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Essentialism is the belief and practice centered on a philosophical claim that for any specific kind of entity it is at least theoretically possible to specify a finite list of characteristics, all of which any entity must have to belong to the group defined. A member of a specific kind of entity may possess other characteristics that are neither needed to establish its membership nor preclude its membership. It should be noted that essences do not simply reflect ways of grouping objects, essences must result in properties of the object.

An essence characterizes a substance or a form, in the sense of the Forms or Ideas in Platonic realism. 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. This viewpoint has been criticized by Marx and Nietzsche.

Essentialism in philosophy

The definition, in philosophical contexts, of the word "essence" is very close to the definition of form (Gr. eidos). Many definitions of essence harken 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 or plan or idea in his own mind according to which the wood is worked to give it the indicated contour or form (morphe). In Plato's philosophy, things were said to come into being in this world by the action of a demiurge (Gr. demiourgos) who works to form chaos into ordered entities. (See Plato, Timaeus.) 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 an essentialist since he believed in ideal forms of which every object is just a poor copy. This belief is clearly manifested in his famous 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.

Essentialism in ethics

Essentialism in ethics means the view that some things are wrong in a real or absolute sense, meaning that for example murder breaks a universal, objective or natural moral law and not merely an adventitious, socially or ethnically constructed one.

Essentialism in biology

Before evolution was developed as a viable scientific theory, there existed an essentialist view of biology that posited all species to be unchanging throughout time. These ideas were accepted dogmatically by the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages as derivatives of Aristotelian ideals. Some religious opponents of evolution continue to maintain this view of biology (see creation-evolution controversy).

Essentialism and society

Essentialist positions on gender, race, and characteristics, consider these to be fixed traits while not allowing for variation in the group or individual. Contemporary proponents of identity politics including feminism, gay rights, and anti-racist activists generally take constructionist viewpoints. For issues of human social roles, for example, this is reflected in a distinction between biological sex and gender role. Similar distinctions across disciplines generally fall under the topic "nature versus nurture."

Essentialism in history

Essentialism has been used by some historians as a method to extract the essential cultural and tempermental characteristics of a particular nation or culture. In some cases it has been used as a means to understand – and thereby control – a colonial people. In those circumstances, the characteristics often degenerated into cliches that served to justify colonial practices. In other cases, it has been used by members, or admirers, of an historical community as a means to establish a praisworthy national identity[1]. Opposed to this model of interpretation are historical studies which turn from essences to focus on the particular circumstances of time and place.

Psychological essentialism

In cognitive psychology, essentialism refers to people's everyday tendency to assume, often unconsciously, that objects in nature have hidden essential properties that determine what kind of objects they are (e.g. all dogs have a 'dog essence'). Some experts claim that essentialism emerges very early in human development and is a cross-cultural universal, while others contend that it is a late-developing consequence of belonging to a culture in which essentialist reasoning is encouraged. Psychological essentialism is a theory about people's beliefs and is neutral with respect to the factual accuracy of these beliefs.


  1. 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 Dec. 2002, [1]

See also

Contrast with: constructionism, poststructuralism, existentialism

Further reading

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:

For more information on Essentialism and related topics, see the Dictionary of Philosophy by Dagobert D. Runes (Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1972). See the articles on essence, page 97, quiddity, p. 262, form,110, hylomorphism, 133, individuation,145, and matter, 191.

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