What is Essentialism?
Essentialism is the perspective that there is some underlying essence shared by all people or objects within the same class or category. On the philosophical level, it means that these groups or categories are united by an invisible nature that determines their characteristics and behavior.
Aside from this philosophical understanding of essentialism, it can also be seen in biological and sociological terms. In biology, essentialism can be seen in terms of species. All species can be thought to have definite physical and behavioral characteristics. Furthermore, there is a tendency to see these qualities as fixed and unchanging. In social terms, essentialism is the tendency to view people in certain groups to share certain fixed qualities. This can be best understood in terms of race, gender or culture.
How Does Essentialism Work?
Whether we are talking about philosophy, biology, or sociology, the category has characteristics which inevitably determine the character of beings within that class. These classes can be pretty much anything. Rocks can be considered a certain class of being, meaning that all rocks will share certain qualities. All birds share common features and behavior. All mammals. When it comes to social essentialism, we move into categories of people. Men and women are essentialist categories. Caucasians. Americans. Republicans. People who live on the east side.
While there is a philosophy of essentialism, it’s more important to see it as a psychological tendency. Human beings have a natural tendency to group things into classes and then apply universal characteristics to all members of a given class. Some psychologists have described us as cognitive misers, meaning that we take mental shortcuts and only use the minimum of energy required to process information. These are known as heuristics, techniques for coming to a conclusion without having to fully analyze the situation. We take in the most relevant and important factors and then generate conclusions based on these factors.
The value of essentialist heuristics is that we don’t have to stop and assess each object to get a solid understanding about it. For example, all rocks are heavier than air. That’s an essential quality of the category “rock.” Heaviness is a part of the essence of “rockiness”. So, we don’t have to physically inspect each rock we encounter to find out if it’s heavier than air. As soon as we know something is a rock, we have a whole catalogue of information on what it is and how it will behave.
When we take this onto the biological level, for instance, we know about cats. We don’t have to get to know each cat we see just to know it’s going to like fish, that it’ll enjoy a good petting (if it decides to let you), and that it might really enjoy some catnip. The category of cat lets us know how this object is likely to behave without ever having to experience it in person with this particular cat.
What is the Drawback of Essentialism?
Heuristics like this save time. As soon as we learn about a certain type of thing, we can apply this information to every other member of this class. So far, we haven’t touched upon any downsides. But let’s think back upon the examples we’ve explored already. What if I said all rocks are hard? There are some rocks that can be crushed or scratched relatively easily. Same thing goes for the idea that all rocks are heavy. Pumice stone, for example, is extremely light. Let’s look at cats. What if we say that all cats have fur? And then we run into one of those hairless cats. Well, we’ve just encountered one of those instances in which our heuristics can lead us to an inaccurate conclusion.
So far, this all seems relatively harmless. And, for the most part, essentialist thought, just like most of our heuristic thinking, is more helpful than harmful. The benefits of quick analysis outweigh the drawbacks of the occasional inaccurate conclusion. The exceptions just prove the rule. It’s still messy thinking and can lead us astray, but the examples so far don’t show it being a huge problem. It only takes a moment to realize that this rock is light, or soft, or that this cat has no fur. But, the situation gets a bit messier when we apply this thought to human beings.
Consider, for a moment, the types of categories we create for humans. We have gender, race, religion. We have nationality. And for any of these categories, we can describe characteristics that categorize all members within it. So, what does that mean? We might say that all men have external genitalia. That’s pretty solid. But, what if we say that all women are weak? Is that still a valid heuristic? We could say that all Native Americans are drunks. Or all followers of Islam are terrorists. Suddenly, we’ve moved into the territory of stereotype and discrimination. Suddenly, this essentialist form of thinking reveals a bit of a dark side. By labeling a class of people within an essentialist category and applying the characteristics universally, we judge an entire group based on the actions of one or a few. We can overlook the value of the individual because we’ve painted the group that they belong to (in our own mind) with a broad brush.
How do We Create Essentialist Categories?
To understand this a bit better, we’ll have to take a look at how these essentialist categories are formed. After all, we aren’t born knowing that all rocks are heavy or that all cats are furry. We have to actually encounter a rock or a cat before we can get to know their characteristics. We find a rock and see that it drops when we let it go. We see that it’s hard and heavy. The next rock behaves the same way. And the next. So, we come to expect any rock we encounter will have these same properties. We run into a cat and we see that it’s furry and it likes to be petted. It loves some fish, and you might even find out that it goes nuts for catnip. We meet another cat. And a third. Eventually, we expect all cats to have the same preferences, qualities, and behaviors.
