Continuity, Essence, Sex-change and Other Changes

In my metaphysics class today we were discussing Aristotle and I was explaining the idea of accidental and essential changes. One student asked, “what if something has two distinct functions, could the same change be accidental with regard to one function and essential with regard to the other?”

First, I applauded the student for creative thinking (see this post.) Then, taking off from this I gave the example of a wheeled office chair that was used by children as a continuing prop in a game of monster: the chair played the role of the monster, and they would run from it, sneak up on it, roll it towards each other and scream, etc.

A cigarette is accidentally dropped on the seat of the chair, and the seat burns away, but the rest of the chair is largely unharmed. It can no longer be used as a chair, so there’s been an essential change: in a sense, it’s no longer a chair. But it’s only an accidental change in its role as monster. It still rolls and it looks enough the same that it can still serve its role

So it’s had an accidental change on one interpretation of the object, and an essential change on another. It’d be easy enough to think of other cases like this. There’s a kitchen knife that I use as a screwdriver. It’s tip breaks off so that it will no longer fit into a screw slot, but it’s still a perfectly good kitchen knife. I have a TV/radio. The screen burns out, so it’s essentially not a TV anymore, but the speakers still work so it’s a perfectly good radio (note to young people: there used to be these objects that were combination TV/radios). Or, it’s still a perfectly good TV for my blind roommate, but I no longer get much pleasure out of it as a tv. So it’s essentially not a sighted person’s TV, but it has undergone no essential change for a blind person.

I was thinking this is similar to the question of continuity of identity. Sometimes we need to know the specific function for which the continuity question is being asked.

The example that came to me was a sex change operation. Joe is married to Keisha. Joe gets a sex change and becomes Josephine. Josephine is still liable for Joe’s crimes and debts, but Keisha could quite rightly say “Josephine is not the man I married!” This is doubly true: Josephine is not in fact a man. For Keisha’s purposes, Joe has undergone an essential change and ceased to be, because it was essential for Keisha that Joe be a man. Joe the man is gone. And as a result, Keisha is within her rights to say, “I am not married to that person! [actually, in some parts of the U.S., the sex change does nullify the marriage, though Keisha could say this anywhere, and could probably get the marriage annulled] That person is not Joe!” There some elision here between “man” and “person,” but from Keisha’s perspective, part of the essence of the person she married was that he was a man. In changing that, Joe/Josephine changed an essential characteristic of the person Keisha loved.

Of course, from Josephine’s perspective, it’s probably the case that she now better embodies an internal essence that she always felt. I think there’s a lot to be said about that: that Josephine’s new bodily form is a better expression of her self than her old form.

So this may require some teasing apart of  “person,” “self,” and “man.” But at the same time, I think it’s not unfair to say, without providing technical and stipulative definitions of these terms, that Keisha is not wrong when she says, “that’s not the person I married,” and Josephine is not wrong when she says, “I’m the same person I always was,” they’re just interested in different senses of continuity of identity. For Keisha, Joe’s identity included being a man. For Joe, it did not. And we can’t simply say that Joe is right because it’s his identity; sometimes we have to accept, as in criminal law, that our sense of ourselves is not the key to who we are. I might think myself a hero for having shot someone, but if the law finds that I’m a criminal, my point of view may not matter (I can be delusional, or have a very different ethical perspective than the law, etc.).

Again, this comes back to first- and third-person accounts of identity, and I want to give some weight to social identity, or identity-in-relation to others. And I definitely want to give weight to the spouse who says, “that’s not the person I married,” in this case and in many other cases not involving anything like a sex-change, but rather strong shifts in values or personality, because someone’s personhood can change in ways so radical that we cease to accept them as the same, and this can be a justified move.


6 responses to “Continuity, Essence, Sex-change and Other Changes

  1. The chair has made a natural progression to the class of items that is “ex-chairs.” This is also part of the essence of chairs—temporariness—as they all, bless them, eventually lose their sit-ability and become ex-chairs.
    The idea that essence is eternal (and essence is practical) can really only work for abstract concepts, not real things.

