Essentialism

Richard Wattenbarger

I confess that I know longer know what "essentialism" is.  Or, rather, I'm not sure I ever knew.  Is essentialism simply a poor man's Platonism?  Is it a general distrust (or dismissal) of ontology?  Or is it merely a misuse of ontological language?  Whatever essentialism is, most of us in the humanities have been trained to believe that it's a bad thing, like child-beating.  Does this situation merely render "essentialism" and its cognates suitable for hit-and-run polemics, shabby substitutes for more substantial ideology critique?  Or am I missing something?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Essentialism

  1. RE: ESSENTIALISM
    It is important to realize that current thinking includes past positive developments as well as a healthy dose of wishes for future positive developments.
    Currently, we are experiencing a “makeover” of the arts. Everyone wants a(n) MBA. Everyone wants to “run” an arts organization.
    In truth, Machaut did not concern himself with such mundane tasks, nor did Gesualdo. But Handel and Bach did. We can learn a great deal about the “business” of music just by studying the “business models” developed by Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. An Excursis might look at how the dilletantes stepped in and took over: throwing money at something can reward a wealthy individual by providing a sense of accomplishment.
    JustMy2Cents.
    Michael Leese
    mdleese@yahoo.com

  2. Phil Ford says:

    “Is essentialism simply a poor man’s Platonism? Is it a general distrust (or dismissal) of ontology? Or is it merely a misuse of ontological language? Whatever essentialism is, most of us in the humanities have been trained to believe that it’s a bad thing, like child-beating.”
    What’s interesting about these questions is the suggestion that our (academics’) habitual distaste for “essentialism” is really a pervasive unease with ontology per se, or maybe a unease with naming and language. Maybe it is a residue of the old modernist frustration with the limits of language — the way names substitute types for the ineffable singularity of the object. Or maybe, given the fact that we, as language-users, cannot ever escape this conceptual flattening of things, the charge of “essentialism” becomes something like a 55-MPH speed limit. Everyone breaks it, so everyone is guilty, so anyone can be pulled over. It’s nice to have that kind of power!

  3. Richard says:

    I’m not sure the analogy with the speed limit holds, because, in principle, it is possible not to break the 55 M.P.H. speed limit. A more apposite analogy might be original sin, in which case it would be impossible not to essentialize.

  4. Laurie says:

    I recommend what Terry Eagleton has to say about essentialists, and anti-essentialists, in After Theory – I’m not in the same office where the book is shelved, otherwise I’d type it out. The passage is witty and clear-headed, and I found it very freeing, because basically he doesn’t care for either, opting instead for common sense (at what point does a sheep stop being a sheep? Is it essentialist to describe something made of copper as “something made of copper?”). And you’re right: my experience of the humanities use of “essentialism” as an accusation is that it can be a handy, risk-free way of saying, “I don’t agree with you,” without having to go into too many details. As you say, as language users we must essentialize at some level, all the time, whether we are the utterers or the utterees (thank you , Mr Bahktin).
    Thanks for the blog, guys! Keep it up. You make me smile.

  5. Richard says:

    Kudos to Eagleton for eschewing attempts to wield essentialism as a tool for dismissing inconvenient arguments. I’ll have to take a look at After Theory. (Eagleton’s always a great read!)
    I don’t agree, with Eagleton’s position (as characterized here) that one can appeal to common sense–not least because common sense is socially constituted and hardly common.
    Perhaps the more interesting questions have to do with ontotheology.

  6. Laurie says:

    Whoops! That was a bit of my interpretation there – I don’t think Eagleton uses the term “common sense.” Scuse me! And it’s been a while since I read it… Don’t let my redux put you off – the book turns into a bit of a rant by the end, but it’s still refreshing, and he clearly has a great time debunking all and sundry.

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