views updated May 14 2018


Essentialists believe true essences exist. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) specifies the classic definition: an essence of a thing is that which it is said to be per se. It is that which is most irreducible, unchanging, and therefore constitutive of a thing. A thing's essence is that property without which the thing would cease to exist as itself. Each individual thing is one and the same as its essence, necessarily and not accidentally. Objects derive their coherence and intelligibility from the unchangeability and homogeneity of their underlying essences. Essence belongs primarily and simply to substance. The substance of things is their primary cause of being. Essences are anterior to and causative of ideas or practices. All things that have the same substance or essence are identical. Only a species or genus can have an essence. An essence is true of the thing in general, it does not derive from the manifold particulars of a thing. To define an essence is to give an account of a primary realone that does not imply the assertion of something about something else. A distinctive set of ontological postulates thus appears intrinsic to essentialism. A realm of being outside time and culture or historical change exists. This realm is the real, the stable, the structured and eternal underlying the flux and chaos of the infinite variety of transitory appearances. The real world is made up of homogeneous, clear, and distinct essences. Innate or given essences sort objects naturally into species or kinds (natural kinds). The resulting categories are eternal, unchanging, stable, and universal.

Essences and Knowledge

Philosophers differ on whether humans can apprehend such constituting essences. While Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) and Aristotle argue they can, others such as Immanuel Kant (17241804) deny the possibility of directly grasping the noumenal world (how things are in themselves). Thus, a belief in the intelligibility of essences requires supplementary assumptions concerning the nature of mind and language. The mind itself must have an essence, some essential faculty empowering it to directly and accurately register the essences of things. For Plato and Aristotle, this faculty is reason. The intelligibility of essences also requires positing language as a neutral, transparent medium. Language is a reporting device; it can neither enter into the constitution of the recorded essence nor distort it, for then our knowledge of essences could never attain eidetic accuracy.

Essentialism is a response to problems of recognition and meaning. Amid all the variety of empirical experience and the multiple forms that objects assume, how do we recognize many differently appearing things as instances of the same phenomenon? Where do the categories in and through which we organize empirical experience come from? As the Scottish philosopher David Hume (17111776) and others argue, we do not have direct empirical experience of abstract, general categories. Unmediated empirical experience is a transitory flux of fleeting sense impressions and sensations. Chairs, for example, come in many colors, sizes, and shapes. Yet, we recognize many variations as instances of one species. How is this possible? Plato argues that such recognition is contingent on the prior existence of a form or an essence, chairness, or the idea of a chair. Such an idea is pure form, and all empirical chairs are simply approximations of this idea. While approximations are changeable and all empirical objects will eventually decay or disappear, the idea or pure form of a chair is eternal.

Essences and Ethics

For both Plato and Aristotle, essence is intertwined with another notion, telos. Telos connotes purpose, end, and good. Its essence is what a thing is meant to be. Matter is merely full potential, unactualized. Only by realizing its essence, can the thing fully exist. However, Plato and Aristotle differ on how fully an essence can be realized in the empirical world. For Plato, a pure essence can be at best imperfectly realized as long as it is mixed with any empirical matter. Aristotle does not think all such mixtures are intrinsically flawed. Nonetheless, for both, this necessity has ethical as well as existential connotations. Understanding humans' essence simultaneously and necessarily stipulates what we are and what (or how) it is good for us to be. Humans must actualize and conform to this true essence. Only then can we live a fully human life. However for the good, the real, and the true to coincide, supplementary metaphysical assumptions are necessary. For example, both Plato and Aristotle postulate that an eternal and universal natural law governs the real world. Natural law endows each thing, person, and human association or practice with its particular telos. It guarantees that the purpose, end, and good of each thing are identical. In realizing its purpose, the thing also attains its natural completion and its good. Natural law is knowable, but not created, by human reason. Intrinsic to reason is the obligation and capacity to discover this law and adjust our souls and social arrangements accordingly.

