Stephan Blatti breaks down the general state of the problem of material constitution for us in his article “Material Constitution.” On an intuitive level, the basic dilemma of material constitution is something like this. On the one hand, when we see a stop sign, we generally don’t think of the stop sign being something different from the material from which it is made: “the object just is its constitutive matter” (149). On the other hand, when we think of thieves melting down stolen copper pipes, we generally say that the copper from which it is made survives the melting process but the pipes do not. This suggests a different conclusion than the street sign example: “material constitution is not identity” (ibid). The basic problematic is how we should understand the way that matter constitutes material objects. To further elaborate upon this problem Blatti then goes on to further explain this basic problematic in two famous problems: that of the clay statue and that of Tibbles the cat.
The clay statue problem asks whether or not a lump of clay (called ‘Lump’) and the statue (called ‘Statue’) that an artist fashions out of it are “one and the same thing” (150). The artist starts with Lump in the morning, sculpts Statue by the afternoon, but, because she is dissatisfied with Statue, crushes Statue in the evening. In the afternoon, Statue shares all of the same physical properties with Lump (weight, shape, height, location, etc.), thereby suggesting that they are identical. However, clearly Lump and Statue do not share all their properties : Lump has the properties of being in the morning/evening, while Statue does not. Again, this problem asks us to consider the relationship between the matter that constitutes a material object and the object itself.
The Tibbles the cat problem asks us to consider Tibbles as the whole cat and Tib as the very same cat, minus the tail. The referents of the names are not the same, because they do not share the same properties: at least with regard to the tail, Tibbles has it, while Tib does not. But consider what happens when Tibbles accidentally loses its tail. Tib survives, but what happens to Tibbles? Either he survives or not. If he does, then the accident results in two completely distinct, tailless cats. There are two problems here. First, it is strange that the destruction of a part of a whole would result in the creation of a second whole of the same kind. Second, the apparent impossibility of two distinct objects occupying the same space implies that Tibbles does not survive the accident. If he does not survive the accident then we are left with a bizarre consequence: that things (such as our own persons) do not survive the loss of non-essential parts (finger-clippings and cut hair).
After this introduction, Blatti goes on to consider four prominent responses to the problem of material constitution: the orthodox or coincident of objects view, the Dominant kinds view, the Nihilism view, and the Revising the Logic of Identity view. I will be recapping these positions in following posts. But before signing off, I would like to mention that Blatti, on his own admission, leaves an important and interesting position out of his article, which he calls the four dimensionalism viewpoint (fn. 6, p. 165). Because this view challenges standard views on many ontological points, Blatti decided to leave it aside and concentrate on the more conventional approaches. While four dimensionalism takes time into consideration and thereby does not think that material objects are “wholly present at every moment at which they exist,” the standard ‘three dimensionalist’ view operates under the assumption that material objects “are wholly present at every moment that they exist” (ibid). Although Blatti’s own scholarly references are quite different (D.K. Lewis, Quine, and T. Sider), we might here recognize a point of intervention for those interested in the Heideggerian destruction of the metaphysics of presence. I will keep this potential intervention in mind in the future posts in this series and perhaps address four dimensionalism in later posts in comparison with phenomenological approaches to the temporality of material objects.
 Blatti, Stephen. “Material Constitution.” In Manson & Barnard, The Continuum Companion to Metaphysics (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012, pp. 149-169).
Picture Credit: Dai Roberts