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Comparative Studies, part 2: Getting to the Essence
essentialism and teleology
See other writers/thinkers I drew inspiration from for my Forces of the Soul series.
There is a strong human instinct to want to know the essence of things. Essence is that ineffable “quiddity” or “whatness” of a thing, the intrinsic quality without which a thing would not be what it is. In fact, the word “essence” derives from a word the Romans coined, “essentia,” to represent what Aristotle called “to ti ên einai,” literally “the what it was to be” or “to ti esti”, literally “the what it is.”
Plato idealized essences into what he called “Ideas and Forms.” Ideas and Forms are what we now call “platonic ideals”: perfection itself, ideals that all other things are but shadows of. For example, think of the ideal circle vs. the poor imitations that we draw on paper. Math is perhaps the clearest example where inquiry into ideal forms has led to many useful discoveries.
In psychology, the idea of the “essence” describes a common mode of reasoning for predicting things and reasoning about the world, termed essentialist thinking. Sometimes the prediction is an act of categorization and recognition. For example, think about trying to predict which watermelon will be tastiest (an as yet unobserved quality) by appealing to essential similarities we have previously observed in ripe watermelons (eg how hollow-sounding does it sound). Alternatively, perhaps you trust a person because somehow they have the “essence of trustworthiness.” Other times, “essence” points to qualities by which we can identify causal mechanisms — e.g. children can describe “living objects' behaviour as self-perpetuated and non-living objects as a result of an adult influencing the object's actions.”
Some of the main qualities that psychologists include in their characterization of the essentialist mode of thinking are: 1) recognizing causal mechanisms, 2) a strong sense that outcomes predicted by the causal mechanisms will be fulfilled, and 3) immutability, i.e. a sense that the essence is not merely superficial, but is an enduring quality that makes it a reliable thing to base judgments on. From my observations I might add a fourth instinct people have, that 4) essence is not accidental.
In short, thinking in terms of essences is a strong intuition. Furthermore, it is often a useful intuition/technique that we use to make sense of and predict the world.
Essentialist thinking can get complicated very quickly. It is a small step from thinking in terms of essences to start asking, “Do essences exist? How and where do they exist? Do they have to be eternal? Are essences always physical? How do they govern the behavior of things?”Where and how does the essence of the “perfect circle” exist? What, is the spirit, or “vital essence” of living things? of a human being? of me?
Another area where things get complicated is when essentialist intuition is applied to questions of what to do with our life. Plato asked, what is the essence of the “Good” with a capital G? He thought that it ought to be perfect, eternal, and timeless. Platonist ethics regard virtue as achieving knowledge of the Good.
Aristotle showed related impulses in his outline of four types of causes, or types of explanations to the question “why.”He gave the highest emphasis to what he called the “telos” or “final cause,” the “ends and purpose” of a thing. In short, the telos is the essence dictating how a thing would, should, and ought to change over time. After formulating the concept of the telos, it is only one more step to ask, “What is the telos of a person? Of life? Of humankind?”
Plato and Aristotle put to words one of the most basic human intuitions. Thinking in terms of essences is a very useful tool for simplifying our understanding of the world and making many advances, but critiquing essentialist thinking also has a long history.The past century or two has been particularly vigorous in pushing back against essentialist thinking. For example, essentialism is strongly correlated with perpetuating inclusion, exclusion, stereotypes, and prejudice. Gender studies debates notions of the essences of man vs. woman. Science is arguably one grand project in discovering that, without appealing to “predestined intentional essences,” marvelous phenomena can emerge from and be explained by “non-intentional” processes.
Nevertheless, essentialist and teleological thinking is still alive and well in many quarters of life. There is this impulse we feel to find the “one true essence” of things. We crave for eternal, unchanging truths. When we ask questions like “what is the purpose (telos) of life?” we are seeking the answer to end all questions, the essential guarantee of a Good life. But what if the answer to these questions about life does not look like an essence? I.e. what if the answer does not look singular, predictive/destined, enduring, intentional, inherent? Would we end up looking in the wrong places?
P.S. Upon further reflection, the urge towards essentialist thinking echoes what I call the first force of the soul. Not only do we have strong urges to anticipate things, but we also have strong prior expectations for how things and answers should look.
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essentialism#In_developmental_psychology. Also, see Gelman, S. A.; Kremer, K. E. (1991). "Understanding natural causes: Children's explanations of how objects and their properties originate". Child Development. 62 (2): 396–414.
An instinct (hunch) perfectly illustrated by Einstein's famous reservation about quantum mechanics, “God does not play dice.” In principle, there is no reason why something can not have a “random essence,” but such a kind of essence violates many people’s intuitions.
These kind of questions are called the problem of universals. One can also clearly see how they are motivated by the fundamental instincts of wanting to predict behavior, and seeking enduring qualities.
Think about statements like, “性本善” or “性本惡”. Or the Christian ideas of original sin and Jonathan Edwards “we’re all sinners.” People have been extremely occupied with these kinds of statements, across cultures and centuries.
In some sense, one could say that “essence” is our ingrained expectation/intuition for what an “answer should/probably look like.” Hypotheses of features we expect to see in an essence, or answer, are then what the psychologists described: mechanistic, predictive/destined, enduring, intentional. But could answers take other shapes? Is an answer just whatever sates the questioning impulse?
Even criticisms of essentialism oftentimes feature traces of essentialism. Arguably, one of Buddhism's central teachings is to move away from thinking in terms of eternal, intrinsic essences. E.g. “What is the reality of things just as it is? It is the absence of essence.” — Buddhapālita-mula-madhyamaka-vrtti, P5242, 73.5.6-74.1.2. Note that even this statement couldn't resist trying to name a “reality” above essence, i.e. the “essence of essence.” Madhyamaka called this the idea of “two truths/realities.” Later, Hegel made similar observations that common essences are not independent (intrinsic and singular), but this was part of a larger project seeking a higher “reality”/“Concept”/“Actuality” where ideas like Freedom and Good live (apologies for the gibberish and my poor summary of Hegel — seems like he was grappling with trying to subordinate non-essentialist insights into essentialist expectations). Nominalism has a millenia of history in pointing out the constructed, “named” nature of abstract essences. The Tao Te Ching had a famous line, “名可名非常名” (the Name that can be named is not the true Name) which simultaneously expresses nominalist skepticism of essence while reifying/essentializing it into the ineffable “essence” termed 道 (Tao).
 Cody, L.F. 2015, “Essentialism in Context”: understanding how strong the essentialising intuition is, Cody cautioned “we should not not essentialize essentialism.”
 Even without turning towards academic studies, a quick look around us sees numerous examples where people try to identify the “essential goodness” of their race/religion/in-group.
 See [historiography](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essentialism#In_historiography)
 Phillips, Anne 1 March 2011, “What's wrong with essentialism?” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory. 11 (1): 47–60.
 Morton, T. A.; Hornsey, M. J.; Postmes, T. (2009). “Shifting ground: The variable use of essentialism in contexts of inclusion and exclusion”. British Journal of Social Psychology. 48 (1): 35–59.
 Bastian, B.; Haslam, N. (2006). “Psychological essentialism and stereotype endorsement.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 42 (2): 228–235.