Is name an essential feature or an arbitrary feature?

In philosophy, the debate between the essence and accidents or essential properties and accidental properties is an ongoing one. It can be traced back to Socratic dialogues with Socrates seeking to find the essence of Justice or beauty through the method of dialectical enquiry.

One of the distinctions between essential and accidental properties stated on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is as it is commonly understood in modal terms: an essential property of an object is a property that it must have, while an accidental property of an object is one that it happens to have but that it could lack.  The use of the word ‘must’ signify a necessity, whereas, the use of the word ‘could’ signify a possibility. So an individual must have a human body to be called a human, however, he/she could happen to have red hair or lack it, without shattering one’s claim to be a human.

In humans, there are some essential properties and some accidental properties. Of these, features such as the physical body, rationality, speech, and cognitive features can be said to be essential properties. Of course, we see some exceptions here and there but that’s just what they are. Then there are other features which are truly accidental for every individual such as hair color, eye color, skin color, height, weight, fingerprint pattern, etc. Certainly, some of these features are encoded in our genes and as such can’t be said to be accidental, but they are accidental in the sense that even minor difference in the genes could have made them different. They are not necessary to be human rather they are arbitrary features.

On this line of thought, I propose that even the name of an individual is an accidental or arbitrary feature. It could have been anything else at random. It might seem obvious at first but the difficulty arises when we take into account a person as a general human being versus when we take into account a person as a specific individual. When you think of a man as a prototype of the human species then his name seems to be an arbitrary feature. But when you talk of a specific man, say, Socrates, then his name seems to be an essential feature that belongs to him.

Therefore, the names we give each other or even ourselves are nothing but social constructs. Surely, nature doesn’t give names to different things. We give names to things around us and even ourselves for the sake of having an easier conversation and getting our message across to other people. It would have been impossible to get our message across to someone without common nouns and proper nouns. Imagine telling your friend that “That person owns that thing” when neither that person nor that thing is directly in front of you.  Naming things and people help us refer to particular things in conversations.

Coming back to the names of human beings, we now agree that names are arbitrary but still when a particular person has a particular name then isn’t that carved in stone? You might say Socrates is Socrates, Socrates can’t be anyone else. Well for that matter how about authors with pseudonyms. Surely you would agree that Eric Blair was George Orwell. Ok well, a person might have two names. But what about when people change their legal name, surely after a while everyone adjusts to their new name. So names are not set in stone.

We see it all around us when names of streets, cities, countries are changed, according to the whims of the government in power. People change their names legally for myriad reasons. Names are, therefore, an arbitrary feature. And it seems that nothing is really set in stone, and even if it is, it’s only for a while until it becomes redundant with the tides of time.




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