Sydney Shoemaker is the Susan Linn Sage Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Cornell University. Before joining the Philosophy Department at Cornell in 1961, he taught at Ohio State University and he held the Santayana Fellowship at Harvard University. He also delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University (1972) on “Mind and Behavior” and the Royce Lectures at Brown University (1993) on “Self-Knowledge” and “Inner Sense.”
He has pioneered work in a variety of areas in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, particularly on the nature of mind, the nature of the self and of self-knowledge, and the nature of properties. Some of the most important of his contributions in these areas are charted in this entry.
Shoemaker’s work on the topic of the self and selfknowledge is informed by a rejection of the Cartesian notion of an immaterial self and the accompanying view that self-knowledge involves a kind of “inner observation” of the contents of one’s mind that is perception-like in certain characteristic ways.
|John Locke Lectures|
The nature of the self and self-knowledge forms the subject matter of his seminal Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity (1963). In this work Shoemaker conducts a sustained attack on the Cartesian view that the unity of the self, or personal identity, is due to or involves an immaterial unity.
Shoemaker argues, against this, that personal identity involves both physical factors concerning persons’ bodies and psychological factors concerning their memories and that although the primary criterion for such identity is bodily identity, a memory criterion is also applicable.
His arguments make use of a distinctive methodological strategy that has come to be known as “the method of cases” (Johnston 1987), involving the use of thought experiments to determine answers to questions about personal identity (a method that John Locke  used in his discussion of personal identity).
Shoemaker’s examples and the style of argumentation in this work have been highly influential in discussions of personal identity. His views in this area are further developed in later work, such as his “Persons and Their Pasts” (1970), Personal Identity (1984; with Richard Swinburne), The First-Person Perspective and Other Essays (1996), and the Royce Lectures, where he revisits another important theme found in Self-Knowledge and Self Identity: the Cartesian, “inner sense” view of selfknowledge.
In these lectures he argues that if self-knowledge were perception-like, and the object of such knowledge were the self, it would be possible to err in one’s attempt to identify oneself, just as it is possible to err in one’s attempt to identify the objects of ordinary perception. However, he claims, it is not possible to misidentify oneself in this way.
He also argues that the “inner sense” model of self-knowledge, being a perceptual one, requires commitment to two conditions that are essential to a “broad” perceptual model, a causal condition and an independence condition, but that knowledge of one’s own mental states does not meet these conditions. His own view is that self-knowledge is not based on evidence of any kind, whether this be from “outer” behavioral facts or from “inner” ones, as the perceptual model encourages one to suppose.
Shoemaker’s arguments involve an appeal to a particular view of the nature of mind known as functionalism, a view that he has developed and defended extensively in several works, notably in “Functionalism and Qualia” (1975), “Some Varieties of Functionalism” (1981a), “Absent Qualia Are Impossible” (1981b), and “The Inverted Spectrum” (1981c).
Functionalism in the philosophy of mind is, broadly construed, the doctrine that mental-state types or kinds can be exhaustively characterized and uniquely individuated by their functional properties—by the relations that they are apt to bear to certain characteristic kinds of physical stimuli, other mental states, and behavioral responses. Shoemaker (1981b, 1981c) defends this doctrine against two major objections, known as the inverted qualia and absent qualia objections.
The inverted qualia objection supposes that two states—say, perceptual experiences—might vary in their visual qualia (one being reddish, perhaps, while the other is greenish) yet remain invariant with respect to their functional roles. Shoemaker agrees but argues that this possibility is compatible with the truth of functionalism.
The absent qualia objection goes further and supposes that two states could be functionally identical yet differ to the extent that one has qualitative content while the other lacks it altogether. Shoemaker concedes that if this were a genuine possibility, it would show that functionalism is false, but it is not a genuine possibility.
A third area in which Shoemaker has done pioneering work, connected with his functionalist view of the nature of mind, concerns the nature of properties. In the case of mental states Shoemaker argues that their nature is causal-functional.
In the case of properties Shoemaker is an advocate of what is known as the causal theory of properties (Armstrong 2000), a view championed in his influential “Causality and Properties” (1980). According to it, properties have causal powers essentially, rather than accidentally, in that it is in the nature of properties to bestow causal capacities on their instances or exemplifications.
|Causality and Properties|
So, for example, it is in the nature of the property, pain, to confer on its instances, individual pains, the capacity to cause their subjects to believe that they are in pain, to wince, and so on. The view contrasts with a “categoricalist” one, which takes properties to be contingently, rather than essentially, related to the capacities they bestow on their instances.
Although some have construed Shoemaker as holding the view that properties just are dispositions (rather than the weaker view that properties are essentially dispositional), which is a controversial and difficult view to defend, this is a mistake. Shoemaker argues that, strictly speaking, the dispositional/nondispositional distinction only applies to linguistic items, specifically, to predicates such as soluble, fragile, round, and so on.
Some predicates (e.g., soluble or fragile) are dispositional whereas others (e.g., round or red are not. But all properties bestow causal capacities on their instances, for it is in their nature to do so. So, for example, the property round bestows on its instances in, say, marbles, the capacity to roll into round holes, but not triangular ones.
Shoemaker argues that the identity conditions of properties can be given in terms of such capacities, that is, that properties are identical if and only if they bestow on their instances the same causal capacities or powers and that it follows that the relations that hold between properties are necessary rather than contingent, so that, if laws involve relations between properties, such laws are necessary rather than contingent.