Essentialism is the view that for any specific entity there is a set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function. In Western thought the concept is found in the work of Plato and Aristotle. Platonic idealism is the earliest known theory of how all 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.
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. 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.
Plato believed that the universe was perfect and that its observed imperfections came from man's limited perception of it. For Plato, there were two realities: the "essential" or ideal and the "perceived". Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) applied the term "essence" to that which things in a category have in common and without which they cannot be members of that category (for example, rationality is the essence of man; without rationality a creature cannot be a man). In his critique of Aristotle's philosophy, Bertrand Russell said that his concept of essence transferred to metaphysics what was only a verbal convenience and that it confused the properties of language with the properties of the world. In fact, a thing's "essence" consisted in those defining properties without which we could not use the name for it. Although the concept of essence was "hopelessly muddled" it became part of every philosophy until modern times.
The Egyptian-born philosopher Plotinus [204–270 CE] 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.
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.
In 2010, an article by Gerald B. Folland in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society stated, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that almost all mathematicians are Platonists, at least when they are actually doing mathematics …" This refers to their implicit embrace of essentialism, which he finds revealed in mathematicians peculiar use of language. Whereas physicists define Lie algebra as a rule they can apply to facts, mathematicians define it as an essence of a structure, independent of any circumstance.
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 essentialists claim that some things are wrong in an absolute sense, for example murder breaks a universal, objective and natural moral law and not merely an advantageous, 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, respectively.
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.
Society and politics
In social and political debate, the critique of essentialism arose from post-modernist theory, according to which 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.
In "The 'Authentic, Essentialist, Deeply Spiritual' Other" Linda Smith (2011) writes that "Pedagogically, essentialism was attacked because of its assumption that, because of this essence, it was necessary to be a woman and to experience life as a woman before one could analyse or understand women's oppression" (p76).
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'. For example, they (may) 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. Following Rosi Braidotti, Timothy Laurie suggests that 'the "female feminist subject" is not a default partisan perspective inherent in "woman" but an intersection of complex desires and social transformations that exceed any single ideological formulation or identitarian alliance', and that being a feminist 'can only make sense as a relational and social practice'. Nevertheless, essentialist claims have provided useful rallying-points for radical politics, including feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial struggles.
Examples of books that seek to question 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.
In feminist theory and gender studies Gender essentialism refers to the attribution of a fixed essence to women. Women's essence is assumed to be universal and is generally identified with those characteristics viewed as being specifically feminine. These ideas of femininity are usually biologized are often preoccupied with psychological characteristics, such as nurturance, empathy, support, non-competitiveness, etc. Feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz states in her 1995 publication, Space, time and perversion: essays on the politics of bodies, that essentialism "entails the belief that those characteristics defined as women's essence are shared in common by all women at all times. It implies a limit of the variations and possibilities of change—it is not possible for a subject to act in a manner contrary to her essence. Her essence underlies all the apparent variations differentiating women from each other. Essentialism thus refers to the existence of fixed characteristic, given attributes, and ahistorical functions that limit the possibilities of change and thus of social reorganization."
Furthermore, biologism is a particular form of essentialism that defines women's essence in terms of biological capacities. This form of essentialism is based on a form of reductionism, meaning that social and cultural factors are the effects of biological causes. Biological reductivism "claim[s] that anatomical and physiological differences—especially reproductive differences—characteristic of human males and females determine both the meaning of masculinity and femininity and the appropriately different positions of men and women in society". Biologism uses the functions of reproduction, nurturance, neurology, neurophysiology, and endocrinology to limit women's social and psychological possibilities according to biologically established limits. It asserts the science of biology to constitute an unalterable definition of identity, which inevitably "amounts to a permanent form of social containment for women". Naturalism is also a part of the system of essentialism where a fixed nature is postulated for women through the means of theological or ontological rather than biological grounds. An example of this would be the claim that women's nature is a God-given attribute, or the ontological invariants in Sartrean existentialism or Freudian psychoanalysis that distinguish the sexes in the "claim that the human subject is somehow free or that the subjects social position is a function of his or her genital morphology". These systems are used to homogenize women into one singular category and to strengthen a binary between men and women.
Disrupting gender essentialism
Judith Butler and gender performativity
Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity can be seen as a means to show "the ways in which reified and naturalized conceptions of gender might be understood as constituted and, hence, capable of being constituted differently". Butler utilizes the phenomenological theory of acts which has been espoused by Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and George Herbert Mead, which seeks to explain the mundane way in which "social agents constitute social reality through language gesture and all manner of symbolic social sign", to create her conception of gender performativity. She begins by quoting Simone de Beauvoir's claim:
This statement distinguishes sex from gender suggesting that gender is an aspect of identity that is gradually acquired. This distinction between sex, as the anatomical and factic aspects of the female body, and gender, as the cultural meaning that forms the body and the various modes of bodily articulation, means that it is "no longer possible to attribute the values or social functions of women to biological necessity". Butler interprets this claim as an appropriation of the doctrine of constituting acts from the tradition of phenomenology. Through this understanding Butler concludes that "gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self". Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker also conceptualize gender "as a routine, methodical, and ongoing accomplishment, which involves a complex of perceptual, interactional and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of manly and womanly 'natures'" in their 1995 text Doing Difference.
