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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.[1] According to essentialism, a member of a specific group 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; they also result in properties of the object, as the object can be subjugated to smaller contexts.[2] 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.

Anthropology professor Lawrence Hirschfeld gives an example of what constitutes the essence of a tiger, regardless of whether it is striped or albino, or has lost a leg. The essential properties of a tiger are those without which it is no longer a tiger. Other properties, such as stripes or number of legs, are considered inessential or 'accidental'. [3] Biologist Ernst Mayr epitomizes the effect of such an essentialist character of Platonic forms in biology: "Flesh-and-blood rabbits may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviation from the ideal essence of rabbit". For Mayr, the healthful antithesis of essentialism in biology is "population thinking".[4]

In philosophyEdit

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 facsimilies. 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?"[5]

Metaphysical essentialismEdit

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 [of] which define the 'whatness' of a given entity".([6]) 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.[citation needed]

It was the Egyptian-born philosopher Plotinus [204–270 CE] who brought Greek 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 experiential 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.[citation needed]

In psychologyEdit

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Paul Bloom attempts to explain why people will pay more in an auction for the clothing of celebrities if the clothing is unwashed. He believes the answer to this and many other questions is that people cannot help but think of objects as containing a sort of "essence" that can be influenced.[7]

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 ([8]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 unobservable underlying essences which can be used to predict unobservable surface characteristics ([9]Toosi & Ambady, 2011). This causal relationship is unidirectional; an observable feature of an entity does not define the underlying essence ([10]Dar-Nimrod & Heine, 2011) .

In developmental psychology Edit

Essentialism has emerged as an important concept in psychology, particularly developmental psychology. [11] [12]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 ([13]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 ([14]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 fulfil its predetermined course of development ([15]Kanovsky, 2007). According to this criterion, essences predict developments in entities that will occur throughout its lifespan. The third is immutability ([16]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 ([17]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 ([18]Morton, Hornsey & Postmes, 2009). This may be due to an over-extension of an essential-biological mode of thinking stemming from cognitive development.[19]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."[20] It is suggested that the categorical nature of essentialist thinking predicts the use of stereotypes and can be targeted in the application of stereotype prevention [21](Bastian & Haslam, 2006).

In ethicsEdit

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.

In biologyEdit

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.[22][23][24]

Essentialism and society and politicsEdit

Main article: Identity politics

The essentialist view on gender, sexuality, race, ethncity, 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,[citation needed]. For example, they agree with Simone de Beauvoir that "one is not born, but becomes a woman".[25] 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.[citation needed]

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.[26]

In historyEdit

Essentialism is used by some historians in listing essential cultural characteristics of a particular nation or culture. A people can be understood in this way. In other cases, the essentialist method has been used by members, or admirers, of an historical community to establish a praiseworthy national identity.[27] Contrastingly, many historians reject essentialism as a form of determinism and prefer to contextualize cultural tropes within a broader lens of historical cause and effect.

See alsoEdit


  1. Cartwright, R. L. (1968). Some remarks on essentialism.. The Journal of Philosophy 65 (20): 615–626.
  2. Günter Radden, H. Cuyckens (2003). Motivation in language: studies in honor of Günter Radden, John Benjamins.
  3. Lawrence A. Hirschfeld, "Natural Assumptions: Race, Essence, and Taxonomies of Human Kinds", Social Research 65 (Summer 1998). Infotrac (December 24, 2003).
  4. Both Mayr quotes in Dawson 2009:24, 25.
  5. The Open Society and its Enemies, passim.
  6. Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking [1989] ISBN 978-0-415-90132-1
  7. Paul Bloom, July 2011 Ted talk, "The Origins of Pleasure"
  8. Medin, D. L. (1989). Conceptes and conceptual structure. American Psychologist 44: 1469–1481.
  9. Toosi, N. R., Ambady, N. (2011). Ratings of essentialism for eight religious identities.. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21 (1): 17–29.
  10. Dar-Nimrod, I., Heine, S. J. (2011). Gentic essentialism: On the deceptive deteriminism of DNA,. Psychological Bulletin 137 (5): 800–818.
  11. Gelman, S. The essential child: Origins of essentialism in everyday thought. New York: Oxford University Press.
  12. Gelman, S. A., Kremer, K. E. (1991). Understanding natural causes: Children's explanations of how objects and their properties originate.. Child Development 62 (2): 396–414.
  13. Rangel, U., Keller, J. (2011). Essentialism goes social: Belief in social determinism as a component of psychological essentialism.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100 (6): 1056–1078.
  14. Demoulin, S., Leyens, J-P., Yzerbyt, V. (2006). Lay theories of essentialism. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 9 (1): 25–42.
  15. Kanovsky, M. (2007). Essentialism and folksociology: Ethnicity again.. Journal of Cognition and Culture 7 (3–4): 241–281.
  16. Holtz, P., Wagner, W. (2009). Essentialism and attribution of monstrosity in racist discourse: Right-wing internet postings about africans and jews.. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 19 (6): 411–425.
  17. Birnbaum, D., Deeb, I., Segall, G., Ben-Eliyahu, A., & Diesendruck, G. (2010). The development of social essentialism: The case of Israeli children's inferences about Jews and Arabs.. Child Development 81 (3): 757–777.
  18. Morton, T. A., Hornsey, M. J., & Postmes, T. (2009). Shifting ground: The variable use of essentialism in contexts of inclusion and exclusion.. British Journal of Social Psychology 48 (1): 35–59.
  19. Medin, D.L. & Atran, S. "The native mind: biological categorization and reasoning in development and across cultures.", Psychological Review 111(4) (2004).
  20. Bloom. P. (2010) Why we like what we like. Observer. 23 (8), 3 online link.
  21. Bastian, B., Haslam, N. (2006). Psychological essentialism and stereotype endorsement. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology 42 (2): 228–235.
  22. Amundson, R. (2005) The changing rule of the embryo in evolutionary biology: structure and synthesis, New York, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-80699-2
  23. Müller-Wille, Staffan. 2007. Collection and collation: theory and practice of Linnaean botany. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38 (3):541–562.
  24. Winsor, M. P. (2003) Non-essentialist methods in pre-Darwinian taxonomy. Biology & Philosophy, 18, 387–400.
  25. Beauvoir, Simone. 1974. Ch. XII: Childhood, The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books
  26. Wittig, Monique. 1992. “The Category of Sex.” Pp. 1–8 in The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press
  27. Touraj Atabaki, Beyond Essentialism: Who Writes Whose Past in the Middle East and Central Asia?, Inaugural Lecture as Extraordinary Professor of the Social History of the Middle East and Central Asia in the University of Amsterdam, 13 December 2002

Further readingEdit

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • 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.
  • Barrett, H. C. (2001). On the functional origins of essentialism. Mind and Society, 3, Vol. 2, 1–30.
  • Sayer, Andrew (August 1997) "Essentialism, Social Constructionism, and Beyond", Sociological Review 45 : 456.
  • Oderberg, David S. (2007) Real Essentialism New York, Routledge.

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