Essentialism: The Logical Fallacy Plaguing Us Since Plato

Everyone knows the names Plato and Aristotle. The Ancient Athenian philosophers are widely celebrated as founders of the western intellectual tradition, and they continue to exert immense influence on our thought and culture today. Yet since they are customarily so revered, far fewer are aware that they have also saddled academia with some of its most dangerous tendencies and longest lasting dogmas.

These are the subject matter of Karl Popper’s 1945 masterwork, The Open Society and its Enemies. Popper first documents and exposes the reactionary political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, created at a time where the birth of democracy was causing rapid change to Athenian society. This was a development which Plato had greatly feared, and which he therefore tried to stop in its tracks. Popper goes on to show how these flawed philosophical ideas were taken up in modernity by Hegel, whose work as an apologist for Prussian absolutism marks him out in ignominy as the intellectual father of modern totalitarianism.

Popper’s book traces a long and complex intellectual history, and this essay is hugely indebted to his work, which I highly recommend. Not everyone has time to read such a long book, however, and it may not be immediately clear how the esoteric ideas of the Ancient Greeks could have any contemporary relevance. But be in no doubt: these peculiar philosophical fallacies, born two and a half millennia ago, then later reinvigorated by Hegel (along with Marx), are manifest in the most destructive dogma of our own time: Wokeism. To better understand the ideas circulating in our present, we must first take a look their intellectual history.

This essay focuses largely on essentialism. This is a philosophical method best characterised as the worship of language. An empty scholasticism, essentialist thought has stifled our reason since antiquity due to its overwhelming intellectual obsession with language itself, thereby failing to recognise that language is simply a tool we use to represent reality, nothing more. However, though important, exposing this Platonic essentialism is only one part of Popper’s thesis. Popper also demonstrates that, despite their highly revered status in our philosophical and cultural canon, the political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle are deeply totalitarian. Their collectivist worship of the state above all else puts them in direct opposition to liberalism and its demand for of individual freedom. Their horror at the emerging Athenian democracy reflects their great elitism and contempt for the common man. Popper also debunks their method of historicism. This is the belief that one can predict the future of humanity by analysing the currents of history, thereby finding out universal laws according to which human history inexorably unfolds. These four ideas – essentialism, collectivism, elitism, and historicism – coalesce in an unholy alliance to form the “intellectual” basis for modern totalitarianism. This in turn revives a bitter, punitive tribalism between those who conform to the totalitarian mindset and those who do not.

Plato’s Essentialism

I’ll now sketch Plato’s doctrine of essentialism, known as his ‘Theory of the Forms’. This idea has been so appealing that, although demonstrably false, it has bewitched, confused, and stultified our thought for millennia – and still does today.

Plato observed that there are many different objects in the world which we nonetheless describe using the same word. He uses the example of a bed. Though there are many different beds in the world, we call them all “beds”, regardless of these differences. Plato wanted to explain why it is that we call these things, which are clearly not the same, by the same name. He posited that these beds must have something in common that makes them similar. That something is their “essential essence”; in this case, we call each bed a “bed” because they each share the essential quality of “bedness”. Thus, Plato reasons, all beds – single, double, queen, twin, lumpy, soft – must share resemblance to some abstract idea of a bed. This is the original, perfect bed and which was created by God. Each bed we see in the world is merely an imperfect copy of this one original bed – the ‘only one real bed-in-itself in nature’ or ideal ‘Form’ of a bed (Plato, 597c).

With his theory of the forms, Plato argues that every object which we give a name must necessarily have an essential nature, in virtue of which it is given this name. Not only is there an original bed, in resemblance to which all subsequent beds acquire their “bedness”, the same is true of all goodness, beauty, equality, bigness, likeness, unity, being, sameness, difference, change, and changelessness (Kraut, 2017). Thus, all things which are e.g. “beautiful”, must in some way resemble the abstract form of beauty. For Plato, investigating these forms is the principal task of philosophy; ‘[t]o understand which things are good and why they are … we must investigate the form of good.’ (ibid.).

Yet Plato’s essentialist theory is gravely flawed. Plato pins a huge amount of meaning on what is really nothing more than a label – that is, on words themselves. Human beings use language to communicate. For this to work effectively, we use words as labels for and concepts so we can talk about them. Yet though they are extremely useful, this does not mean that these labels have any special significance in and of themselves; nor that we can derive meaning from them, since it is us who give words their meaning in the first place.

