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Criticism Section?[edit]

The WHOLE article seems like a criticism to essentialism, with almost no charitable account. Maybe someone could rename this page as "criticism of essentialism", or at least try to be less biased. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:23, 16 July 2011 (UTC)

The article about philosopher Gilles Deleuze links here. Since that article lists Spinoza and Nietzsche as being influenced by essentialism I feel the topic as being too much reduced to harsh social phenomenons like sexism or racism.

Wikipedia articles are editable by anyone. So you don't have to suggest changes on article talk pages, you can change the article itself. I'd suggest having a quick look at Wikipedia:Welcome, newcomers first though. Cheers, snoyes 16:22, 1 Dec 2003 (UTC)

A Reply to above comment by Tim: Unless you continue to believe in the 19th century search for an essential source for all things- I think there is very little not to critique about essentialism.

I think it is absolutely essential that this article should talk about the development of science in the 19th and 20th century. It needs to have links to eugenics, race science, and ernst haeckle, Asa Gray. It needs to talk about more than philosophy and sociology since the influence that essentialism has had on our culture today was largely the result of its application by scientists up until wwII when Nazism took it too far and made it clear that essential notions of human difference are not acceptable. (this is my view and it is debatable- i just read about how essentialism was actually conducive to opposing Darwinism (which was generally the view of nazi scientists)

I also think that the role of the science concept that contributed to human genocides is more important than discussion of ancient classical-aryan philosophers. I am very biased against the priviledging of philosophy over modern science. science is not unbiased, and neither is philosophy. I am biased against essentialism in both the old context and in the new social justice context as well.

I am not entirely certain what role essentialism had in the development of race thinking but i am certain it was a big impact.

~END of T's comment~

— Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 04:19, 25 June 2014 (UTC) 

Plato didn't believe that 'you can define the essence of something by way of a finite list of characteristics', he believed that the essence of something was not definable, but he did believe ideas had essences anyway (this is discussed by Wittgenstein also). People who argue anti-essentialism understand this, but often try to make the case that in order to have an essence something has to be able to have a finite description. I believe the way this article defines the debate is poor; and probably written someone who is against essentialism. brianshapiro 16:51, 4 Sept 2005

From what I've been reading, it is not correct to talk about essentailism if you are just categorizing things - "essences" must result in properties of the object. I changed "An essence characterizes" to "An essence effects". And then changed it back, and rephrased what I ws trying to add. I hope that this is OK. Also, it may be important to note that an essential property of an object is a property the object has in every possible world. Medin and Ortony 1989 might be a good reference for psychological essentailism??

"Feminist" use of Essentialism[edit]

I have more or less reverted the below paragraph to let discussion of it take place here in the talk page for NPOV reasons:

In feminism, Yashar Keramati (who is not a well-known figure or authority in feminism and seems to be (ab)using wikipedia to get his/her name out there) understands that essentialism constitutes that women have pre-determined characteristics. This goes beyond simple body parts, those being the sex organs and secondary sex characteristics. Rather, this means that women are born 'emotional,' 'inferior,' 'irrational' and so on. Therefore, essentialism could circulate false information about women which results in lowering their status. Though this necessarily depends upon the value judgements a society adheres to. It also depends upon the supposition that these qualities are negative and don't possess the ability to be sublimated -- just like the lower qualities in the male sex. Essentialism can also be taken to an extreme by characterizing different races in such a way -- though it is true that every school of thought is subject to distortion.

Having had a few quarters in and around the women studies department at Portland State University in Oregon, I have heard more than one instructor and/or PhD use the phrase with reference to sociological essentialism vis-a-vis race and gender roles, so do not think this is an unusual or fringe view within feminism. Can we work this out here on the talk page? Thanks! - Rorybowman 15:46, 8 January 2006 (UTC)

Okay, I lied. I ended up removing the above paragraph completely (discuss it here) and introducing the nature versus nurture discussion generally in the "essentialism and society" section. The clearest example is, I think, the sociological distinction between biological sex and gender role but other examples exist regarding race and similar social issues. As it relates to essentialism I don't think that this is the place to discuss all the ways the term is used in every conceivable discipline and that the nature versus nurture article nicely gives the flavor of most "controversies" around essentialism. Please discuss. 8^) _Rorybowman 16:00, 8 January 2006 (UTC)

Contemporary proponents of identity politics including feminism, gay rights, and anti-racist activists generally take constructionist viewpoints.  However, these proponents have taken various positions including essentialist ones.  

Maybe differentiating the kinds of gay rights, feminism etc that actually take constructionist viewpoints would make this sound better.

"... including equity feminists etc etc morally take constructionist viewpoints."

I find the use of generalizing ironic since it is essentialism stance against it!

