The essence of antiessentialism

Comments about the “clash of civilizations” and such like provoke complaints about “essentialism,” the supposed error or sin of attributing a particular fixed character to a group of people. The thought behind such complaints is that something as complex as a civilization or religion or race must be a heterogeneous collection of things that seems to acquire unity and take on a particular character only in relation to other things and to the purposes of the viewer.

That general philosophical view is appealing to many people because it reflects strong skeptical and subjectivist tendencies in modern thought. We can’t know things as they are in themselves, only things as they are to us, which is what we make of them. It also seems to have a practical result: if something is what it is only in relation to its setting and what one makes of it, then one can in effect change the thing by changing its environment and how one reads it.

Whatever that thing does is therefore really one’s own doing, and whatever it seems to do habitually must be the reflection of one’s own obsessions. If Islam is aggressive, or the wogs (who begin at Calais) are untrustworthy, then the fault is not wholly—or perhaps at all—in Islam or the wogs. It is we ourselves who construct Islam and the wogs through our classifications, who elicit their conduct through our actions, and who give it the significance it has for us through our interpretations.

It’s hard to know what to do with such a line of thought. There’s no doubt that people often construct the situations they find themselves in. Still, taken as an overall theory the point is useless. For one thing, it always involves a double standard. it can’t be applied generally because doing so would disintegrate all categories and make thought and discussion impossible. If it’s somehow illegitimate for Slovaks to complain about gypsy “thievishness,” because gypsies and their supposed qualities are a creation of Slovak society, then how can it be legitimate for the EU or the gypsies themselves to complain about Slovak “racism”? If the EU shuns the Slovaks because the Slovaks shun the gypsies and drawing lines that exclude is bad, who’s being irrational?

What follows from any of this? Only that it’s silly to think you can quash a line of discussion by saying “essentialism.” One can always complain that a conception like “Islam” or “the black race” is being applied in too simpleminded a way. One should give the particulars, though. If the conceptions have been used for a long time by a wide variety of people on both sides of the lines they draw, there must be something in them that reflects important realities. To say there is something essentially illegitimate about using them in reasoning about public affairs is itself to reason is an overly schematic and thus culpably “essentialist” fashion.

Leave a Comment