To best illustrate this, a little thought experiment. Imagine you are the lead scout for a hunter-gatherer band in 10,000 BC. You are exploring virgin forest, and you come across what we today would call an apple tree (not having been domesticated yet, the apples would be tiny and almost inedible, but we’ll ignore this anachronism). You decide to eat one of the apples, and it tastes okay. You gather some, and return to the tribe, pleased about your discovery. Once back, you pass out the apples and the tribe happily eat them together. Everyone now knows what the apple looks and tastes like, and you also explain where the apple tree is, so they can find it in future. But all this information is becoming a bit unwieldy – people keep referring to “the fruit you found on the tree near the river yesterday which was bigger than blackberries but not as sweet”. So, as a tribe, you decide to give the fruit a name: “apple”. Encoded in this name is the information that the tribe already knew about apples; this is just a shorter way of expressing that information, a mental marker. Indeed, the name you give to this definition is quite arbitrary; you might as well as have called it a “pear”, or “HMS Belfast”.

And, crucially, there is no new information to be derived from this name. If you wanted to find out more about apples generally – when they ripen, or whether they go well in mammoth stew – you would have to go back into the forest and pick some more. And it would certainly puzzle your tribe if you tried to find out more about apples by sitting inside your tent ruminating on the essential meaning or nature of the word “apple”, instead of investigating the object itself. After all, what’s in a name?

After Plato, it was Aristotle who then took up and furthered his teacher’s essentialist philosophy, by continuing Plato’s focus on essences, as well definitions. Here is Popper: ‘Like Plato, Aristotle believed that we obtain all knowledge ultimately by an intuitive grasp of the essences of things. “We can know a thing only by knowing its essence”, Aristotle writes, and “to know a thing is to know its essence”.’ (2011, 227). On this view, in order to properly understand a real-world phenomenon, it is necessary for philosophers (for it is only philosophers who have the ability to conduct such investigations) to determine, through “intellectual intuition”, its essential nature, which for Aristotle means its true definition. And it is only through such investigation that one can gain true knowledge, by asking: what does a bed, an apple, or goodness really mean?

There are many problems with this approach. As we noted above, is it futile to search for the essential nature of a word we created to use as a mental note, because we will only end up going in circles – the word only means what we already decided it meant.

It is also a lost cause to search for a perfectly precise definition of any real-world phenomenon. This is because no such “definition” can ever be exact (with the possible exception of pure mathematics). Returning to the first example, Google defines a bed as ‘a piece of furniture for sleep or rest, typically a framework with a mattress.’ Of course, this definition is useful enough in everyday parlance. But its precision (or lack thereof) can only ever depend on the terms that comprise it: what do we mean by ‘furniture’, ‘sleep’ or ‘framework’, for instance? We would have to precisely define these terms as well to really define a bed in a perfectly clear and unambiguous way. Except in order to do so, we would need more terms again. In this way, we enter what logicians call an ‘infinite regress’ – we would go on defining our terms ad infinitum, always forced to define the defining terms with new terms of their own. It’s important to recognise, then, that even those definitions which may seem clear and precise are only ever an approximation, usually only as precise as is necessary to be unambiguous (and sometimes not even that).

Time for a third analogy. Consider the word “bald”. Its definition seems simple enough: ‘having a scalp wholly or partly lacking in hair.’ Yet between a man with a full head of hair and one with none, there are innumerable shades of grey. And it is impossible to provide a precise and clear-cut boundary between “baldness” and “non-baldness”; certainly this is no binary. When we define something, then, what we are really doing is drawing a circle around a set of objects. But this circle will always have blurry edges, because our language simply cannot be infinitely precise (nor need it be, most of the time).

We should think of words, then, simply as mental markers for a definition which is (usually) sufficiently precise that when we use it in everyday language, everyone will know what we’re referring to. Still, we might sometimes wonder what the “real” boundaries of a bed are. For instance, we might ask: is a sofa-bed still a bed? But since there is no essential essence of a bed, this would be a meaningless question. All it asks is: should we still refer to this thing, which I have just called a “sofa-bed”, as a “bed”? The question is trivial, because “bed” is simply an arbitrary sound that we customarily use to denote a particular object. Like driving on the left or right of the road, all that matters is agreement.