I quite frankly don't understand why a citation is needed to assert that contemporary feminism rejects essentialism. It absolutely does and is so commonly understood that I think you would be hard pressed to find a source that explicitly says so. (talk) 08:08, 4 December 2010 (UTC)

The whole social and political section needs addressing. It needs citations, for one. For two, it needs to be about essentialism in the social sciences/humanities, not "here's what feminists think." That's POV. Even with citations and reworked language (which I did a little of), it would be POV due to undue weighting of one perspective. The last paragraph in the section is a decent example of what the rest of the section could be. Dan Cottrell (talk) 04:23, 1 August 2012 (UTC)

Biological essentialism[edit]

The paragraph here is grossly simplistic and in my view false. The medieval naturalists were not slavish followers of Aristotle - Frederick II in fact criticises Aristotle on natural history (which had only just been translated by Michael Scot), and none of the literature refers to the causal or generative essences of biological species at any time from the classical period until after Darwin. The myth appears to have arisen some time around the centenary of the Origin, in 1959, based on a passing comment in H. W. Joseph's Introduction to Logic in 1916.

There was, and still is, a taxonomic essentialism, in which the defining characters of a species or higher taxon are listed in describing it, but that is not the sort of essentialism attacked in the essentialism story. Types were always "more or less", and what was held to be essential to a species was the ability of the organisms to generate more like them. Morphology was only ever used for identification. I would go so far as to say that biological essentialism doesn't arise until, at the earliest, the 1890s, and probably, due to the ambiguity of the so-called essentialists' writings, not until the mid-1930s (Agnes Arber and H. R. Thompson). In short, it is based on a historical misreading.

Moreover, Aristotle was not a fixist. He accepted new species through hybridisation. Fixism arose in the mid-17th century with John Ray, and it was always based on pitey and doctrine rather than any philosophical foundation.

Later note:

I now think there never was any kind of constitutive essentialism in biology (it was always a matter of identification or diagnosis). I argue this in my book, coming out this year. Obviously as thi sis my own research I can't put it on this page, but when it is out, someone else might like to address it.

The book is Species: A history of the idea from University of California Press 2009. John Wilkins (talk) —Preceding undated comment added 01:25, 25 July 2009 (UTC).

The following sentence is an abomination, and almost impossible to make sense of:

"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."

Would someone who can make sense of it please edit it into 2 - 3 intelligible sentences. Thank youJustinleif (talk) 18:14, 22 September 2010 (UTC)


I've seen these terms used as rough synonyms for "essentialist," particularly in anthropological study of religion. I wonder if this article, particularly the "Essentialism in history" section, should draw this distinction somewhere. (Much of the article appears to be referring to something other than the Aristotelian essence vs. accident distinction.) From what I gather, monothetic definitions can be either essentialist or functionalist. Also, it's not an easy pejorative, as "essentialist" can be.

Does anyone know about this? --WadeMcR 08:28, 1 November 2006 (UTC)

For what reason was the psychological essentialism deleted? I don't have anything handy to check it with, but it would seem ok.


Given the generalist audience for whom Wikipedia is designed, the All or part of this article may be confusing or unclear tag requires addressing. I therefore added a plain English introduction, and some resources with better readability.--Mgoodyear (talk) 14:15, 3 June 2008 (UTC)

The lead definitely needs work. In particular, I think it overstates the strength of the position, and as noted, it isn't clear. It reads,

In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. Therefore all things can be precisely defined or described. In this view, it follows that terms or words should have a single definition and meaning.

I don't think this is exactly correct (It's close). The view doesn't necessarily hold for "any specific kind of entity", but a certain set of entities, depending on the particular flavor of essentialism (strong or weak, for example). The SEP article on Essential vs. Accidental Properties says,

"Essentialism in general may be characterized as the doctrine that (at least some) objects have (at least some) essential properties."

There are other, more specific definitions, e.g.,

"the doctrine that some of the attributes of a thing (quite independently of the language in which the thing is referred to, if at all) may be essential to the thing, and others accidental."
"(at least some) objects have (at least some) non-trivial essential properties and (at least some) objects have (at least some) accidental properties."

So maybe a simple, clear explanation would be better. The position isn't very obscure, many people seem to hold some form of essentialism (e.g., many people believe something like being a person or not being a lump of clay is essential to who they are). I think the lead right now misleads the reader into thinking its a much weirder or stronger position than it really is.

"Therefore all things can be precisely defined or described. In this view, it follows that terms or words should have a single definition and meaning."

Although this may be a consequence of essentialism, I think there's reason to doubt its relevance here in the lead. Is this a big thing for essentialists? Is it one of the main features of their view? We might consider removing this part from the lead to increase clarity, since its more likely to confuse than inform, even more so if it's not an important thesis for essentialists.

