Essentialism is the view that, for any specific entity (such as an animal, a group of people, a physical object, a concept), there is a set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function. In Western thought the concept is found as early as the work of Plato and Aristotle: Platonic idealism is the earliest known theory of how all known things and concepts have an essential reality behind them (an "Idea" or "Form"), an essence that makes those things and concepts what they are. Aristotle's Categories proposes that all objects are the objects they are by virtue of their substance, that the substance makes the object what it is. The essential qualities of an object, so George Lakoff summarizes Aristotle's highly influential view, are "those properties that make the thing what it is, and without which it would be not that kind of thing". This view is contrasted with non-essentialism, which states that, for any given kind of entity, there are no specific traits which entities of that kind must possess.
Essentialism has been controversial from its beginning. Plato's Socrates already problematizes the concept of the Idea by positing in the Parmenides that if we accept Ideas of such things as Beauty and Justice (every beautiful thing or just action would partake of that Idea in some sense in order to be beautiful or just), we must also accept the "existence of separate forms for hair, mud, and dirt". In biology and other natural sciences, essentialism provided the basis for and rationale of taxonomy at least until the time of Charles Darwin; the precise role and importance of essentialism in biology is still a matter of debate. In gender studies, essentialism (summarized as the basic proposition that men and women are essentially different) continues to be a matter of contention. French structuralist feminism was often accused of subscribing to an essentialism, which was set in contrast to gender constructionism.
An essence characterizes a substance or a form, in the sense of the Forms or Ideas in Platonic idealism. It is permanent, unalterable, and eternal; and present in every possible world. Classical humanism has an essentialist conception of the human being, which means that it believes in an eternal and unchangeable human nature. The idea of an unchangeable human nature has been criticized by Kierkegaard, Marx, Heidegger, Sartre, and many other existential thinkers.
In Plato's philosophy (in particular, the Timaeus and the Philebus), things were said to come into being in this world by the action of a demiurge who works to form chaos into ordered entities. From Aristotle onward the definition, in philosophical contexts, of the word "essence" is very close to the definition of form (Gr. morphe). Many definitions of essence hark back to the ancient Greek hylomorphic understanding of the formation of the things of this world. According to that account, the structure and real existence of any thing can be understood by analogy to an artifact produced by a craftsman. The craftsman requires hyle (timber or wood) and a model, plan or idea in his own mind according to which the wood is worked to give it the indicated contour or form (morphe). Aristotle was the first to use the terms hyle and morphe. According to his explanation, all entities have two aspects, "matter" and "form". It is the particular form imposed that gives some matter its identity, its quiddity or "whatness" (i.e., its "what it is").
Plato was one of the first essentialists, believing in the concept of ideal forms, an abstract entity of which individual objects are mere facsimiles. To give an example; the ideal form of a circle is a perfect circle, something that is physically impossible to make manifest, yet the circles that we draw and observe clearly have some idea in common — this idea is the ideal form. Plato believed that these ideas are eternal and vastly superior to their manifestations in the world, and that we understand these manifestations in the material world by comparing and relating them to their respective ideal form. Plato's forms are regarded as patriarchs to essentialist dogma simply because they are a case of what is intrinsic and a-contextual of objects — the abstract properties that makes them what they are. For more on forms, read Plato's parable of the cave.
Karl Popper splits the ambiguous term realism into essentialism and realism. He uses essentialism whenever he means the opposite of nominalism, and realism only as opposed to idealism. Popper himself is a realist as opposed to an idealist, but a methodological nominalist as opposed to an essentialist. For example, statements like "a puppy is a young dog" should be read from right to left, as an answer to "What shall we call a young dog"; never from left to right as an answer to "What is a puppy?"
Essentialism, in its broadest sense, is any philosophy that acknowledges the primacy of Essence. Unlike Existentialism, which posits "being" as the fundamental reality, the essentialist ontology must be approached from a metaphysical perspective. Empirical knowledge is developed from experience of a relational universe whose components and attributes are defined and measured in terms of intellectually constructed laws. Thus, for the scientist, reality is explored as an evolutionary system of diverse entities, the order of which is determined by the principle of causality. Because Essentialism is a conceptual worldview that is not dependent on objective facts and measurements, it is not limited to empirical understanding or the objective way of looking at things.