Now, I trust that this explanation has been sufficient to disabuse you of the esoteric mysticism of Plato’s theory of the forms. Having had it laid out, it may seem strange that such a renowned philosopher as Plato could endorse such an esoteric philosophy, and stranger still that this same fallacy should have endured over millennia. Yet, as philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie and psychologist Susan Gelman have shown, our predisposition to generalise from quantitative statements – to essentialise from linguistic categories – is in fact hardwired into our cognition, in preschoolers and adults alike (2012). Humans beings have always used essentialism as a mental shortcut through which to make sense of the world. This does not mean that, by striving to think clearly, we cannot escape essentialism. But it is an especially pernicious and persistent logical fallacy, meaning we must always be on our guard against it.

Why does essentialism matter? The immediate answer is that we see essentialism enacted every day in modern identity politics. Before we get to that, however, I will show how Hegel revived this idea in 19th century Prussia, in his work as an apologist for the absolutist Prussian state. Hegel used an essentialist method to great effect to convince his followers of his towering intellect through the magic of empty but high-sounding words.

Essentialism and Hegel

It isn’t hard to spot when someone is thinking about the world through the lens of essentialism. Put simply, it means their thought focuses on language itself, not the reality that we use language to represent. Thus, an essentialist might puzzle deeply over a question like: what is power? or, what does “power” really mean? In the mistaken belief that language is a force in itself – that it has a life of its own, independent of the meaning we give to it – language becomes everything. By idolising language, we usher in at our own peril an ‘age controlled by the magic of high-sounding words, and the power of jargon.’ (Popper, 2011, 243).

To gain a better understanding of this essentialising method, let us see it in action. Here, in his Philosophy of Nature, Hegel describes the relationship between sound and heat (it is translated by Popper, ibid.):

Sound is the change in the specific condition of segregation of the material parts, and in the negation of this condition;—merely an abstract or an ideal ideality, as it were, of that specification. But this change, accordingly, is itself immediately the negation of the material specific subsistence; which is, therefore, real ideality of specific gravity and cohesion, i.e.—heat. The heating up of sounding bodies, just as of beaten or rubbed ones, is the appearance of heat, originating conceptually together with sound.

Here we can see three key features of Hegel’s writing. The first is its painful verbosity. Einstein famously said that if you can’t explain a concept to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself. With this advice in mind, it’s clear Hegel didn’t have a clue.

The second is his unflinching embrace of contradiction. At the root of Hegel’s philosophy is his strange assertion that ‘all things are contradictory in themselves’ (id., 253). He uses this idea – that opposites are in fact the same – to generate his whole philosophy, through wholly flawed “dialectical” reasoning. Flawed indeed, because at the heart of Hegel’s dialectics is his willingness to gleefully violate the most basic law of logic, science and reason itself – the law of non-contradiction. This law is no mere “social construct” – it is a fundamental axiomatic truth of reality, without which our science and our civilisation could never have been built. Hegel’s willing embrace of the hypnotic power of language, which he uses to bewitch and to mesmerise rather than to explain or to communicate, outs Hegel as no true philosopher but a magician, a conjurer, a mystic. Indeed, Hegel’s method flies against reason itself, dragging our thinking back to a new Dark Age, one of superstition and blind deference to authority.

Third, we note Hegel’s blatant circularity. If you are brave (or foolish) enough, see if you can translate Hegel’s last sentence above into plain English. You’ll notice that he doesn’t seem to be saying very much at all. That is: “The heating up of sounding bodies … is the appearance of heat … together with sound”. A tremendous insight indeed. The reason essentialising writers need to smuggle in such circularity is because they really have nothing to say – since they cannot gain insight about reality by investigating a word which humans merely made up to represent that reality. Instead, they will often either play around with definitions, or write so densely as to be unintelligible.