Milo 42 (talk) 00:43, 5 September 2011 (UTC)

Two that's[edit]

I understand the role of the first, but not the second "that" in the following sentence: "According to essentialism, a member of a specific kind of entity may possess other characteristics that are neither needed to establish its membership nor preclude its membership, but that essences do not simply reflect ways of grouping objects; essences must result in properties of the object." Unfree (talk) 20:57, 28 June 2009 (UTC)

"Incidental" Contradictory[edit]

As the word "incidental" is synonymous with "accidental" in this context (for general reader and philosopher alike, I believe), its use in the lead sentence creates a confusing contradiction in terms: "In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific entity (such as a group of people), there is a set of incidental attributes all of which are necessary to its identity and function." The last clause is thus equivalent to "...there is a set of accidental attributes which are not accidental"! (talk) 09:45, 9 April 2013 (UTC)

History of Neoplatonism[edit]

It isn't correct that Neoplatonism died out in A.D. 476. Neoplatonic ideas remained central to Latin Christianity until the re-introduction of Aristotle by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. Extant parts of Plotinus, and authors influenced by him, were among the most widely-read works during the Middle Ages. Even then we ought to consider that Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, quoted Neoplatonic sources as authorities more than he quoted Aristotle. Catholic mystical theology and liturgy, to this day, is very heavily influenced by Neoplatonism. Also, Orthodox and other Eastern Rite Christians have used it continuously to the present, having been little influenced by Aristotle. Marcusscotus1 (talk) 02:45, 5 April 2011 (UTC)(note: dates on Plotinus's birth/death incorrect)

A little bit of Ludwig Wittgenstein[edit]

I thought that Ludwig Wittgenstein's ramblings about family resemblence were a critism of and present an alternative to essentialism. "Non-essentialism" just denies essentialism, but Wittgenstein offers a sensible, pragmatic alternative: we group things together when we feel that they bear a family resemblence. --Timtak (talk) 03:17, 19 July 2011 (UTC)


I removed the copyedit tag from the Essentialism and society and politics section. If anyone reviews it and still sees problems they can add it back or bring them up here. HotshotCleaner (talk) 23:21, 2 November 2011 (UTC)

Essentialism and generalizations[edit]

Essentialism is useful in terms of spotting patterns in things, and disregarding outlying anomalies.--Q-Jux Q-Jux Q-Jux (talk) 01:15, 31 January 2012 (UTC)

NPOV dispute - Essentialism and society and politics[edit]

Certain parts of this section read like an argument against anti-essentialist views (basically, that they are themselves essentialist in another way), rather than a description of the various views (including, if noteworthy, criticisms of these views).

E.g. this sentence: "Contemporary proponents of identity politics, including feminism, gay rights, and/or racial equality activists, generally take (supposedly) constructionist viewpoints that may still rest on an essential assumption that a preconceived historical 'fact' is 'truth'[citation needed]."

And this whole paragraph: "Issues with contemporary essentialism in (supposedly) constructivist viewpoints tend to be derived from scientific claims of 'fact' or 'truth' that are described as static, defined and unchanging. These claims maintain the traditional secular assumption that there is a static sociological form of truth that can be found through investigations of human society. More progressive forms of social work theory (such as Anti-oppressive theory) are often used improperly to construct static notions of social hierarchy that are essentialistic in formulation, and ignore empirical forms of investigation in order to make claims to 'truth'. AOP itself actually prescribes empirical forms of investigation that are opposed to techniques derived from a fallaciously premised science- based cultural hegemony."

If this is a noteworthy argument against constructivists (or so-called constructivists), it should be described as such, and cited, with appropriate attention given to the criticism and the views themselves, rather than letting the uncited criticism dominate the descriptions of the views themselves.

There's been a "citation needed" tag on the first sentence for almost five years, and I've added them to each sentence of the latter paragraph just now.

Also, this isn't really about NPOV so much as clarity, but I may as well mention it here since it's the same section: This sentence seems unclear: "Essentialist claims have provided useful rallying-points for radical politics, including feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial struggles." Does it mean direct embracing of essentialist claims (e.g. we're essentially this ethnicity and shouldn't be assimilated into a dominant group), or claims that others are being wrongly essentialist - i.e. anti-essentialist positions? A straightforward reading of the sentence would suggest the former, but the context of the paragraph as it currently stands would seem to indicate the latter. Either could be plausible, but it's not sure which is intended - in part because it's vague and uncited. (talk) 14:43, 12 February 2015 (UTC)

NPOV removed, replaced with refimprove. The lack of clarity for these statements is more an issue here than POV, since there is a great degree of ambiguity of what is being implied and thus doesn't necessarily fall under the purview of NPOV. In this situation, verifiability takes precedence. If you wish to discuss this more, please register as a user. Brokenwit (talk) 06:17, 14 February 2015 (UTC)

