In This Article Material Constitution

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Reference Works
  • Relative and Temporary Identity
  • Persons and Bodies

Philosophy Material Constitution
Daniel Z. Korman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0386


Material constitution is a relation that obtains between two material objects when one is made up of the other, as when a statue is made up of a lump of clay or a coin is made up of a piece of copper. (Constitution is often contrasted with composition, a relation obtaining between one object and a plurality of objects that are the parts of that object.) Much of the philosophical interest in constitution involves the question of whether the constituted object is identical to the object that constitutes it. Monists say that they are identical, often citing the fact that the objects coincide spatially and/or mereologically. Pluralists say that they are (numerically) distinct, often citing differences in their modal or temporal properties. Since there are powerful reasons for accepting each of these views, the issue is sometimes framed as the “puzzle,” “paradox,” or “problem” of material constitution.

Overviews and Reference Works

Rea 1997 is an excellent collection of contemporary classics from the literature. For overviews of the problem of material constitution and possible responses, see Hawley 2001 (cited under Stage Theory and Temporal Counterpart Theory), Sider 2001 (cited under Stage Theory and Temporal Counterpart Theory), Paul 2010, and Wasserman 2017. See Rea 1995 for an attempt to unify different versions of the problem of material constitution. See Hirsch 2005 and Bennett 2009 on meta-ontological reactions to the problem. See Baker 2007 for general discussion of the nature of the constitution relation.

  • Baker, Lynne Rudder. The Metaphysics of Everyday Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511487545E-mail Citation »

    Provides a defense of pluralism as well as general discussion of the nature of the constitution relation.

  • Bennett, Karen. “Composition, Colocation, and Metaontology.” In Metametaphysics. Edited by David Chalmers, David Manley, and Ryan Wasserman, 38–76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Addresses the question of whether the dispute between monists and pluralists is somehow defective. Bennett criticizes views on which the dispute is merely verbal and defends an “epistemicist” thesis on which one cannot be justified in accepting either monism or pluralism, insofar as prominent defenses of these views end up minimizing the differences between them.

  • Hirsch, Eli. “Physical-Object Ontology, Verbal Disputes, and Common Sense.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70 (2005): 67–97.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2005.tb00506.xE-mail Citation »

    Argues that disputes about composition and coincidence and merely verbal.

  • Paul, L. A. “The Puzzles of Material Constitution.” Philosophy Compass 5 (2010): 579–590.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2010.00302.xE-mail Citation »

    Enumerates a number of problems that arise for pluralist accounts of material constitution—some familiar (e.g., the grounding problem) and others that are less widely discussed (e.g., accounting for the asymmetry of the constitution relation).

  • Rea, Michael C. “The Problem of Material Constitution.” Philosophical Review 104 (1995): 525–552.

    DOI: 10.2307/2185816E-mail Citation »

    Discusses a variety of puzzles of material constitution—including the puzzle of the statue and clay, the Dion/Theon puzzle (a.k.a. the Body-Minus puzzle), the Ship of Theseus puzzle, and the paradox of increase—with the aim of showing that they have a common structure and providing a taxonomy of possible solutions.

  • Rea, Michael C. Material Constitution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    An anthology that includes many of the now-classic 20th-century discussions of material constitution. The introduction to the volume is especially illuminating, covering some of the same ground as Rea 1995 in a more condensed form.

  • Wasserman, Ryan. “Material Constitution.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2018 ed. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2017.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides an overview of the different solutions to the problem of material constitution, with extensive citations.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.