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Metaphysical Heresies: Beyond Identity and the Individual


Admission requirements

Admission to the following programme is required:

  • MA Philosophy 60 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Knowledge


According to philosophical common sense and tradition, individual objects are the fundamental constituents of the world, and identity is the relation that each individual object bears to itself and no other. Moreover, the notions of identity and the individual object are embedded in classical first-order predicate logic as well as set theory—the fundamental logical and mathematical tools we use to understand the world. It might thus seem that these notions are beyond theoretical reproach.

Nonetheless, unimpeachable uses of both notions have led to seemingly intractable puzzles concerning change and persistence, modal differences in properties, the constitution of objects, and contingent existence. These puzzles have led some philosophers to develop alternative resources such as relative identity (Geach) and contingent identity (Gibbard) to confront these puzzles. But philosophers such as Williamson and Hawthorne have argued that such revisions come at a substantial theoretical cost.

This course will first examine these puzzles and their attempted resolutions, before turning to metaphysical alternatives that reject the classical notions of the individual object and the identity relation.

The course will have three parts:

  • First, we will look at several classical puzzles concerning change, object constitution, and identity, some proposed solutions to these puzzles using vague, contingent, and relative identity, and attacks on these solutions from logical orthodoxy.

  • Second, we will examine a different kind of metaphysical constituent of the world: so-called ‘stuff.’ To gain a preliminary understanding of the notion of stuff, we can contrast two kinds of expressions, count and mass nouns. While count nouns (such as ‘desk’, ‘kitten’, and ‘coffee cup’) purport to refer to individual objects, mass nouns (‘cheese,’ ‘wine,’ ‘matter’) do not. Instead, at least arguably, they refer to stuff. What logical principles govern stuff and how does stuff differ metaphysically from individual objects?

  • Third, we will consider whether the puzzles we have studied can be dissolved by adopting a metaphysics that forgoes individual objects—either in favor of stuff or in favor of nothing at all. Here, we will look at recent literature on ontological nihilism by Hawthorne and Dasgupta.

Course objectives

The course will provide a thorough grounding in contemporary discussions of identity and objecthood, as well as the theoretical costs and benefits of adopting alternative ontologies.

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • the logical features of identity and individual objecthood;

  • the puzzles of change, constitution, and identity, as well as the costs and benefits of different solutions to these puzzles;

  • the distinctive metaphysical questions raised by an ontology that includes stuff;

  • alternatives approaches to constructing a metaphysics that is not based on individual objects.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • clearly and concisely present the benefits and drawbacks of the different approaches we have studied;

  • write an original persuasive essay, informed by the contemporary discussion of these issues, arguing for their preferred approach to these topics.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Assessment method

  • Weekly short writing assignments (20%)

  • Two essays of approximately 2,000 words, worth (40%) each.


The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average of the several subtests (see above).


The resit consists of one examination for both the midterm and final examination, consisting of a written exam (essay) covering the entire course content. The mark for the resit will replace all previously earned marks for the midterm and final exam (80%). No separate resits will be offered for mid- term tests.
Satisfactory completion of weekly assignments is a prerequisite for taking the resit and the grades for weekly assignments remain in place.

Students who have obtained a satisfactory overall grade for the first examination cannot take the resit.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Readings will consist in articles that will be made available as pdfs on Brightspace. Authors considered will include: Geach, Gibbard, Wiggins, Hawthorne, Williamson, Markosian, and Dasgupta.


Enrolment through MyStudymap is mandatory.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc., contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga


Not applicable.