Don’t be overcome by the mesmerising bluff of this garbled prose. It is nonsense! Those who employ it give themselves the cowardly advantage of being so vague that their claims can scarcely be pinned down and shown to be wrong. For instance, I cannot prove Hegel is wrong when he contends that ‘sound is the change in the specific condition of segregation of the material parts’, when this itself is simply empty verbiage. Analogously, nor can I prove or disprove that a unicorn smells nice, since it does not exist. To refute Hegel’s reasoning, one needs to openly call his bluff, asserting unabashedly: “this is meaningless, and you are a fraud”. However, at this point, the wily pseud is will try to pull off his greatest trick. “If you think I am wrong,” he will magnanimously point out, “you clearly didn’t understand my work.” Fear of looking stupid has allowed this tactic to beguile many the impressionable fool. Yet this is the Wizard of Oz at work – the verbal fireworks present an illusion of astounding insight to awe you into submission and reverence. more than a desperate to beguile and mesmerise his audience with his booming voice and grandiose claims. But if you do peer behind the curtain, you’ll find very little there – save a cowardly man who has nothing to offer but bombastic, high-sounding words, and no intellect, insight or reasoning with which to back them up.

To stand up to circular, essentialising dogmas requires no small amount of courage. One can take heart, however, in the knowledge that, like the Wizard of Oz himself, it is the philosopher-mystic, frantically booming out his Kafka traps from behind his safety curtain, who is really afraid – afraid of the world seeing the shameless fraud he truly is.

Essentialism and Wokeism

Perhaps this picture of the philosopher-mystic is starting to sound familiar. In any case, I’ll now apply examine some of the ways essentialism shows up in contemporary society, specifically in perhaps the most significant part of Critical Social Justice scholarship, Critical Race Theory.

For a movement that supposedly likes to break down categories, the prevalence of essentialist reasoning in Woke identity politics is staggering. However, to see why it is so undesirable, let us first consider first this stridently anti-essentialist passage, from Critical Race Theory: An Introduction:

A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient. People with common origins share certain physical traits, of course, such as skin color, physique, and hair texture. But these constitute only an extremely small portion of their genetic endowment, are dwarfed by that which we have in common, and have little or nothing to do with distinctly human, higher-order traits, such as personality, intelligence, and moral behavior. That society frequently chooses to ignore these scientific facts, creates races, and endows them with pseudo-permanent characteristics is of great interest to critical race theory. (Delgado and Stefanic, 2001, 7–8).

In this passage, Delgado and Stefanic display a remarkable awareness of the problem of essentialising people by their race. Like my thought experiment of the hunter-gatherer, they recognise that the terms we use for races are made up – “socially constructed”, in the jargon – and because of this they are largely arbitrary. As with baldness, there is no clear-cut dividing line between races because, as constructed categories, these are necessarily blurry at the margins. And they rightly recognise that when society puts meaning into such arbitrary categories – when it “creates races” – this is curious (since it reflects poor reasoning), and undesirable. Indeed, they champion instead the “notion of intersectionality and anti-essentialism”, since “[n]o person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” (id., 9). They continue: “A white feminist may be Jewish, or working-class, or a single mother. An African American activist may be gay or lesbian. A Latino may be a Democrat, a Republican, or even a black— perhaps because that person’s family hails from the Caribbean. An Asian may be a recently arrived Hmong of rural background and unfamiliar with mercantile life, or a fourth-generation Chinese with a father who is a university professor and a mother who operates a business. Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances.”

So far, so good. Paragons of individualism, Delgado and Stefanic display a touching awareness of the vast overlapping complexities common to all people, whatever their race, and are rightly sceptical of the idea that anyone might be easily, singly defined by any identity characteristic they might happen to have. Of course, everyone is in one of these categories, but human life is so amazingly diverse because our individual background, interests, and character are far more important and interesting than our immutable characteristics. (I can’t resist pointing out here that in this elegy against essentialism, that delightful phrase “people of color” is strangely absent. It seems that this insidious linguistic dichotomy – which reductively sees society as comprised of two groups, white people and everyone else – doesn’t sit well with the belief that “[n]o person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity”.)

Another brief digression. This passage, recognising as it does the limitless complexity of human existence, demonstrates that by itself exactly why “intersectionality” is a flawed concept. At pains not to essentialise people, Delgado and Stefanic remind us of (just a handful) of the many, indeed, innumerable categories in which everyone finds themselves; or in other words, the fact that no two people are every wholly alike. But the logical conclusion of trying to analyse the infinity of categories we might put people in – race, gender, class, nationality, religion, height, attractiveness, education, health, favourite ice-cream, opinion on marmite etc. etc. – is to get right back where we started, by treating everyone as an individual. In order to analyse the “intersections” between e.g. race and gender, it is necessary to reductively essentialise both.

