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.