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In defense of essences

Now there’s a title that should make this entry even more crowd-pleasing than others I’ve posted recently. Still, I feel the need to mull over some basics, and those who get bored can skip entries.

Anyway, “essentialism” is considered a big sin among a lot of educated and intelligent people today. It seems to be the belief that big complicated things like orthodoxy or Islam or femininity have a coherent enduring character such that one can make statements like “Islam is by nature militant and intolerant” or “Christian orthodoxy excludes female priests.” If you say such things you’ll be told that there are many Islams, orthodoxies and conceptions of femininity and the priesthood, so your decision to choose one of them and make it the standard depends on your purposes and—since standards aim to control human relations and conduct—is essentially political and should be judged as such.

An easy response to the objection is that it proves too much. If words mean what one chooses, and there’s no right or wrong but only politics in the matter, then communication becomes impossible. Manipulative rhetoric recognized as such becomes useless. If I know that a reputed expert won’t use “Islam” to mean anything but “religion of peace,” so that the only meaning of “jihad” he will admit is a struggle for justice and understanding that on further inquiry turns out to be identical with liberalism, I’ll simply stop paying attention to what he says. The same holds for those who simply refuse to use words that everyone else finds useful, for example who won’t use “orthodoxy” without putting it in quotation marks.

So in order to talk meaningfully about the social world in which we find ourselves we have to accept that even words as big as “Islam” and “orthodoxy” have some stable meaning. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t use them. Still, the question arises how that can be and what sort of meaning that is. After all, aren’t such things collections of diverse materials, all of which can vary greatly?

One answer is that any functional complex has an internal dynamic that constantly tries to maintain and restore stability and coherence. That is obviously true of a living being, but it’s also true of species of living beings. Species don’t blend gradually into each other, geographically or in the fossil record. Each constitutes a particular stable mode of being alive that resists further change after fairly narrow limits are reached, and tends to restore itself to its original form when special distorting influences (for example, selective breeding) are removed. Even less definite wholes, such as ecologies, demonstrate similar tendencies. If you set up an aquarium, micro-organisms in the water will initially fluctuate wildly but soon establish an equilibrium that resists further change. Such a result is to be expected. The situation that can not only establish but maintain and restore itself is the one that in the end will prevail. We should therefore expect to live in a world ordered by stable patterns of relationships with particular qualities.

So how about cultures, philosophies, religions, and so on? These are particular ways of understanding the world, of organizing action, of establishing relations with other men and with things above and below mankind, of being human. They have names that those within and without have always found useful, and that endure for centuries with no feeling that the thing named has changed identity. They inspire loyalty and sometimes ultimate self-sacrifice. People think they are particular things with a definite character, and that belief is basic to how most of us carry on life. What great philosophical discovery has been made that proves that everybody’s wrong? And if there has been no such discovery, why not go on believing that cultures, religions and what not are indeed particular things that are definite and stable enough that some descriptions are correct and some are simply incorrect?

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Comments

Thanks for that reflection … “essentialism” was a term I guess slipped by me in philosophy class and I was entirely ignorant of its meaning until now. =)