Despite the metaphysical basis for the term, academics in science, aesthetics, heuristics, psychology, and gender-based sociological studies have advanced their causes under the banner of Essentialism. Possibly the clearest definition for this philosophy was offered by gay/lesbian rights advocate Diana Fuss, who wrote: "Essentialism is most commonly understood as a belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the 'whatness' of a given entity." Metaphysical essentialism stands diametrically opposed to existential realism in that finite existence is only differentiated appearance, whereas "ultimate reality" is held to be absolute essence.
Although the Greek philosophers believed that the true nature of the universe was perfect, they attributed the observed imperfections to man's limited perception. For Plato, this meant that there had to be two different realities: the "essential" and the "perceived". Plato's dialectical protégé Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) applied the term "essence" to the one common characteristic that all things belonging to a particular category have in common and without which they could not be members of that category; hence, the idea of rationality as the essence of man. This notion carried over into all facets of reality, including species of living creatures. For contemporary essentialists, however, the characteristic that all existents have in common is the power to exist, and this potentiality defines the "uncreated" Essence.
It was the Egyptian-born philosopher Plotinus [204–270 CE] who brought Idealism to the Roman Empire as Neo-Platonism, and with it the concept that not only do all existents emanate from a "primary essence" but that the mind plays an active role in shaping or ordering the objects of perception, rather than passively receiving empirical data. But with the Empire's fall to the Goths in A.D. 476, Neo-Platonism gave way to the spread of Christianity in the Western world, leaving Aristotle's multiple "essences" unchallenged to dominate philosophical thought throughout the Middle Ages on into the era of modern science.
There is a difference between metaphysical essentialism (see above) and psychological essentialism, the latter referring not to an actual claim about the world but a claim about a way of representing entities in cognitions (Medin, 1989). Influential in this area is Susan Gelman, who has outlined many domains in which children and adults construe classes of entities, particularly biological entities, in essentialist terms—i.e., as if they had an immutable underlying essence which can be used to predict unobserved similarities between members of that class. (Toosi & Ambady, 2011). This causal relationship is unidirectional; an observable feature of an entity does not define the underlying essence (Dar-Nimrod & Heine, 2011) .
In developmental psychology
Essentialism has emerged as an important concept in psychology, particularly developmental psychology. Gelman and Kremer (1991) studied the extent to which children from 4–7 years old demonstrate essentialism. Children were able to identify the cause of behaviour in living and non-living objects. Children understood that underlying essences predicted observable behaviours. Participants could correctly describe living objects’ behaviour as self-perpetuated and non-living objects as a result of an adult influencing the object’s actions. This is a biological way of representing essential features in cognitions. Understanding the underlying causal mechanism for behaviour suggests essentialist thinking (Rangel and Keller, 2011). Younger children were unable to identify causal mechanisms of behaviour whereas older children were able to. This suggests that essentialism is rooted in cognitive development. It can be argued that there is a shift in the way that children represent entities, from not understanding the causal mechanism of the underlying essence to showing sufficient understanding (Demoulin, Leyens & Yzerbyt, 2006).
There are four key criteria which constitute essentialist thinking. The first facet is the aforementioned individual causal mechanisms (del Rio & Strasser, 2011). The second is innate potential: the assumption that an object will fulfill its predetermined course of development (Kanovsky, 2007). According to this criterion, essences predict developments in entities that will occur throughout its lifespan. The third is immutability (Holtz & Wagner, 2009). Despite altering the superficial appearance of an object it does not remove its essence. Observable changes in features of an entity are not salient enough to alter its essential characteristics. The fourth is inductive potential (Birnbaum, Deeb, Segall, Ben-Aliyahu & Diesendruck, 2010). This suggests that entities may share common features but are essentially different. However similar two beings may be, their characteristics will be at most analogous, differing most importantly in essences.