This does not mean that the material nature of the human body is denied, instead, it is re-comprehended as separate from the process by which "the body comes to bear cultural meanings". Therefore, the essence of gender is not natural because gender itself is not a natural fact. Gender is the outcome of the sedimentation of specific corporeal acts that have been inscribed through repetition and rearticulation over time onto the body. "If the reality of gender is constituted by the performance itself, then there is no recourse to an essential and unrealized 'sex' or 'gender' which gender performances ostensibly express".
Poststructuralism and gender essentialism
Poststructuralism indicates "a field of critical practices that cannot be totalized and that, therefore, interrogate the formative and exclusionary power of sexual difference", says Butler. Therefore, through lens of poststructuralism, the critique of gender essentialism is possible because these poststructuralist theory generates analyses, critiques, and political interventions, and opens up a political imaginary for feminism that otherwise has been constrained. A feminist poststructuralism does not designate a position from which one operates, but instead it offers a set of tools and terms to be "reused and rethought, exposed as strategic instruments and effects, and subjected to a critical reinscription and redeployment".
Gender essentialism and exclusion in feminist theory
Analyzing gender has been a concern of feminist theory, thus there have been many modes of understanding how gender addresses meaning. However, developing such theories of gender can obscure the significance of other aspects of women's identities, such as race, class, and sexual orientation, which marginalizes the experiences and voices of women of colour, non-Western women, working-class women, queer women, and trans women. As a challenge to feminist theory, essentialism refers to the problem of theorizing gender as both an identity and a mark of difference. This refers to a problem for the concept of subjectivity presupposed by feminist theories of gender. There are arguments primarily by black and lesbian feminists that feminist theory has capitalized on the idea of gender essentialism by using the category of gender to appeal to "women's experience" as a whole. By doing this, feminist theory makes universalizing and normalizing claims for and about women, which are only true of white, Western, heterosexual, cisgender, middle- or upper-class women, but which it implies are situations, perspectives and experiences true to all women. Patrice DiQuinzio discusses "how critics of exclusion see this as a function of feminist theory's commitment to theorizing gender exclusively and articulating women's experiences in terms of gender alone". Instead one must theorize feminism in a way that takes the interlocking category of experiences between race, class, gender, and sexuality into consideration; an intersectional model of thinking.
DiQuinzio goes on to discuss how essentialism and exclusion work in relation to motherhood. Feminist theory which has used the idea of woman's essence to link gender socialization with exclusively female mothering, such as Nancy Chodorow's work, can be exclusionary and essentialist in the ways that it involves making universalizing and normalizing claims about mothers without taking social, historical, or cultural context into account. Judith Butler claims that "the effort to characterize a feminine specificity through recourse to maternity, whether biological or social, produce[s] a factionalization and even a disavowal of feminism altogether". Not all women are mothers; "some cannot be some are too young or too old to be, some choose not to be, and for some who are mothers, that is not necessarily the rallying point of their politicization in feminism".
Furthermore, the essentialism of gender in feminist theory presents a problem when understanding transfeminism. Instead of understanding trans studies as another subsection or subjectivity to be subsumed under the category of "woman", we understand the task of trans studies to be "the breaking apart of this category, particularly if that breaking requires a new articulation of the relation between sex and gender, male and female". Trans subjectivity challenges the binary of gender essentialism as it disrupts the "fixed taxonomies of gender" and this creates a resistance in women's studies, which as a discipline has historically depended upon the fixedness of gender. The expressions that exist in trans identities break down the very possibility of gender essentialism by queering the binary of gender, gender roles and expectations. In recent years through the written work of transfeminists like Sandy Stone, the theory around trans women and their inclusion into feminist spaces has opened, just like it has opened in respect to race, class, sexuality and ability historically.
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 what 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 had been operative in colonialism as well as in critiques of colonialism.
Post-colonial theorists such as Edward Said insisted that essentialism was 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.
Most 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-historiographical) school of Subaltern Studies.
- Educational essentialism
- Moral panic
- Nature vs. nurture
- Social constructionism
- Traditionalist School
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- Essentialism at PhilPapers
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- Cliff, Brian (Spring 1996). "Essentialism". Emory University. Retrieved 2008-08-29.
- McKeown, Greg (April, 2014). "Essentialism - the disciplined pursuit of less"