Essentialism

A belief about human nature.

There are ‘essential’ features of human character which constitute the timeless and universal foundations of human nature.

Depending on the version of this theory, this essence may divide people into males and females, or leaders and led; or unite them as all equally aggressive, or self-seeking, or co-operative.

Source:
Maggie Humm, The Dictionary of Feminist Theory (London, 1989)

Essentialism is the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function.[1] 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”.[2] The contrary view—non-essentialism—denies the need to posit such an “essence'”.

Essentialism has been controversial from its beginning. Plato, in the Parmenides dialogue, depicts Socrates questioning the notion, suggesting that if we accept the idea that every beautiful thing or just action partakes of an essence to be beautiful or just, we must also accept the “existence of separate essences for hair, mud, and dirt”.[3] In biology and other natural sciences, essentialism provided the rationale for taxonomy at least until the time of Charles Darwin;[4] the role and importance of essentialism in biology is still a matter of debate.[5]

Essentialism can be particularly pernicious when applied to human beings and their identities. In medical sciences this can lead to a reified view of identities –– for example assuming that differences in hypertension in Afro-American populations are due to racial difference rather than social causes –– leading to fallacious conclusions and potentially unequal treatment.[6] In general believing that social identities, such as ethnicity, nationality or gender, are the necessary characteristics of people which define who they are, can lead to dangerous consequences. Essentialist and reductive thinking lies at the core of many hateful and xenophobic ideologies.[7] Especially older social theories were guilty of essentialism.

2 thoughts on “Essentialism

  1. Alejandro says:

    That is a good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Simple but very precise information… Many thanks for sharing
    this one. A must read article!

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