In this complex, challenging but highly engaging study of analytic metaphysics, Lynne Rudder Baker outlines both her theory of metaphysics and how it relates to her theory of persons. Her metaphysical theory – called the constitution view – proceeds from the idea that the objects with which people are surrounded are meaningful from a metaphysical point of view. Put simply, the constitution view is best defined as ‘a relationship that may hold between granite slabs and war memorials, between pieces of metal and traffic signs, between DNA molecules and genes, between pieces of paper and dollar bills -- things of basically different kinds that are spatially coincident.’ (32) Familiar objects are constituted objects and, are in turn, made up by particles but are not reducible to those particles (a point made by others who work on this branch of analytic metaphysics). Thus, the constitution view is a theory of unity but not identity – which raises some problems explored at length within the book. What is perhaps most striking about the constitution view is Baker’s commitment to ensuring that philosophical debate does not become disconnected from ordinary, non-philosophical life. All of this depends upon a practical realism (drawn from the tradition of American pragmatism) which holds that manifest objects are irreducibly real and that the best starting place for considering the metaphysical and ontological significance of objects is best approached through common-sense and pragmatic language use and scientific technique. Whilst engaging, Baker’s fondness for the diagrams and formula which are the stylistic marker of analytic philosophy may prove to make this book something of a slog for readers outside of analytic philosophy or more used to other kinds of academic humanities writing.
That said, the commitment to taking seriously and treating as valuable the day to day objects with which we are surrounded helps to ensure that the argument never completely vanishes into the abstract. A good example of this is Baker’s theory of persons, which she takes to be constituted by human organisms. A human baby is, somewhat surprisingly, taken to be a person, not simply an organism on the grounds that the rudimentary first-person perspective that babies have will develop into a robust first-person perspective. (There is a potentially interesting gap in the argument here regarding capacity, but Baker does not address it here). Her theory is both naturalistic in that it is entirely in keeping with biological and scientific knowledge whilst at the same time respecting the ontological uniqueness of each individual, for, as Baker puts it, human beings ‘are wholly natural, yet ontologically distinctive.’ (87) Whilst a challenging read, there is a profound respect for the individual that runs throughout the lectures, ensuring that Baker’s contribution to descriptive metaphysics remain a fascinating way of understanding the philosophical significance of the world around us.