Sebastian Zearing

how to be progressive without being a stupid liberal

Essentialism is False

Essentialism, or the Platonic Theory of Forms, is the idea that entities in the world are imperfect instantiations of perfect exemplars that exist in metaphysical realms apart. The exemplars are known as “essences,” and the imperfections as “accidents.” Essentialism was instigated by mathematics, especially geometry. In geometry, one can imagine many kinds of entities, such as circles, lines, midpoints, etc, and these entities are understood to exist in some perfect sense. A circle is the set of all points at a constant distance (radius) from its center. We can try drawing a circle, and we quickly realize that we cannot do so. There is no such thing as real circle. All circles try to be perfect but fail. Tiny perturbations, imperceptible deviations—these all conspire to prevent perfect circles.

Of course there’s no actual conspiracy; the natural world simply must needs be noisy and adulterated and impure. But why stop at geometry? Surely there’s also a perfect hand and a perfect block of iron or a perfect acorn? Why stop anywhere really? Make a list of all things in the world, and surely there’s a perfect exemplar of each one. None of these perfect exemplars exist, of course, they’re dinged and battered and bruised by accidents.

Essentialism is an extraordinarily seductive way of thinking, and probably all people who haven’t explicitly fought it are unwitting essentialists. It’s just how the brain works. We filter our experience of the world through categories, many of which are provided by the languages we speak, and these categories are represented in the brain as concepts that are activated when they are experienced.

But why is it false?

Take the example of gender/sex. <Man> is a category. All of us have a concept for it. Some people think having an XY karyotype (and being an adult) is a necessary and sufficient condition for being a <man>. But perhaps they believe that dem faggots cain’t be no real men. Yet even they would understand that their perspective is metaphorical. The occasion of a “faggot” raping a straight-as-an-arrow masculine man would be an occasion of homosexuality, not of heterosexuality, because they are both in fact men, as even our stereotyped bigot would agree, since they both have an XY karyotype, duh.

Except many individuals with an XY karyotype aren’t men. From androgen insensitivity syndrome to a Y chromosome with a mutation or deletion of the SRY, some perfect women in all their parts have Y chromosomes.

How about a penis? Humans with penises are men, humans without are women, voilà! But what about chopped-off penises? Fine! All adult humans born with a penis are men, and all humans born without are women! But what about the intersex? What about hijras? What about David Reimer? What about transmen and transwomen?

All we have are correlations. There are correlations between Y chromosomes and androgens and testes and penises and self-identifications and sexual orientations and social attitudes. And none of these determine what <man> is. Nothing can determine what <man> is. Once we’ve completed our analysis, we find that there is no <man> behind the veil. There is no gold standard. There is no realm of perfect exemplars that can be attached to all the things we see in the world.

What we do have is a world that conveniently arranges itself in repetitive patterns, such that highly abstract explicit information can be formulated by intelligent beings. But fundamentally, these macroscopic fluctuations are just inferences about downstream properties that ultimately derive from the behavior of one or two material primitives flapping their wings in a chaotic world.

P.S. Read my follow-up post to learn what <man> actually is!

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6 responses to “Essentialism is False

  1. Pingback: Implicit v. Explicit Information | Sebastian Zearing

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