Empiricist Objections to Essentialism

Many philosophers object to essentialism. Empiricists like the English philosopher John Locke (16321704) reject its a priori postulation of innate ideas or universal truths. They claim that the only preexisting real is the human capacity for sense experience and reflection upon it. Unlike Aristotle, Locke claims that all knowledge originates in sense experience, and the simple ideas derived from our sensations and unmediated thoughts represent the limits of the knowable. Real essences can only be discovered by close empirical observation; all else is idle and potentially dangerous speculation. Every truth claim, including essentialist ones, must be subject to any individual's empirical investigation and verification. Otherwise, objective evaluation of whether such claims actually reflect nothing but the weight of tradition or the power of authority masquerading as truth is impossible.

Modern philosophers, including Karl Popper, extend Locke's rejection of unverifiable claims regarding essences. Rationality demands a skepticism regarding the self-evident existence of anything. For a claim to have truth value, it must be possible to specify conditions under which it can be falsified. These conditions must be translatable into empirical tests that at least conditionally rule out the falsity of the statement. What inter-subjectively verifiable tests could we possibly devise for claims like "humans have a soul," much less that it is our essence?

Kripke: Essentialism Recast

Some philosophers such as Saul Kripke attempt to rescue essentialism by situating its claims within semantics. Kripke asserts that "rigid designators" exist. A rigid designator is an expression that designates the same object in all the possible worlds in which it designates at all. It is determined by an essential property of its referent. Modern semantics can devise meaningful tests for propositions about essences. Properties must be physical and their correlated mental states incorrigibly knowable. For example, Kripke claims the term pain is a rigid designator. Pain is necessarily a physical state. It is identical to this physical state. If any phenomenon is picked out in exactly the same way we pick out pain, it must be correlated with that physical state, and hence the phenomenon must be pain.

However, this and other forms of essentialism are vulnerable to objections posed by pragmatists and social constructionists. Pragmatists argue that coherence, meaning, and intelligibility arise out of our immersion in a common way of life, from practical agreement, or a shared understanding for some purpose or activity. Meaning arises from use; use is enabled through sharing a common set of practices. Over time, practices generate a tacit, usually background network of meanings that appear to always have been there, existing independently outside the practices that create and sustain them. These ordered patterns reflect neither metaphysical reality nor ontological necessity, but rather the effects of social expectations, chance, shared language games, convention, or force.

Pragmatist and Social Constructionist
Objections to Essentialism

Twentieth-century philosophers have supplemented such criticism by critiquing essentialist philosophies of language. For example, Richard Rorty advocates permanently abandoning essence. Essentialism necessarily requires a value-free vocabulary that can report facts and render sets of factual statements commensurable. However, language is not a neutral medium through which truth or fact is reported; it is also neither an arbitrary nor a necessary system of signs connecting words and things. Language cannot be understood as composed of words or sentences in any nominalist way. Words are saturated with social meanings. They incorporate accounts of experience and ways of recognizing it as a case of x as opposed to y. Even what feels like empirical experience is already linguistically organized. Language is best apprehended in terms of language games, complex sets of practices that constitute ways of life. Furthermore, these games are not grounded in anything outside or beyond themselves. Relationships of reference, for example, are not objectively necessary but simply further parts of the world of the present day.

Social constructionists typically emphasize the constituting effect of human practices. However, some, for example Michel Foucault (19261984), extend the domain of relevant practices and propose novel approaches to questions of meaning and truth. Unlike many pragmatists and constructionists, Foucault pays close attention to relations of power and how these both enable and constrain modes of subjectivity, meaning, knowledge and truth. Foucault relocates problems of identity, truth, knowledge, reality, and meaning outside their traditional domains of ontology, epistemology, and metaphysics into discourse analysis. Discourses are complex, dynamic systems of practices, knowledge, and multiple kinds of power. Such discourses generate disciplinary norms that simultaneously produce and constrain subjects and question formation; they enable participants to recognize and evaluate truth claims. Foucault suggests displacing "what/who is it?" as central questions about any of these topics with a different one"how is it?" How is it requires a genealogy that unpacks multiple kinds of practices. Among the practices some subjects are expected to enact are the discovery or enunciation of the essences of things, including themselves. Genealogies of historically specific discourses indicate that questions about essences could arise and remain salient or even intelligible only within certain ways of life.

