Over dinner tonight, the main topic of conversation was Essentialism. Essentialiam, simply put, is the idea that every type of being has an essential feature which distinguishes it from all other types of being. A classic example of this is the periodic table of the elements; each element has an unique atomic structure, which is the essential feature of the element. So, all of the members of the group 'gold' have the same atomic structure, a structure which is shared by no other member of any other group. Essential features mean that each group also has certain properties. So, gold has a particular malleability, reaction to acids, and so on; properties which arise naturally out of its atomic structure.
But, we didn't talk about the periodic table over our chicken salad. The question we tried to answer was rather the following: If every different thing can be separated out by its essential feature, and recognized by that and by its special properties, well then, how could we actually work with that in practice, and how would that work for classifying ourselves, or groupings of which we are members?
So, for something like biology, for example what sets man apart from other animals, or cats apart from dogs, or frogs from toads, perhaps Essentialism is more defensible...aren't we sort of classified by our DNA? (Biologists, please chime in here, as I have no idea what I'm talking about). And the properties would presumably arise from that. But what about for other things? For example, beauty. Is there an essential feature that describes all beautiful things and no non-beautiful things? If this were possible, of course, then that would presuppose some universal standard of beauty, which would be a bit of a digression here. Or for languages: the Scandinavian languages are often (though not as often as I would have thought before moving to Denmark) mutually intelligible; yet speakers of these languages would see them as different. What is the essential feature for each of these languages which would set it apart as a language? (Answer: political identity, in my opinion).
And then, for socially constructed groupings. Danes, for example. Although Thor did point out that Danes do have one essential feature: they have cartoons. But that's a relatively new feature; what about before that? It can't be just geography, as there are Danes scattered around the globe. It can't be just passport, as there are people who have been born and raised in Denmark, but who are technically citizens of other countries. It was very difficult to come up with an essential, defining feature for this type of grouping.
Of course, that may be just because neither Thor nor I consider ourselves to be Essentialists. However, that doesn't make it less interesting as a thought exercise. So, now that we've played with it for awhile, I'd like to pass it on to all of you. Please mull it over, and try to define, if you can, what essential feature binds together and sets apart groupings that you belong to (or anything other you can imagine). I find I can do it but only on a very basic definitional level...Americans are set apart by nationality, expats are set apart by not living in their country of birth, women are set apart by having a particular gender, and so on. So, I'm looking forward to reading about how you would approach it, and what you come up with.
*inspiration and the element examples courtesy of The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy : A Philosophical Study of Biological Taxonomy by Marc Ereshefsky.
**photo: the dangers of essentialism, from http://www.myrelchernick.com/maternalmetaphors/images/Andrea'sArticle/Bogyi-and-Mike.jpg