søndag, februar 26, 2006

Applied Essentialism

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

19 kommentarer:

Morose sagde ...

a grouping I belong to is Fanboys, or Fanpeople since more females have been entering it of late. The essential features of Fanpeople is that they tend to obsess over favored works of fiction and create things derivative of the thing they obsess over.

True Blue Guy sagde ...

I think this is a very tough way to 'classify' human beings as human being are all so so different in many ways that I think no two human beings would have the same 'properties' for Essentialism.

I may be way off here, just my thinking ! :-)


kimananda sagde ...

Morose, that's an interesting group, but once again, and it does seem that kind of group can be 'defined essentially' by what they do. But are there any other qualities that would apply to all in the group? I would suspect not.

Blue, I totally agree with you. As I said, I don't consider myself an Essentialist...actually that's not strong enough. I'm not an Essentialist. But, it's an interesting thought exercise. And to some extent it is a natural thing to group people, as classification and categorization is a basic part of human cognition.

Perhaps the reason I find it interesting to think about people in this impossible way has been my own very definite 'issues' with my own status as a member of the group 'Americans'. I have always felt defined by this, often in a negative way. Americans are set apart by many in Europe (and presumably the world) for a set of characteristics which I don't as a rule feel I possess. An example of this? When I lived in Portugal, I would often do a lesson which required the students to come up with a list of stereotypes of Americans...and the list was always very long, almost all negative, and almost exactly the same. And I regularly have colleagues and friends come to me with factual proof of Americans as a group defined by the essential function of ignorance (so statistics on how many Americans don't believe in the theory of evolution, for example.) And I don't believe that these example are just meant to wind me up, nor that the speakers really don't think that this applies to a vast majority of Americans. And of course, it goes for other groups as well, how the Portuguese perceive the Spanish, how the Danes perceive the Swedes, how Northern Californians perceive Southern Californians, how Protestans perceive Catholics in Northern Ireland, how Christians perceive Moslems, etc.. This is a contributing cause to a lot of conflict in the world, and could be seen as Essentialism.

So, to end my rant, I think actually that most people I know at least would agree with us in theory, even if they in most cases do have groups in their head that they classify in this way. The question is do we recognize the impossibility of the groupings that we have anyway?

Devil Mood sagde ...

Wow, that's what I call a dinner conversation! :) Although it seems interesting I don't think I agree with Essentialism. It's alright for chemical elements, they tend to be pure. But are people ever pure in any characteristic at all? Moreover, I think this can be a dangerous subject because, although it's not directly linked to that, it can lead to discussions about races. And as we know (or we all should know) there's no such thing as race inside the large group of human beings. There's more DNA differences between black people than between a black and a caucasian, so it brings me back to the same sentence: nothing is really pure when it comes to human beings.

kimananda sagde ...

Ms. Mood, I absolutely agree. I'm beginning to think that this post will mean I am labelled as an Essentialist. I'm not. My idea is that, by thinking about how we would think of differentiating ourselves and others as distinct, we can then explore our own ideas more deeply and analyze how our assumptions (and we all do have assumptions; it's almost inevitable, I'd say) may not really be reflected in reality. The fact that Essentialism in social groupings is in fact untenable (in my not-so-humble opinion) does not mean that we shouldn't test the limits of how our own inner beliefs are or are not based on Essentialist arguments.

And if you thought that was rather intense dinner conversation, be thankful I won't be posting about today's breakfast continuation of the dinner conversation. It devolved into a heated argument about if there are in fact basic facts upon which all can agree, which came out of a discussion on the difference between knowledge and belief, and ended up on a quite serious dispute on the nature of proof, and if there can be objective standards of proof...I say no, Thor says, well, no, but, well, maybe...and yes, that is just my side of it! ;-)

Maddy sagde ...

I am going to have to re-read
this and come back here a few
times - FABULOUS post -

but just to get warmed up-
what came immediately to my

-our country is defined by the
essential feature of culture-
our language, and food, and
traditions and art and music which
sets us apart from others -

I'll be back!

Smiles (need a coffee in me for
this beautiful sage-like writing)

Devil Mood sagde ...