In fact, when applied to people, essentialism – placing meaning into categories that are largely arbitrary – literally is racism. It is the idea that one should be judged not by the content of one’s character, but by the colour of one’s skin. Like Plato vainly searching for the essential essence of a bed, it posits that there is some essential essence to each of the (socially constructed!) racial categories extant in society, and that this essence is the principal determinant of who we are, what our experiences are, and what we think. Yet just as there is no “bedness”, so too is there no “whiteness” “blackness” or “Asianness” (Asianity?), because we are not defined by our race, we are individuals. When we pin meaning onto these empty racial labels, that is itself racism.

Furthermore, this focus on categories is what makes identity politics so spiteful and dehumanising. If one assumes that things have an essential essence, one also assumes that things differ only because their essential essence is different. This becomes predictably poisonous when applied to race – it implies that “whiteness” and “blackness” are essentially different. And the grave consequences of such thinking do not end there. Because these concepts are wholly imaginary, it is nigh impossible to argue against them – I can no more prove that “whiteness” is not synonymous with oppression and “blackness” with victimhood than I can prove that unicorns smell nice. Yet it is because these concepts are so abstract – so uncoupled from any grounding in reality – that they can become so powerful in people’s minds. Without any way to check if they are true, there also is no good way to show these assertions to be false, meaning activists can rage and rage against something that is nothing more than an idea in their head.

Indeed, it is only by this single-minded focus on the idea of another’s race that someone can stop seeing them as an individual human being. Sadly, millions of years of evolution have made humans very good at being tribal; we have an in-group and an out-group, and we are all too adept at convincing ourselves that the out-group is inherently evil, dangerous or other. Essentialist thinking facilitates this hugely because it encourages us to see people as representing an abstract idea associated with their group rather than as an individual human; one who you might otherwise have had a beer or a cup of tea with. It takes a truly powerful mental image to hate someone that you have never met.

There is a whole culture out there of people essentialising others in terms of their race, gender and sexuality, so to sum up I will furnish you with just one, rather amusing (if not exasperating) example. It comes, not from an obscure extract by an errant acolyte, but right at the core of Delgado and Stefanic’s text – indeed, from the very next paragraph to the anti-essentialist manifesto I quoted above. They write: “A final element [of Critical Race Theory] concerns the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with anti-essentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, Indian, Asian, and Latino/a writers and thinkers maybe able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism. The “legal storytelling” movement urges black and brown writers to recount their experiences with racism and the legal system and to apply their own unique perspectives to assess law’s master narratives.” (ibid., my italics).

So did you spot it? Fresh from having proclaimed their opposition to essentialism, they posit: a “unique voice of color”; the even broader essentialised category of “[m]inority status”; the claim that all those in this category necessarily have “experiences of oppression”; and the ugly dichotomy of “voice[s]-of-color” and their “white counterparts” (in what way are they counterparts? The only possible answer seems to be that white people, since they are necessarily oppressors, are the counterparts to “people of color”, who are necessarily oppressed – how lovely!). But for writers who explicitly disavow essentialism, this is no mere “uneasy tension”. It is a flagrant and direct contradiction. Having begun their book with the anti-essentialist, humanist sentiment that although human populations may differ in “certain physical traits”, these differences “are dwarfed by that which we have in common”, it takes them no less than two pages to completely reverse their position. And be in no doubt: this is no anomaly. The book carries on in much the same fashion, racialising and essentialising, casting whites as inherently oppressive and “people of color” as necessarily oppressed.

If, like most people, you think that a theory that directly contradicts itself is a bad theory, you are probably wondering how any serious philosopher, or thinker of any kind, could ever write something so very puzzling. Of course, we need only turn to the immortal genius of Hegel for our answer, with that timeless nugget of German idealist wisdom: “Alle Dinge sind an sich selbst widersprechen; all things are contradictory in themselves.”


Bibliography

Delgado, R. and Stefancic, J., 2001. Critical Race Theory. New York: New York University.

Kraut, Richard, “Plato”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/plato/.

Leslie, S. and Gelman, S., 2012. Quantified statements are recalled as generics: Evidence from preschool children and adults. Cognitive Psychology, 64(3), pp.186-214.

Plato, 1974. [Trans. Lee, D.] The Republic. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Popper, K., 2011. The Open Society And Its Enemies. 7th ed. Oxford: Routledge.

 

The post Essentialism: The Logical Fallacy Plaguing Us Since Plato appeared first on New Discourses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.