cannot mean more than this." (p.34)


On p.35, he drives his point by showing how absurd the sceptic's scenario will turn out. "Now I say that a condition of our having this conceptual scheme is the unquestioning acceptance of particular-identity in at least some cases of non-continuous observation. Let us suppose for a moment that we were never willing to ascribe particular-identity in such cases. Then we should, as it were, have the idea of a new, a different, spatial system for each new continuous stretch of observation.  Each new system would be wholly independent of every other. There would be no question of doubt about the identity of an item in one system with an item in another. For such a doubt makes sense only if the two systems are not independent, if they are parts, in some way related, of a single system which includes them both. But the condition of having such a system is precisely the condition that there should be satisfiable and commonly satisfied criteria for the identity of at least some items in one sub-system with some items in the other. This gives us a more profound characterization of the sceptic's position. He pretends to accept a conceptual scheme, but at the same time quietly rejects one of the conditions of its employment." (p35)



In this subsection he considers one complication due to mutual dependence between things and places where they are at. "[On] the one hand places are defined only by the relations of things; and, on the other, one of the requirements for the identity of a material thing is that its existence, as well as being continuous in time, should be continuous in space. That is to say, for many kinds of thing, it counts against saying that a thing, x, at one place at one time is the same as a thing, y, at another place at another time, if we think there is not some continuous set of places between these two places such that x was at each successive member of this set of places at sucessive times between these two times and y was at the same memeber of the set of places at the same time." (P.37)

But he says that such worries are misplaced. "There is no mystery about this mutual dependence. To exhibit its detail is simply to describe the criteria by which we criticize, amend and extend our ascription of identity to things and places." (p.37)

And he explains one such detail. "If some, but not all, members of such a set have changed their relative positions, then we may say of some that they are in different places and of some that they are in the same place. Of which we shall say which, depends on our selection of certain members of the set as constituting a dominant framework for the set as a whole. This selection need in no way depend, though it may depend, on our surreptitiously thinking outside the limits of the set. On the whole, we shall select those elements of the set, if any, which can be thought of as containing or supporting the remainder, or on which the set can be thought of as centred. We do not change these criteria, but merely enlarge their application, when we consider the place of the set itself, or of things in it, in relation to other things or sets of things." (P.37)