Sebastian Zearing

how to be progressive without being a stupid liberal

Tag Archives: essentialism

Social Constructs and Social Wrappers

Gender is a social construct, they say. And race/ethnicity. And lots of other things that most people can stare at and say, “but but… these distinctions obviously exist and are real!” And they would be right, except that they’ve failed to understand what a construct is (though that may be the fault of either intentional or unintentional obfuscation on the part of the “social construct” advocates). I think the term “social construct” leads to these kinds of misunderstandings for two reasons. One, the word “construct” itself connotes “not real” even though it definitely doesn’t denote that (here’s where the obfuscation comes from). Two, the term doesn’t imply any kind of connection to something objectively real, even though there often may be an actual connection. The term as it’s most often used should be replaced with “social wrapper.” But what is being wrapped? Well here’s a list:

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Statistical Invariances and Hierarchical and Dimensional Variation

Look around you.

How many repeating things can you find? In my room, I can count several dozen individual blinds over the window, two windows, several dozen buttons on a remote control, several dozen keys on my keyboard, thousands of carpet threads, six guitar strings, several dozen books, four pillows, and a partridge in a pear tree [kidding]. Interestingly, if I had the right equipment, I could tell that all of these things are made from 10^bignumber electrons, quarks, and pions, though if I go back to using my eyes, I’m only interacting with these subatomic particles through photons. These subatomic particles make atoms and ions in exceedingly regular ways. These in turn make molecules in slightly more complicated ways. These molecules in turn make bulk materials in even more complicated ways (or sometimes the pattern jumps straight from atoms to bulk materials, as with most metals). And then these materials go to make all kinds of different things. We can also take a detour through biology, where the molecules, in breathtakingly complicated ways, make cells, which then make tissues, which make organs, which make bodies. So we have a world replete with all kinds of different things, the vast majority of which are not unique, isolated things but rather similar to other things.

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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.

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