The implications of psychological essentialism are numerous. Prejudiced individuals have been found to endorse exceptionally essential ways of thinking, suggesting that essentialism may perpetuate exclusion among social groups (Morton, Hornsey & Postmes, 2009). This may be due to an over-extension of an essential-biological mode of thinking stemming from cognitive development. Paul Bloom of Yale University has stated that "one of the most exciting ideas in cognitive science is the theory that people have a default assumption that things, people and events have invisible essences that make them what they are. Experimental psychologists have argued that essentialism underlies our understanding of the physical and social worlds, and developmental and cross-cultural psychologists have proposed that it is instinctive and universal. We are natural-born essentialists." Scholars suggest that the categorical nature of essentialist thinking predicts the use of stereotypes and can be targeted in the application of stereotype prevention (Bastian & Haslam, 2006).
Classical essentialism claims that some things are wrong in an absolute sense, for example murder breaks a universal, objective and natural moral law and not merely an adventitious, socially or ethically constructed one.
Many modern essentialists claim that right and wrong are moral boundaries which are individually constructed. In other words, things that are ethically right or wrong are actions that the individual deems to be beneficial or harmful.
It is often held that before evolution was developed as a scientific theory, there existed an essentialist view of biology that posited all species to be unchanging throughout time. Some religious opponents of evolution continue to maintain this view of biology (see creation-evolution controversy).
Recent work by historians of systematics has, however, cast doubt upon this view. Mary P. Winsor, Ron Amundson and Staffan Müller-Wille have each argued that in fact the usual suspects (such as Linnaeus and the Ideal Morphologists) were very far from being essentialists, and it appears that the so-called "essentialism story" (or "myth") in biology is a result of conflating the views expressed by philosophers from Aristotle onwards through to John Stuart Mill and William Whewell in the immediately pre-Darwinian period, using biological examples, with the use of terms in biology like species.
Essentialism and society and politics
The essentialist view on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, or other group characteristics is that they are fixed traits, discounting variation among group members as secondary.
Contemporary proponents of identity politics, including feminism, gay rights, and/or racial equality activists, generally take constructionist viewpoints,. For example, they agree with Simone de Beauvoir that "one is not born, but becomes a woman". As 'essence' may imply permanence, some argue that essentialist thinking tends towards political conservatism and therefore opposes social change. Essentialist claims have provided useful rallying-points for radical politics, including feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial struggles. In a culture saturated with essentialist modes of thinking, an ironic or strategic essentialism can sometimes be politically expedient.
Examples of books claiming to debunk various theories and claims of gender essentialism include:
In social thought, metaphysical essentialism is often conflated with biological reductionism. Most sociologists, for example, employ a distinction between biological sex and gender role. Similar distinctions across disciplines generally fall under the division of "nature versus nurture". However, this has been contested by Monique Wittig, who argued that even biological sex is not an essence, and that the body's physiology is "caught up" in processes of social construction.
Essentialism in history as a field of study entails discerning and listing essential cultural characteristics of a particular nation or culture, in the belief that a people or culture can be understood in this way. Sometimes such essentialism leads to claims of a praiseworthy national or cultural identity, or to its opposite, the condemnation of a culture based on presumed essential characteristics. Herodotus, for example, claims that Egyptian culture is essentially feminized and possesses a "softness" which has made Egypt easy to conquer. To which extent Herodotus was an essentialist is a matter of debate; he is also credited with not essentializing the concept of the Athenian identity, or differences between the Greeks and the Persians that are the subject of his Histories
Essentialism is operative in colonialism, as post-colonial theorists such as Edward Said have argued. It is the defining mode of Western historiography and ethnography until the nineteenth century and even after, according to Touraj Atabaki, manifesting itself in the historiography of the Middle East and Central Asia as Eurocentrism, over-generalization, and reductionism. Contrastingly, many historians reject essentialism because it "dehistoricizes the process of social and cultural changes" and tends to see non-Western societies as historically unchanging; in India this led to the anti-essentialist (even anti-historiogriphal) school of Subaltern Studies.
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- Runes, Dagobert D. (1972) Dictionary of Philosophy (Littlefield, Adams & Co.). See for instance the articles on "Essence", pg.97; "Quiddity", pg.262; "Form", pg.110; "Hylomorphism", pg.133; "Individuation", pg.145; and "Matter", pg.191.
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