Feminist Disputes

Essentialism is a contested topic within feminist discourses. Feminist theorists critique traditional, essentialist accounts of woman. One could argue that contemporary Western feminism began with the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's (19081986) The Second Sex (1949). De Beauvoir asserts that woman is made, not born, and proceeds to delineate recurrent attempts within Western culture to reduce woman to her putative, biological essence. Since at least Aristotle, philosophers have claimed that woman has an essence and that this essence is a material one. Woman is matter; she is defined by her unique physical property (reproduction). The identity of each individual, actually existing woman is ultimately and necessarily determined by this essence.

Feminist discourse extends this critique into an investigation of the interdependence of gender arrangements, gender-based asymmetries, heterosexism, and the "essential" or natural, factual meanings of body, matter, nature, and sex. Judith Butler's work is especially influential. Butler argues that "sex" is an effect of gender and heterosexism. How we understand bodies and matter and what is assigned to categories of "natural" and "social" fact, indeed these very categories, must be deconstructed into the social and linguistic practices and power relations that generate them. An adequate response to essentialist constructs of woman requires a strategy different from disconnecting the social (gender) and the biological (sex) and claiming that the biological does not determine the social. To claim that woman is made is still to assume that "woman" exists. Furthermore, it leaves sex undisturbed as a natural kind, inaccessible to genealogical investigation.

Subaltern Objections to Essentialism

Feminists also question "feminist" essentialism. Angela Harris defines essentialism as the belief that a monolithic race or gender experience exists that can be described independently of other social relations. To be antiessentialist means to understand that the lives of women of color and all people generate and enact multiple forms of subjectivity. It is erroneous to posit heterosexuality as the norm or that black male experience is the exemplar for black women and all minorities. The authors of the influential collection Home Girls (1983) and Elizabeth Spelman label essentialist any claim that an essential woman exists beneath differences among women. Any assertion of a universal property or position shared by all women is suspect. Such claims obscure the many important differences among women. Belief in a common identity requires conflating one group of women with the whole and erasing differences, especially those of race, class, and sexuality. Differences among women can be safely ignored or relegated to footnotes. However, this approach simply obfuscates the effects of whiteness and other dominant social relations on and as particular modes of womanhood. It obscures the ways race is constituted in contemporary practices such that only people of color are marked by race and white remains the unmarked, unraced. Within such practices, any woman leached of all color is actually white. Removing race only results in removing black women. Black women then become white women only more so. White women can then represent all women. Paradoxically, this then redounds more so to warrant assertions of the common oppression of all women, including white ones. All women, from the most impoverished "third world woman" to the wealthiest white one, are equally instances of women's universal condition.

Paul Gilroy and others within cultural and subaltern studies also critique essentialism. In their view, it enables, expresses, and reproduces global systems of domination. Colonialist discourses postulate essential human traits that non-Western others lack or could only imperfectly possess. The homogeneity of such essences existed only through contrast with heterogeneous others. Projecting all impurity, materiality, and instability on these others enabled certain subjects to imagine themselves as instances of the pure and eternalreason, the soul, the fully human, etc. Such ideas then underwrote Western claims of the right to rule and civilize (to the extent possible) these inferior others.

Feminist Essentialism

These antiessentialist arguments are controversial. Some insist that social movements require a deep notion of shared position and condition. Writers such as Diana Fuss and Gayatri Spivak argue that essentialism itself has no essence; the problem is how it is used. Oppressed groups can deploy essentialism strategically. Essentialist concepts enable the oppressed to organize resistant forms of identity and sustain a powerful sense of solidarity.

