Metaphysics is the area of philosophy that is concerned with investigating how the world really is, not just what we experience or believe. In his system of logic, Aristotle drew a distinction between essential properties and accidental properties of an object or individual. When we put ourselves in the world of this poem, we are even challenged to wonder what it would really mean to be able to change our species at will, and what is it about ourselves that makes us truly human. If something is essential to my identity as a human being, then without that property (i.e. characteristic or quality), I would not be human. If something is an accidental property, it just happens to be true, but does not need to be true. Accidental properties often change over time, while essential properties tend to remain the same. For instance, I identify as a female adult, so “woman” is relatively essential to who I am. Another commonly-accepted essential property (though this has all been contested) is parentage. If I had been conceived and born from different parents, many people would say I would actually be a different person, as both my DNA and full set of life experiences would be different. On the other hand, clothing is generally considered an accidental property. Today I am wearing a black scarf. If you were to point me out in a room, you might use that property to identify me: “Hey, do you see that woman wearing the black scarf?” However, when I take off the scarf this evening, I will not change who I am. Therefore “woman” is an essential property of my identity, but “wearing a black scarf” is accidental. Unfortunately, the distinction is not always so clear. What about properties like “lives in California” or “has three sisters?” We can all imagine ourselves living in different places or with different families, and since we say “ourselves,” there seems to be some intuition that we would be the same people. However, if our experiences shape our identity, some philosophers argue that we would actually be different people. So where does this line get drawn? My favourite humorous illustration of how this distinction can easily get muddled comes from the popular joke that starts with a riddle: “What is red, hangs on a wall, and whistles?”
“I give up,” says Jim.
“A herring!” says John.
“But – a herring isn’t red!” “So you paint it red.” “But – a herring doesn’t hang on a wall!”
“You could nail it to the wall.”
“But – “ Jim sputters in disbelief. “A herring doesn’t whistle!” John shrugs, smiles, and says, “Okay, so it doesn’t whistle.”
The joke makes a point by taking accidental properties to extremes. You could certainly paint a fish and still call her a fish, and even nail her to the wall (however gruesome the image might be), while still acknowledging her fishness. At a certain point, though, if we imagine too many absurdities, we will have lost something of what it means to be a fish. In the Inuit poem “Magic Words,” the question of what it means to be a different kind of animal is broached in a more ethereal way, opening the door for children to open their minds to new ways of categorizing.
Another area of metaphysics that is touched on in many of the poems discussed here is the nature of time. How do we measure time? Is it a “real” thing, separate from human consciousness, or is it just something that we’ve made up to help conceptualize our experiences? Some people have argued that time is a separate dimension, while others have argued that it is just arbitrary units of measurement.
I was originally introduced to the concept of accidental and essential properties and the corresponding silly story while pleasure reading during high school, in Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein’s Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. (See the Resources section for my discussion of this delightful book.) For further background, refer to Teresa Robertson and Philip Atkins’ SEP article, “Essential vs. Accidental Properties,” Louis F. Groarke’s IEP article on Aristotelian Logic, and William G. Lycan’s Philosophy of Language (Routledge, 2000) on definite descriptions and identity statements. For further discussion on essential and accidental properties of objects and individuals, Tom Wartenberg’s The Important Book module is a great resource.