Sunday, April 14, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 2. Essentialism

The ancient Greeks – Aristotle in particular – were fascinated by the idea that things could change and yet remain what they are.  We can crumple up a piece of paper and despite its change in shape it remains paper.  But, if we burn it, it stops being paper and becomes something else entirely – ashes.

Aristotle sought to explain this difference by saying that every object had two types of properties:  those that are only accidental to it and those that are essential to the object’s existence.  The essence of an object is a property or set of properties so fundamental to it that we cannot conceive of the object existing without that property.  An accident, however, is not fundamental to the being of the object, and it can continue to be what it is without that property.  Consequently, if an “accident” is changed, the object remains what it is.  But once an object’s essential quality is changed, the thing ceases to be what it is and becomes something else. 

For Aristotle, the ability to reason is an essential property of being human.  While reasoning ability might be addled in a madman, the madman still reasons.  But we cannot conceive – at least Aristotle couldn’t – of a human who entirely lacks the faculty of reason in a way that, for example, a plant does.  At the same time, there are innumerable qualities which any particular human being might possess but which are not essential to being human, such as height or hair or eye color.  These for Aristotle are accidents.

This distinction between accidental properties and essential properties of a thing has led some thinkers to conclude that in Aristotle’s system “essence precedes existence.”  In other words, there must already be some pre-existing blueprint to allow us to figure out which properties are only accidents and which are essential properties.  Properties are essential to a thing only if it was “meant” to have those properties.  Interestingly enough, the Greek phrase that the Romans translated into essentia was to ti ên einai, literally, “the what it was to be.”  The phrase itself suggests that the “what” existed before the thing itself.  For Aristotle, the essence of an object precedes its existence.
Here are a few sort of hot-button examples of essentialist thinking at work today.  The anti-same-sex marriage people take an essentialist view of marriage.  For them, an essential characteristic of the thing we call marriage is that it involves a single man and a single woman.  Any other arrangement – while it might be something else, like a civil union – is not marriage.   Similarly, there is a lot of essentialist thinking about men and women – women, the child-bearers, are more thoughtful and caring, while men are the leaders and risk-takers.  The leaders of the Catholic Church take an essentialist understanding of the priesthood, and cannot conceive of a priest as other than a male.  The main point of essentialism is that things are intended to be a certain way.

Similarly, we also give individuals essential characteristics, mostly ourselves.  How many times have we heard something like this:  “That’s just who I am,” “I’m no good at math,” or “I can’t eat Chinese food.”  In other words, according to this sort of essentialist thinking, there are particular characteristics that define you and make you who you are, without which you’d be someone else.  You cannot conceive of yourself as lacking this characteristic.  The presumption behind the advice to “be yourself” is that there is already a pre-existent blueprint of yourself to which you can conform.

Next:  Existentialism


James R said...

The examples you give are great—in fact, examples are often essential in understanding essentialism. Marriage is particularly appropriate especially in today's world. Reading the post, I asked myself, 'well, I guess it comes down to what one would say is the essential nature of marriage', or, even more relatively: 'it depends on how marriage is defined'.

In some sense that is true, however, Aristotle gives us a test in defining marriage or anything's essential nature. He says look to its purpose or telos in Greek. (Where we get the word teleological.) He would say look to the purpose of marriage in order to determine its essence.

Of course, modern science and culture looks a bit curiously at an object or organism's purpose. We normally don't think that way. (And I know essentialism is going to have its hands full to keep up.)

But, nevertheless, it is a very useful concept. Here is another example from a recent Supreme Court case. Casey Martin was an excellent golfer, good enough to play in the PGA, but was handicapped to such a degree that it was too painful for him to walk the course as required by the PGA rules. He sued to use a cart. The Supreme Court had to determine what was the essence of golf. Was walking the course an essential part of golf or was it an accident? What was the telos of golf?

James R said...

In another attempt to make Philosophy and this post relevant to the 'real world', I just watched the new trailer for "Man of Steel" and the central theme is "I have to believe you were sent here for a reason and even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is."

So we haven't lost the notion of telos or the purpose of Superman in defining his essence. I leave it to you (the reader) to decide the importance of essentialism as a formative notion in the significant cultural event of a fantasy movie about a comic book character.

Big Myk said...

Your citation of PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin is an excellent example of essentialism at work. But you really can't blame the Court for it. It was forced into this foray into the metaphysics of golf by Congress. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all places of public accommodation (including the PGA Tour) to make "modifications in policies, practices, or procedures" needed to permit people with disabilities to enjoy the accommodation unless "making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of" the public accommodation.

I'm not quite sure how you determine the "essence" of golf, but the Court did it: "the essence of the game has been shotmaking—using clubs to cause a ball to progress from the teeing ground to a hole some distance away with as few strokes as possible." Since, that says nothing about golf carts, they don't alter the fundamental nature of the game. The Court relied on the first recorded rules of golf, published in 1744.

James R said...

That's hilarious. I could listen to a series on just the determination of the essence of golf and how the Supreme Court made it. I really don't know much about it—the law or, to be honest, the ins and outs of essentialism, but I think the whole analysis would be fascinating (and instructing). (And would raise some questions about essentialism itself, which I'm sure we will discover as this series progresses.)

In many ways it is similar to determining the essence of marriage.