Hang in there Brokenwit. I think mine is broken too. Sometimes, though, a little mercy tempers the argument. I don't think this article will improve until someone who understands the distinction decides to be altruistic and try to explain it to us simply. Five years is a long time to wait I suppose, but I never thought contention for the sake of contention leads anywhere anyway. We can't even begin until we stand with Macarthur on the deck of the Missouri stating that the issues have all been resolved on the field of battle and now we are here to make the peace (or something like that).Botteville (talk) 23:35, 20 March 2015 (UTC)

Shedding some light[edit]

I might be able to shed some light on this. The confusion is not from people, believe me. The topic is intrinsically difficult for moderns to grasp. It actually is a very old and on-going dispute. Any 1st-year philosophy student encounters it. It would be hard to find any historical philosophers who were NOT involved in it in some way. It is rather simple, obscure because of its obviousness. Suppose a racoon breaks into your house and messes up your pantry. What is that, what happened there? On the one hand a nasty little wild animal looking and behaving like a racoon just broke into your house and messed it up. That creature is an essence and belief that he exists is essentialism. In ordinary life we are all essentialists. The ancient philosophers called it an essence. But, if you go to school and take science you are told that here is a collection of atoms of Carbon, Nitrogen etc, moving according to certain laws of electrochemistry and fluid mechanics, whatever. But where, you say, is the racoon? Nowhere. There is no racoon. That is not a scientific model. The essence, racoon, is denied. There you have it. The essentialists argue that the essence, racoon, unifies and directs all the various parts down to the last subatomic particle. The functionalist? would argue that all these parts act in their own right and the accidental sum gives the appearance of a racoon. Cubism. There are no people, only little cubes, whose accidental configuration serve a function. I think you are probably getting the picture of the conflict. The scientists can't find any evidence of a unifying form. No evidence, no form. The essentialists can't explain all the interlocking and unified actions of the apparent essences. Atomists cannot explain the simplest rational act and certainly not rationality itself. There you have it. Social scientists like to use big words and obscure phrases much as Aristotle liked to do (which is why he is so hard to understand). We definitely are not Aristotelian here. We want matters explained for the masses. How you will reconcile these diverse objectives is up to you.Botteville (talk) 23:10, 20 March 2015 (UTC)

No, I think that's wrong because it conflates eliminativism with non-essentialism. There are many fine shades of nuance between the two.2601:B:C580:2D9:CAF7:33FF:FE77:D800 (talk) 11:52, 6 May 2015 (UTC)
Actually Botteville has brought up a lot of interesting, vivid points about philosophical essentialism that didn't make it into the article. Somehow the article gives a very imprecise, very thin characterization of essentialism and its opposite, or opposites. "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." Vapid statement; this is where philosophy turns to empty words. It makes non-essentialism sound trivially wrong.
Is essentialism about entities, objects, entities of a certain kind, categories? An entity is a single concrete thing. A predicate or concept is a type of thing, and it evokes a collection seeking a boundary or common traits. Does a single entity already imply an ideal that it belongs to? These words have distinct meanings and can't just be exchanged with each other for the purpose of variety in the choice of words.
How can you mention essentialism without mentioning positivism as an alternative? It seems to have sprung up for just that reason. Non-foundationalism is another path. Where's the philosophical writing in this article? It seems to have been written by beginners.
There is a large emphasis on recent developments in identity politics in the article which is really out of place. It belongs in an article, but not this article. You don't have to reject essentialism, root and branch, as an intrinsic evil of thought, permeated by ill will and ill vapours -- and you probably aren't doing so, even if you say you are -- when you use the vocabulary word "essentialism" in the course of your criticism of traditional conceptions of gender roles, for example. Indeed, "essentialism" will permeate your thought. It may even be a primary mode of thought. That's why you have to struggle so hard to break it when unlearning these things. And if you think that thereby you're escaping "essentialism", probably you're not, you're just making inroads against "gender essentialism" in particular. (talk) 14:04, 21 September 2015 (UTC)

Circular definition[edit]

Under Metaphysical essentialism we have "Essentialism in its broadest sense, is any philosophy that acknowledges the primacy of Essence." Circular definitions are not helpful. What is "Essence"? And what indeed is "primacy". Pelarmian (talk) 14:21, 2 June 2015 (UTC)

Essentialism in society and politics NPOV[edit]

After reading this largely unreferenced section I got a sense it somehow sounds similar to the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory.. are Im wrong?

I sort of subtly criticizes "Contemporary proponents of identity politics", "feminism", "gay rights", and "racial equality activists" for being inconsistent by adhering anyway to an essentialist viewpoint. The section also relativices the concept while as far as my knowledge essentialism is largely outdatet and superceeded in modern politics (if we are going to believe a statement of 52 Swedish anthropologists in the academia)[1]