Other theorists such as Luce Irigaray, Catharine MacKinnon, and Martha Nussbaum also deploy a feminist essentialism. Irigaray argues that the problem is not that woman has been conceived in essentialist terms but rather the content of those terms. Woman's essence has been defined by men, as not-man or lesser man. Women have never articulated their own difference, among themselves and for themselves. For Irigaray, this essence can never be one; it does not conform to the unitary logic of homo-centric discourse. Irigaray employs the metaphor of the labia; two lips, always two, not divisible into one; neither one nor two. Two lips provide the basis for a speaking (as) woman, to articulate a feminine imaginary. MacKinnon insists that gender difference is a socially constructed concept invented to sustain male dominance. Under patriarchy, all women share a common essencesexuality. Sexuality is a social process that creates and directs desire. Woman is produced through this process as an object whose only purpose is to gratify men. While Nussbaum situates herself within the language of rights and human capacities, she too insists that male dominance is universal and universally experienced by all women. Their liberation requires stipulating universal norms. Justice cannot exist without a binding consensus on a universalist account of human functioning and its regulative force. Those most deprived of support for the essential human capacities (often women outside the West) are most in need of such norms.

Despite ingenious attempts to rescue it, modern essentialism has yet to provide satisfactory responses to skeptical inquiries regarding how we know if we have grasped a true essence. While problems of meaning, representation, intelligibility, and identity remain, essentialists have yet to persuade skeptics to abandon their doubts.

See also Feminism ; Form, Metaphysical, in Ancient and Medieval Thought ; Humanity ; Metaphysics ; Natural Law .


Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex.' New York: Routledge, 1993.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley. New York: Bantam, 1961.

Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Edited by Paul Rabinow. Translated by Robert Hurley and others. New York: New Press, 1997.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Gilroy, Paul. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Harris, Angela. "Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory." In Critical Race Feminism: A Reader, edited by Adrien Katherine Wing. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Kripke, Saul. "Identity and Necessity." In Philosophy As It Is, edited by Ted Honderich and Myles Burnyeat. New York: Penguin, 1979.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Nussbaum, Martha. Sex and Social Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Basic Books, 1962.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.; Princeton University Press, 1979.

Smith, Barbara, ed. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Jane Flax


views updated May 14 2018






Essentialism is the idea that members of certain categories have an underlying, unchanging property or attribute (essence) that determines identity and causes outward behavior and appearance. An essentialist account of gender, for example, holds that differences between males and females are determined by fixed, inherent features of those individuals. The doctrine of essentialism is widespread in practice, underlying many approaches (both historical and current) in the biological sciences, the social sciences, and cultural studies. Essentialist ideas underlie much lay skepticism toward biological evolution; such ideas saturate discussions of race and gender as well as of ethnicity and nationality. In gender studies, essentialism has been important as a focus of criticism and, less often, as an explanatory strategy (e.g., the notion of a gay gene).


Essentialism may be divided into three types: sortal, causal, and ideal. The sortal essence is the set of defining characteristics that all and only members of a category share. This notion of essence is captured in Aristotles distinction between essential and accidental properties. For example, on this view the essence of a mother would be the property of having given birth to a person (rather than an accidental property, such as baking cookies). In effect, this characterization is a restatement of the classical view of concepts: Meaning (or identity) is supplied by a set of necessary and sufficient features that determine whether an entity does or does not belong in a category. However, the viability of this account has been called into question by psychological research on human concepts. The causal essence is the entity or quality that causes other category-typical properties to emerge and be sustained, and that confers identity. The causal essence is used to explain the observable properties of category members. Whereas the sortal essence could apply to any entity, the causal essence applies only to entities for which inherent, hidden properties determine observable qualities. For example, the causal essence of water may be something like H2O, which is responsible for various observable properties that water has. Thus, the cluster of properties odorless, tasteless, and colorless is not a causal essence of water, despite being true of all members of the category, because the properties have no direct causal force on other properties.

