Philosophy, Society

Essentialism: The Terrible Legacy of Western Philosophy

In 2017 I wrote a piece about the root of so-called “alternative facts.” I blamed the ability of people to accept alternative facts as truth on Western Philosophy, but specifically on Plato’s essentialist view of reality. The piece became my most widely read ever, dwarfing my books and anything else I’ve published online.

Frankly, I was kind of surprised by the response. But, upon years of reflection, it makes sense: essentialism is so vital to human thinking about the world it’s no wonder that a direct attack upon Essentialism – blaming it for a notoriously stupid idea – would result in controversy.

Even today, with all the tools at our disposal to show that Essentialism is not and cannot be true, most of us still cling to the idea that essences exist. Worse, many of us cling to the worst consequence of Essentialism, which is the belief that our thoughts create the world.

Why do we believe that? Well, it makes us feel good.

What is Essentialism?

This is how Wikipedia explains Essentialism:

Essentialism is the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function. In early Western thought, Plato’s idealism held that all things have such an “essence”—an “idea” or “form”. In Categories, Aristotle similarly proposed that all objects have a substance that, as George Lakoff put it, “make the thing what it is, and without which it would be not that kind of thing”.

Introduction to the Wikipedia page on Essentialism

Each “thing” has an essence. This of course assumes that things are both independent of each other and indivisible, two aspects which are fundamentally untrue for most “things”.

Where did Essentialism come from?

As the quote above mentions, it seems to be a Greek idea, originally.

Plato is, if not one of the earliest Essentialists, certainly the most popular Essentialist in history. (As the man said, “Western Philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”) When I wrote that Plato caused Alternative Facts, what I was saying was that the popularity of Plato’s Essentialism is one of the primary causes of people in the 21st century still being willing to believe in the essence of something instead of the evidence in front of their eyes.

I blame Plato because he’s the Essentialist I’m most familiar with and because you cannot get through a degree in philosophy or political theory (my major) without spending an inordinate time on Plato, even though he was fundamentally wrong about the nature of the world in many, many ways. (Including in his essentialism.)

(Aside: Many if not most people I know or have known in the philosophy world don’t view essentialist beliefs as a problem, which is why I write things like this and my piece about Alternative Facts. It is a problem when we study old thinkers fairly uncritically because of their influence on the field of study, as opposed to engaging with their ideas critically because they were wrong. The theory of forms is wrong; it does not describe reality. We should not treat it as right or partially right just because it was hugely influential.)

Why is Essentialism wrong?

Essentialism has no basis in reality.

I know it has no basis in reality because of the Scientific Method. Specifically, there are at least two criteria of the Scientific Method which essentialist theories cannot meet, will not meet and can never meet.

Essentialism is Not Observable

For human beings to study reality, I think most of us would agree that the aspect of reality needs to be observable by human beings so that it can be studied.

But essentialist ideas are not in any way observable by definition. Essences exist only as ideas – the idea of a table is our minds not in the table itself. When scientific observation was very crude, it made sense to assume things had essences, be they animals or minerals or what have you. But now we know better.

(Obviously, we need to distinguish essences from the fundamental particles of the universe. The thing is, when people use the term “essence” they are not referring to fundamental particles, they are referring to “natures” of things which are made up of many other, smaller things.)

Essentialism is not Falsifiable

A slightly more controversial part of the Scientific Method is that scientific theories must be falsifiable by nature, to be valid theories. The reason to accept this as a criterion is that it is far, far, far easier to prove a hypothesis wrong than right.

So, if we have theories that are built upon falsifiable hypotheses, and these hypotheses have not been falsified, we know the theory is correct (as far as we know given our technology at the time).

But essentialist ideas are not falsifiable because of their very nature. There’s literally nothing I or anyone can do to conclusively demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that essentialism is 100% wrong. I cannot prove that God doesn’t exist because the theory of a being which created the universe is not falsifiable. I cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a table doesn’t have some kind of “essence” which defines its “table-ness”.

Counterintuitively, this is exactly what makes essentialism 100% wrong. Because we cannot falsify essentialism as a series of hypotheses, we cannot show that it is correct. Therefore it is not correct.

Our Thoughts Do Not Create Reality

What follows from essentialist ideas, i.e. the belief that our thoughts create reality, is more problematic.

  • Essentialists believe that each and everything has an essence. That essence must exist outside of time and space, otherwise it wouldn’t be an essential characteristic of the thing, capable of giving that thing definition.
  • We have access to these essences, somehow, through thinking.
  • Some take this a step further to believe that because we can conceive of something – anything – that thing can exist in the world independent of human thought.

This last belief contradicts the observed laws of physics.

If we lived in a world in which our thoughts did precede or create reality, we should be able to observe this, shouldn’t we? (There is a supposed contradiction here because, of course, if our thoughts create reality then we are all just observing the reality created by our thoughts so we cannot observe that our thoughts create reality. There are many problems with this assertion and I’m not going to deal with them here. I regard it as a different conversation than whether or not essentialism is correct.)

Even if we merely lived in a world where every “thing” had an essence, we should be able to observe these essences.

What is the explanation that we cannot observe the essence of a thing?

Is it that the essence is so fundamental that it cannot be seen by human eyes? That is absurd, of course.

The explanation as to why we cannot observe our thoughts preceding reality is this:

We’ve all had this secret thought that we cannot observe our thoughts creating reality to prevent some of us from coming to the discovery that our thoughts create reality.

Not only is this idea absurd, but it renders essentialism meaningless. (Both arguments are also strawmen. Sorry, I cannot come up with good arguments in favour of essentialism. I think essentialism is wrong.)

Essentialism purports to explain the world. But how exactly does assuming each thing have an observable essence help explain reality?

Now, I’m not being fair. Many if not most philosophical essentialists don’t actually believe our thoughts create reality.

But many lay people run with this idea, and the whole “alternative facts” thing is a pretty good example of how essentialism is interpreted by the average person.

What is so bad about Essentialism?

Many people view essentialism as harmless. In the world of philosophy, it is treated as such (as it is given tons of attention as an idea).

But it is very, very dangerous. Consider my (least) favourite application in politics, the idea of essential metaphysical ideals.

Metaphysics is the study of the nature of reality, and it is the place where essentialism has been most prominent and damaging. But metaphysics is called metaphysics literally because it is not and cannot be physics. That’s why it has meta in its name. Ahem.

What is Justice? For the essentialist, it is an actual thing that can be achieved in this world, because it has a definable essence, whatever that may be. (Receiving your just desserts, or what have you.)

But is not true, of course. There is no real-world justice that resembles the ideal form of Justice with a capital J. It’s not possible because of the nature of the universe.

But we believe it’s possible because we’ve all been taught about Justice in essentialist terms. Just like we’ve been taught about Freedom and Equality in essentialist terms. (Pick a personal virtue or societal value and you’ve likely been taught it in essentialist terms.)

In the real world, there is only relative justice, which is almost always unsatisfactory to somebody involved in the decision. There is only relative freedom, there is only relative equality. There are no absolutes.

But when people want to achieve Justice and they cannot, they get frustrated and angry. Something or someone must be standing in their way. Look at the worst genocides in human history and you will find essentialist ideas behind them. The attempt to create a utopia is the attempt to bring essentialist metaphysics to a physical world in which essentialism is not real.

What are some 21st-century examples of Essentialism?

  • Abolish the Police
  • Alternate Facts
  • Cyber Utopianism/Technological Utopianism
  • Neo-Conservatism
  • New Thought
  • Trans-Humanism
  • (Any ideology that focuses on a metaphysical goal)

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