    As for Keisha and Jo, well that is a special case, as it is swept up in the bigger bonfire raging over the definition of marriage. When one person marries another, they should expect them to change. Sorry.
    Imagine Joe had been amputated from the waist down, could Keisha (or the courts) still annul the marriage? In both instances, Joe lost his “manhood”.

  2. I think you’re using “essence” differently than Aristotle. An essential change is one that causes a thing to cease to be that thing. So the chair undergoes an essential change when it ceases to be a chair. I suppose it’s an ex-chair, but that’s essentially different from a chair. This is part of the distinction between essential and accidental changes. Aristotle’s example in the metaphysics is basically: Dye your hair, that’s an accidental change. Die in a fire, that’s an essential change. None of this is to claim that essence is eternal (I’m not sure where you got that.) The point is that when the essential change happens, the thing is some other thing.

    I agree that Keisha should expect Joe to change. Some changes, though, undermine the continuity of the marriage. I think she’s justified in bailing on him when he changes sex.

    There’s a pretty big difference between Joe suffering an injury and Joe deciding to become a woman. I can’t see those as so simply analogous, nor do I think a woman is simply a man without a penis, nor do I think that Joe ceases to be a man when he loses his penis. There’s a bigger change at play here. Maybe, ethically, Keisha should stay with Josephine (I don’t think so) but I don’t want to deny her the right to say that he’s changed so much that he’s not the man she married.

  3. To answer your first parenthesis:
    When you talk of continuity and essence – as you do in this blog – I consider you have asserted that there’s a temporal dimension to essence. Given that assumption, I assert that all Chairs also have within them the capacity, the expectation–the thanatos, even–of becoming Ex-chairs. In the same way that the essence of Lightening is (among its other attributes) that it seeks ground and disappears.
    Many changes undermine the continuity of marriage. I don’t think any but death should allow an automatic annulment of marriage. Pursuing that thought clarifies my personal belief that the only “essential” change in a human is death… everything else is just a manner of speaking.
    Thanks for the opportunity to think about it!

  4. In short, yes I get that when essential change happens, the thing is some other thing. My point is that a Thing contains, as part of its essence, the certainty it will change

  5. Ah,ok, we’re definitely using “essence” differently. If someone somehow made an eternal chair, it would still essentially be a chair. While it’s true that all chairs (that I know of!) are temporally limited, that’s not a part of the definition of chair, and the Aristotelian sense of “essence” is “what corresponds to the definition of a thing.” So eternal chairs are fine, though I imagine impossible.

    I agree that death is the change that automatically annuls marriage (there might be others I haven’t thought of, but that’s the only one that comes to mind). I just think a woman is in her right to seek an annulment on many other grounds, and I don’t want to undermine her position in claiming the person she married is gone.

    Which leads to the distinction between “person” and “human being.” This is common in the literature: the human being ends at death, but the person can end at, for example, brain death.

    I’m also slow to claim that other claims about changes are just “manners of speaking,” I think they represent important human concerns, and I’m not convinced that there’s one true, absolute metaphysical perspective on the question of personal change that is not a “manner of speaking” but reflect the real nature of the universe, or some such. Rather, I think the various manners of speaking, if you will, offer opportunities to see why we’ve drawn categories the way we have, and to relate our ontologies to what we care about.

  6. Ah, I get what you’re saying: “Essence” corresponds to the Definition of a thing. A Definition is a shared understanding accepted by a group. (Like the groups of children and office-workers.) One group cannot impose their definition on the other. But, as in the case of the judiciary, they often have to.
    In answer to that, I would say, we abdicate our personal right to define the essence of something when we participate in a democratic society. Instead, we vote for who we wish to make the definition. Then we should abide by it.

    Meantime, I’m going to hold out on the first issue:
    While “temporally limited” is not _explicitly_ part of the definition of chair, I would argue that “being a thing” is part of the definition of chair, and “temporally limited” is part of the definition of “a thing.” (Even your eternal chair will be destroyed when the sun turns into a black hole.)

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