Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Essentialism for our time: Some thoughts

Thoughts on Essentialism


The biological essentialism which stemmed from the Aristotlean substance form ontology was a pre-scientific theory.    In the medeival synthesis,  Aquainas distinguised the individual from the form.  This trend would continue,  until in the 19th century   Nietzsche advocated the negation of  essentialism,  reversing it (yet he clung to it regarding gender).   

Social construction ideology of gender proports that all gender roles have been hoisted on us by social norms.  Essentialism would say the opposite:  Social norms arose from observing these essences.    The belief in an underlying and fixed,  unchanging essence is the conservative world view,  while the postmodern liberal view would seek to falsify this in order to transform society.  Evolving essentialism would be the moderate view,  combining  both aspects.  This would be the reconciliation of essentialism and anti-essentialism,  to admit that the underlying essences can partially evolve and shift,  while leaving an intact core.     Many people intuitively adopt this middle stance. 

In feminism and the gay community,  essentialist arguments have been posed,  and have  largely eroded.  Particularly in the latter,  the biological and genetic essentialims of LeVay has caused many gays to feel boxed in by such a "born that way"  definition of their gayness.  Although thought to be conducive to their vicitm identity,  it has actually caused many to see their sexuality as an anomoly rather than an expression of individual liberty.  Williams and Stein in Sexuality and Gender,  ( 2002,  Blackwell Publishing) attribute many conflicts within the gay community to essentialism.  Those who would be natural political allies have been split into warring camps,  the main conflict being whether one has adopted an essenitialist ideology or its opposite.  Conceptions about one's place in society,   and the meaning of behavior are affected by the  lens through which the world is viewed.  

Proponents of  individual liberty cannot wholly adhere to essentialism if they are to maintain a cohesive perspective.  False universalisms regarding gender,  race,  and ethinicity can obscure the individual who forms the nexus of his own actions and will.  Reductionism is bad;  relativism is worse;  what is a philosopher to do?  Compatiblism,  which fuses essentialism with a margin for free will and adaptation must surely be the most reasonable and least counter-intuitive of stances. 

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