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Material Beings Paperback – November 16, 1995

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Editorial Reviews


"A fascinating, densely argued, and highly original book on the metaphysics of material objects. The objections van Inwagen raises to the standard views on material parthood are not easily answered. Moreover, his examination of the topic of personal identity is a significant contribution to the philosophy of the mind."―Philosophical Review

"Commonplace things such as hawks and handsaws pose philosophical problems at least as imposing as those presented by abstract objects such as numbers and divine beings. Van Inwagen argues vigorously for the view that our world contains . . . only living organisms, the activity of whose various parts constitute a life and against psychological accounts of personal identity. This gives only a rough idea of the contents of this rich and rewarding book."―Review of Metaphysics

"There is much to bee learned from this book. . . . Material Beings is a refreshing example of straight-on, full-speed metaphysics. Van Inwagen goes where his arguments lead him―and they lead him to some remarkable places indeed."―Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

From the Back Cover

The topic of this book is material objects. Like most interesting concepts, the concept of a material object is one without precise boundaries. A thing is a material object if it occupies space and endures through time and can move about in space (literally move about, unlike a shadow or a wave or a reflection) and has a surface, and has a mass and is made of a certain stuff or stuffs.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (November 16, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801483069
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801483066
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #761,483 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Peter van Inwagen's _Material Beings_ is an excellent book. Van Inwagen defends with great skill and cogency the contention that the only real material beings are physical simples on the one hand, and living organisms on the other. There is much to be learned from this book, whether one ultimately accepts its conclusions or not. And as an example of sustained philosophical argumentation, it is exemplary: the writing is lucid; the overall dialectical state of play is kept constantly in view; and there is plenty of ongoing give-and-take with potential objectors who are never mere straw persons." -Terence Horgan, from "On What There Isn't", _Philosophy and Phenomenological Research_ LIII (1993): p. 693

My sentiments exactly. Peter van Inwagen is probably my favorite living philosopher besides Kripke, and the quality of this book is representative of the reasons why. It would be hard to overstate the respect I have for van Inwagen's clarity, logical rigor, and unwillingness to overextend one's case to contingent matters. This book should be read as a case study for how to present a philosophically important case.

In _Material Beings_, van Inwagen, with brilliantly straightforward chutzpah, simply asks what it takes for simples to compose a whole, over and above a collection of simples. He surveys various options, and finds the single answer to be: if and only if such simples are caught up in the life of an organism. The result is that there are no other ordinary objects: just aggregates of physical simples. A crucial hinge along the way is van Inwagen's contention that the Denial, as he calls it, does not contradict ordinary beliefs.
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Any man who believes in the existence of angels but does not believe in the existence of chairs has a lot of explaining to do. Van Imwagen takes the position that only living creatures and elementary particles exist. He is aware that this position would seem nonsensical to the non-philsopher (and to many philsophers as well), but he adduces many sophisticated arguments and considerations in favor of this "radical thesis." No one would accuse a philosopher of being deliberately provocative just so he can sell books -- the market for technical philsophy is far too small for that. But I would suggest that van Imwagen's theory is (a) stated much more radicaly than he needs to state it; and (b) provides an inadvertent primer in why people like Wittgenstein object to philosophical theories generally.

Van Imwgen's less problematically-stated point is that inanimate objects have vague boundaries, that it is impossible to state the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of composite inanimate objects, that the determination of whether a composite inanimate object is really a "something" rather than an arbitrary convention is impossible, and that these facts make it impossible to see such objects as part of the ultimate furniture of the world are both defensible and rather familiar. Cf Democritus' "Hot and Cold exist by convention. Nothing exists in [ultimate] reality but atoms and the void."

But to draw from these observations the conclusiuon that such objects do not exist at all seems excessive and Clintonian: it all depends upon what the meaning of "is" is. Jonathan Barnes once caricatured the type of argument which held that a composite is ipso faco unreal by parodying it thus: "Grass is green in view of such-and-such a subatomic structure.
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