Oh my God! Over breakfast as well? That's intense! :)
You're right about that: even if essentialism isn't accurate, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist in our minds sometimes. But it's a hard thing to analyze in our beliefs and preconceptions. I think I'll have to think about it some more ;)

Morose sagde ...

hmm... misnathropic non-humanocentric outlook on life? that seems to define most of the group i mentioned.

And i'm still waiting on that meaningful comment for my continued participation in the Proust Party Game. I should go look up who Proust was at some point, also

Morose sagde ...

a french novelist, according to wkilipedia, as if French ltuierature actually counts. real novels come from smelly drunken chain-smoking brits. Nineteenth century realism does not count as real novels regardless of who wrote it.

kimananda sagde ...

Madelyn - :-) I'm not normally good at accepting compliments, but yours are so really wonderful, that I will have to learn. Thank you! And, I think you're totally right, that cultural traditions and uniquenesses are a lot of how we are defined by ourselves and by others.

Menina Mood, agora nao tenho dor de esomago. Tamben nao tenho um computador que fala portugues, desculpa para a falta das marcas de accento.

De facto, nao foi intenso, foi chato. Thor e eu somos igualmente teimosos, e eu prefiro quando e possivel ganhar. :-)

Morose, I did promise didn't I...I'll try to think of a profound comment that I can make, actually, and then I'll do it. I see that Chibi has some answers that I should comment on as well. As for Proust, I had heard of him, but never read him...and I can't see him getting very high on my list, to be honest.

Devil Mood sagde ...

He he Thor seems an appropriate name for someone that stubborn - isn't it related to thunders? :) Anyway, that seems an interesting chat seen from the outside. Ainda bem que o estômago já está melhor :)

Maddy sagde ...

Knowledge vs belief. Another
fascinating topic. Had it the
other day regarding my interest
in Budhism and was challenged by
someone when they said "
you don't believe in God"
I explained that there was a
vast difference between belief
and knowledge - and I admired
Budhist philosophy as it
placed relevance on one's own
practice vs. blind faith.
Far more difficult and personal
and ever changing with that
fabulous theory of relativity
thrown in.

I would LOVE to come to dinner
at your house!!!!!!!!!!!!!

kimananda sagde ...

Devil Mood, you're absolutely right. I always say the the key to understanding Thor is that he takes his thunder-God appelation very, very seriously! So stubbornness is the least I would expect, really.

Madelyn, I am quite attracted to Buddhism (especially of the Zen variety) for the reasons you state, as well as for what I see as a certain minimalism in it that appeals to me. And it is interesting to think about such things in relation to God. When I was more actively reading tarot, and that kind of thing, I once had a friend refuse to believe that, with my interests, that I didn't have religious conviction. I don't think I was able to convince her that I didn't...so she had beliefs about my beliefs, which she thought was knowledge. False knowledge, as it happens.

And you're welcome to come to dinner whenever you're in the Copenhagen area. But I must warn you that we don't always have such deep discussion.

Simple American sagde ...

I'm essentially speechless. Far too heady for me in my spresent mood and frame of mind. Which reminds me that I want to answer those questions you posted before.

Jack P Toerson sagde ...

Essentialism is very difficult for me.

kimananda sagde ...

Mr American, don't worry. And, I look forward to reading your answers re: Proust.

Jack, me too. About the most I can say is that I don't agree with it on a fundamental level, but that I've had fun playing with the concept.

al-Ferengi sagde ...

... but at least I believe, you are on to something: One needs to classify objects on known characteristics values, which differ from object to object. Like this pile of white socks and this pile of black socks. Object = sock; Characteristic = colour; value = black and white...

al-Ferengi sagde ...

... and an unknown characteristic could be characteristic = origin of fabric and the values = English sheep, German sheep, Polish sheep. Also these would set the objects apart, but it would definetely be an idiotic classification system for the laymen, but if you speak to sock producers, it is another case. And this speaks for the Pragmatic approach ...


kimananda sagde ...

Ah, Ms. Scorpio, so this means that you are a pragmatist yes? Or that you were meant to work in the Royal Sock Library? ;-)

I like your examples!