So, we encounter one being. We come to understand the characteristics of this being. Then we see another. And another. We see that they all have the same clear characteristics. And from this experience, we develop mental categories. After enough time, we come to expect that any new member of this class will fit into the same category and have the same characteristics. Sometimes it doesn’t take more than one, if the shoe really fits, and we come to expect the qualities of one member to be shared by all other members of the same class.
Applications and Challenges of Essentialist Thought
Essentialist thinking, as mentioned above, can be expressed in both biological and sociological terms. On a biological level, essentialism refers to the use of genetic, physiological, or biological factors as explanations for human behavior. We act like this because of our genetics. Because of our family or racial background. Or others do. Or all women are like this because of hormonal and physical differences from men. Sometimes, this form of thinking can be helpful. At the same time, this form of thought can lead us to believe that these behaviors or characteristics are fixed and unchangeable. This is an unjustified assertion, one not backed by scientific understanding. In fact, it is impossible for science to prove that any characteristic is fixed and unchanging.
Essentialist thought can also lead to generalizations which ignore differences in culture or history. For example, it might be claimed that all women see a wider range of colors than men. While there are studies that support this in western culture, this in no way guarantees that the same difference will hold true in other cultures. Or that it’s guaranteed to remain the same over time. From a sociological or anthropological standpoint, we can see that the use of our senses vary from one culture to another. Plus, the use of our senses has changed over time as well. These cultural and temporal factors introduce “x factors”, variables that have not been accounted for in the generalized statement.
Even when we make our claims more specific, essentialist thought still tends to overgeneralize these more refined categories. So, for instance, we might make a claim about Irish Catholics living in Brooklyn. This is less imprecise than talking about all people in Brooklyn or all Irish Catholics. At the same time, there’s going to be a huge amount of variety within this population. There’s no way that such a general statement will apply equally to the entire group. Plus, even if we were able to find a statement that applies to all Irish Catholic people in Brooklyn right now, the only constant in the universe is change. In five or ten years, this statement will no longer apply effectively to the whole group. Cultural and economic conditions change, and thus the qualities of the group change as well. This undercuts the invisible assumption of essentialism, which is that there are fixed and unchanging qualities which define a given group.
Examples of Essentialism
Since essentialism is a form of thinking that influences so many aspects of our perception, we can find examples that seem, on the surface, to be unrelated with one another. However, just by exploring these examples in detail, we can come to a greater understanding of what essentialist thought actually is and how it extends throughout our understanding.
First, consider the fact that nearly half of the adopted children in the United States seek out their birth parents at some point. How does this point to essentialist thought? Well, in terms of biological essentialism, we will tend to think that the biological characteristics of our parents have such a profound influence upon our lives that an adopted child would be incomplete without seeking out their biological parents. This will give them some sense of the biological category that they originated from. Essentialist thought suggests that the biological characteristics of the “family” category have a deterministic influence on the nature of the child.
Another interesting perspective to consider is that about a third of heart transplant recipients believe that they have taken on some of the qualities of the donor after receiving the transplant. Essentialism shows up here in the tendency to believe that the underlying essence of the body is transmitted along with the heart. Similar to this is the fact that about half of Americans reject evolutionary theory on the basis that they cannot believe that one species can transform into another. In this instance, essentialism can be seen in the idea that the characteristics of one species or form are fixed and unchanging. If this is the case, then transformation from one to another is impossible.
From what we have discussed in this article, it may seem that essentialism is a negative thing, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. As mentioned above, essentialist thinking is a heuristic. It is a tool for thought. Like all tools, it’s neither good nor bad, but it’s important to be careful how we apply it. Essentialism can help us to understand the nature of similar things that we encounter, even without having to learn anew each time. Just think about our prehistoric origins. We run into a sabertooth tiger. We learn some things about it in the moment. How it moves, how it attacks, what we have to do to get away. If we immediately remember this the next time we see a sabertooth tiger, we’re much more likely to survive than if we have to learn it all over again. That’s a huge benefit.
At the same time, essentialist thinking can lead us to make unwarranted assumption about situations and individuals that we encounter. The key here is to strive for clear thought. When quick action is necessary, it’s best to err on the side of caution. When we have time to process the situation, then the best way to approach the situation is to question our assumptions. We have to explore the nature of our classifications and the assumptions we hold about them. This allows us to avoid the traps of stereotypes and discrimination.