Geach and Relative Identity


The Theory of Relative Identity is a logical innovation due to Peter Thomas Geach  (P.T. Geach-Logic Matters) motivated by the same sort of mathematical examples as Frege’s definition by abstraction. Like Frege Geach seeks to give a logical sense to mathematical talk “up to” a given equivalence E through replacing E by identity but unlike Frege he purports, in doing so, to avoid the introduction of new abstract objects (which in his view causes unnecessary ontological inflation). The price for the ontological parsimony is Geach’s repudiation of Frege’s principle of a unique and absolute identity for the objects in the domain over which quantified variables range. According to Geach things can be same in one way while differing in others. For example two printed letters aa are same as a type but different as tokens. In Geach’s view this distinction does not commit us to a-tokens and a-types as entities but presents two different ways of describing the same reality. The unspecified (or “absolute” in Geach’s terminology) notion of identity so important for Frege is in Geach’s view is incoherent.

Geach’s proposal appears to account better for the way the notion of identity is employed in mathematics since it does not invoke “directions” or other mathematically redundant concepts. It captures particularly well the way the notion of identity is understood in Category theory. According to Baez & Dolan

In a category, two objects can be “the same in a way” while still being different.

So in Category theory the notion of identity is relative in exactly Geach’s sense. But from the logical point of view the notion of relative identity remains highly controversial. Let x,y be identical in one way but not in another, or in symbols: Id(x,y) & ¬Id'(x,y). The intended interpretation assumes that x in the left part of the formula and x in the right part have the same referent, where this last same apparently expresses absolute not relative identity. So talk of relative identity arguably smuggles in the usual absolute notion of identity anyway. If so, there seems good reason to take a standard line and reserve the term “identity” for absolute identity.

We see that Plato, Frege and Geach propose three different views of identity in mathematics. Plato notes that the sense of “the same” as applied to mathematical objects and to the ideas is different: properly speaking, sameness (identity) applies only to ideas while in mathematics sameness means equality or some other equivalence relation. Although Plato certainly recognizes essential links between mathematical objects and Ideas (recall the “ideal numbers”) he keeps the two domains apart. Unlike Plato Frege supposes that identity is a purely logical and domain-independent notion, which mathematicians must rely upon in order to talk about the sameness or difference of mathematical objects, or any other kind at all. Geach’s proposal has the opposite aim: to provide a logical justification for the way of thinking about the (relativized) notions of sameness and difference which he takes to be usual in mathematical contexts and then extend it to contexts outside mathematics (As Geach says):

Any equivalence relation … can be used to specify a criterion of relative identity. The procedure is common enough in mathematics: e.g. there is a certain equivalence relation between ordered pairs of integers by virtue of which we may say that x and y though distinct ordered pairs, are one and the same rational number. The absolute identity theorist regards this procedure as unrigorous but on a relative identity view it is fully rigorous.


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