Essentialism is the view that objects (or other entities) have at least some of their properties essentially, that these are (at least) necessary conditions for being this object, or belonging to this kind. Traditionally, anti-essentialism would then be the view that this is not so. But many who would be classified as anti-essentialists are really skeptical only about ‘real’ or mind-independent essences. Some are skeptical of modality in general, and claim that one cannot really make any sense of the essential/accidental distinction. A larger group of skeptics do not reject the distinction entirely, but see it as non-objective, as somehow a product of mental activity – this includes conventionalists, projectivists, response-dependence theorists and deflationists. Anti-essentialists are usually motivated by metaphysical concerns about the supposed nature or basis of essential properties, or the seeming arbitrariness of what falls on one or the other side of the divide, and by epistemological concerns about our ability to know that some feature is essential, often focusing on our actual practices which involve intuitions and thought experiments. Anti-essentialism concerning kinds – at least in some domains - is also sometimes motivated by Wittgenstein’s remarks on ‘family resemblance’ in the Philosophical Investigations. With Kripke and Putnam’s arguments supporting necessity a posterioriand plausible essentialist claims which could not be seen as true in virtue of meaning, essentialism experienced a resurgence which it still enjoys, both about essential properties of individuals and of natural kinds. Some subsequent anti-essentialists challenge the essentialist claims, while others accept the phenomena of a posteriori necessity and necessity de re, while attempting to understand them in a deflationary way. A more robust anti-essentialism – a denial of essences - is more common in discussion of biological and social kinds, though this sometimes is rather a denial of a specific sort of essence - for instance, a set of necessary and sufficient conditions drawn from intrinsic properties which allow for no borderline cases. Deflationist accounts of essence are also often tied to deflationary, conventional or constructivist accounts of the things which have these essences – individuals and kinds.
Locke 1689, Book III ch. iv distinguishes real essence from nominal essence, and argues that the boundaries of the things we talk about are set by nominal essences. He also classifies species as ‘the workmanship of the understanding,’ since their essences are. Quine 1953 connects quantified modal logic and essentialism, and ends with a famous disparagement of essentialism as ‘a jungle’. Mackie 1974 illustrates a deflationary approach to essence as does Sidelle 1989. Skepticism about essence in biology is famously championed by Hull 1964 and more recently by Winsor 2006 , while it is a common theme in literature on gender and social kinds, discussed (critically) in Witt 1995
- Essentialism and Quantified Modal Logic (188)
- Essentialism about Species (100)
- Origins Essentialism (67)
- Scientific Essentialism (124)
- Essence and Essentialism, Misc (606)
Using PhilPapers from home?
Create an account to enable off-campus access through your institution's proxy server.
Monitor this page
Be alerted of all new items appearing on this page. Choose how you want to monitor it:
David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Ezio Di Nucci
Jack Alan Reynolds
Darrell P. Rowbottom
Aness Kim Webster
Learn more about PhilPapers