On Essences

I spend my days walking to and fro throughout the internet. One recurring theme that I have seen the last couple days has been a general dismissal, based on ignorance or tomfoolery, of “essentialism”. Everybody dislikes essences. ‘Essence’ is a dirty word in identity politics. It’s a useless relic of by-gone stupidity in biology. It’s the black logical heart of technology/ontotheology/metaphysics, according to Heidegger. Telling someone you believe in essences is liking telling him that you club baby seals because your Martian overlords told you to. It’s exactly this sort of groupthink on the part of bien pensant literary/social/gender theorists and avant garde theologians that makes it self-evidently clear to them that “Essentialism is Dead” (Though it’ll never get a Time cover obit).

Of course, the rumors of its demise have, as usual, been exaggerated. In the analytic philosophical tradition Kripke can reasonably be called an essentialist. Likewise, on the continent, the new pope of post-modernism Gilles Deleuze develops a sort of essentialism in his work.

Now, cover your gasps and stifle your yawns because I want to put forward a definition of essentialism and make a distinction between two varieties of it.

First the definition. An ‘essence’ is a property or collection of properties which pertain (1) universally and (2) necessarily to each member of a particular class of objects. Furthermore the essence (3) unique identifies the class of which it is predicated, separating it from other classes. There might be other properties some thinkers would want to ascribe to essences such as (4) immutability, (5) metaphysical simplicity, or (6) transcendence above the sensible world, but these are more contentious, so we will only assert (1)-(3) for our basic definition of ‘essence’ and leave the demonstration of (4)-(6) for some other time.

The presupposition of this definition is that there really are classes of things. Some things are members of one class of things and other things are not members of that class. If you believe there are such things as trees and that no dogs are trees, that’s all the ontological agreement the essentialist needs you to agree to.

Now I also propose distinction. We should distinguish between a strong essentialism and a weak one.

Weak essentialism is the claim that there exist such things as essences.

Strong essentialism is the claim that everything that exists has an essence.

Now the early Plato is a strong essentialist who believes in (1)-(6), but not everyone who would call himself an essentialist is a Platonist. For instance, Plato himself seems to later object to the idea that the forms are transcendent entities, and Aristotle, too disagrees with this idea. Deleuze would object to (4), I presume.

So that’s what essentialism is. Now, is it true? Well that’s hard to say. Certainly the weak essentialist has a very plausible looking claim. After all, think about prime numbers and logical definitions and so forth. These kinds of entities seem to fulfill (1)-(3) and (4) just because of what they are defined to be.

These last couple days I’ve asked a few anti-essentialists to come up with “arguments” against essentialism and so far none have been forthcoming. So I’ve done a little homework on my own and these seem to be the four most common arguments against essentialism.

1. Essences don’t actually do any work. If you say that “man is a rational animal” this is just a tautology that doesn’t really get you any further in terms of your scientific understanding of humanity.

2. Ordinary Language Philosophy. The approach of ordinary language philosophy is to try to resolve traditional philosophical problems (and the nature of essences is one such problem) by examining the usage of ordinary language. Lo and behold, the problems are taken to dissolve under analysis. According to Wittgenstein, as I understand him, you won’t ever discover an ‘essence’ of cup, just family likenesses of things that are more cuplike and less cuplike but without there being any such thing as cuplikeness itself in virtue of which they are cuplike.

3. Species as natural kinds fail to have immutable essences, as Darwin and the theory of Evolution show us.

4. Essentialism hurts the movement.

I’ll try to spend a little more time when I have it discussing the limitations of these four objections and possibly arguing more strongly for essentialism.

8 Responses to On Essences

  1. haldendoerge says:

    Shane, I’d be most interested in seeing what you would identify as the essence that defines what it means to be human in your future posts about this.

  2. scholasticus says:

    Although I would say that I’m probably something like a weak essentialist and I’m not sure about some of the claims regarding the properties of “essences” such as transcendentality and immutability, and although the concept of human nature is deeply embattled–i think there is something such as human nature.

    One of my sneaky tricks is going to be to show that I think the concept of human nature is vital to the success of something like “Human rights” and thus the worry that essentialism necessarily implies a violence against minority groups is entirely misplaced. If you believe there are such things as universal human rights, you need to ground them in an anthropology that says what it means to be a human. In virtue of what do you have such rights?

    Moreover there is a regulative function to asserting that there exists something such as justice, not a mere play and flow of individual and cultural constructions of justice, but justice itself.

    But this is putting the cart way, way before the horse. To answer shortly, I am still grappling with the ontological issues and haven’t worked my way up to the anthropology yet.

  3. goobynelly says:

    Hi Shane,
    I look forward to your arguments. Not being a particularly well-rounded philosophy major in college, I’m sure I’ll learn much more about the tradition of essentialism here. Is there, for instance, a distinction between those who are agnostic about the existence essences while retaining them as instrumental for knowledge? My intuition (and I plainly admit I have no argument to go beyond my intuition) seems to be this position. I clearly see the benefits of essentialism, but don’t see why I should go beyond saying that I’m imposing my idea of essence on the world.

  4. goobynelly says:

    Sorry, I bungled that middle sentence. What I meant to ask is whether or not there’s a tradition of people with my view, or something like it.

  5. wtm1 says:

    Keep it up, Shane. Let’s hear some more.

  6. scholasticus says:

    thanks for the question goobynelly,

    As to the history and origin of essentialism there is much to say. The short version is this:

    Heraclitus says everything is in flux and no one can ever have “knowledge” about anything, because nothing is ever the same. So you come to know a river, but then it flows on and is a new river. So there is no “identity”, just endless multitude and difference.

    Parmenides says exactly the opposite–nothing moves at all. There is no difference, no “many”, only the one. He has some impressive sounding arguments for this actually.

    Early Plato postulates a doctrine of the forms that seems to reconcile them by separating the intelligible forms from the sensible objects of the world. So, for early Plato there is such a thing as knowledge, and no the world is not all one, but the flux of sensible things prevents any real knowledge of these empirical things, but there is knowledge of the eternal immutable forms, to which sensible objects are related.

    So the notion of ‘essence’ is directly tied into the question “how can I have knowledge of the things around me?” And thus, a philosopher like Heidegger, who thinks of essences as a bad thing, tries to go back behind Plato to Heraclitus and Parmenides. So for the philosophical tradition the point of talking about essences is being able to identify and understand the divisions of things in nature.

    I hope this helps.

  7. goobynelly says:

    So are essences real or simply imposed categories, and are people who believe the latter able to hold to some sort of “essentialism”? I’m wondering because it seems like we can still use the language of essentialism for science.

  8. […] seem to have been relegated to the dustbin of the history of philosophy. I’ve written here before about essences, trying to get clear about some of the problems they involve. One of those problems […]

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