The ideal essence has no actual instantiation in the world. For example, on this view the essence of justice is some abstract quality that is imperfectly realized in real-world instances of people performing just deeds. None of these just deeds perfectly embodies justice, but each reflects some aspect of it. Platos cave allegory (in The Republic ), in which what we see of the world are mere shadows of what is real and true, exemplifies this view. The ideal essence thus contrasts with both the sortal and the causal essences. There are relatively little empirical data available on ideal essences in human reasoning.


Essentialism is often implicit. Theorists rarely self-identify as essentialist; more often, a position is characterized as essentialist by others, typically as a form of criticism. Essentialist indications include a cluster of separable ideasfor example, treating properties as genetically rather than socially determined, assuming that properties are immutable, or assuming that a category captures a wealth of nonobvious properties, thereby having the potential to generate many novel inferences (e.g., Arthur R. Jensens arguments in his 1969 article regarding racial differences in IQ). Any of these assumptions could be considered evidence for an essentialist framework.

In the social sciences, essentialist accounts are highly controversial. Essentialist accounts of race, ethnicity, or gender have been criticized for reducing complex, historically contingent effects to fixed and inherent properties of individuals. Anti-essentialist accounts emphasize the importance of social context, environmental factors, and structural factors (including economics and class). Such accounts are often grouped together under the heading social (or cultural or discursive ) constructionism ; as Laura Lee Downs noted in her 1993 article, at their best they provide detailed accounts of the social reproduction of gender, ethnic, and racial categories, and at their worst slide into voluntarism. An important analytic strategy, put forward by Fredrik Barth in 1969 and Judith Irvine and Susan Gal in 2000, has been to eschew an account of the categories of social groups in favor of examining the social and cultural conditions by which they are differentiated.

Racial categories illustrate the perils and shortcomings of essentialism. Although race is often essentialized, anthropologists and biologists widely agree that race has no essence. The superficial physical dimensions along which people vary (such as skin color or hair texture) do not map neatly onto racial groupings. Observable human differences also do not form correlated feature clusters. Skin color is not predictive of deep causal features (such as gene frequencies for anything other than skin color). There is no gene for race as it is commonly understood.

Culture frequently serves as a stand-in for race in sortal essentialist frameworks, as it did in South Africa under the apartheid regime. The doctrine of ethnic primordialism (that ethnicities are ancient and natural) was a popular explanatory device in the 1950s and 1960s to account for apparent ethnic and regional fissures in the developing world. It returned after the fall of the Berlin wall to account for the instability of former socialist republics, most dramatically in Yugoslavia, and remains a powerful force in international relations despite the availability of nuanced, nonessentialist explanatory accounts.

Essentialism is also criticized for its political and social costs, in particular for encouraging and justifying stereotyping of social categories (including race, gender, and sexual orientation), and perpetuating the assumption that artificial distinctions (such as caste or class) are natural, inevitable, and fixed. Nonetheless, some feminists and minorities appropriate essentialism for their own group(s)at least temporarilyfor political purposes. Strategic essentialism, Gayatri Spivaks term from her 1985 study, can devolve into an embrace of essentialism, with the argument that essential differences are deserving of celebration. Other theorists, while recognizing many of the problems of essentialism characterized above, have proposed that at least some tenets of essentialism (e.g., that categories may have an underlying basis) are rooted in real-world structure.

However, criticisms of essentialism extend to biological species as well. In the case of biological species, essentialism implies that each species is fixed and immutable, thus leading Ernst Mayr to note, It took more than two thousand years for biology, under the influence of Darwin, to escape the paralyzing grip of essentialism (1982, p. 87). An additional concern, for biological as well as social categories, is that essentialism assumes that the essence is a property of each individual organism. In contrast, according to evolutionary theory, species cannot be characterized in terms of properties of individual members but rather in terms of properties of the population. Elliott Sober (1994) distinguishes between constituent definitions (in which groups are defined in terms of characteristics of the individual organisms that make up the group) and population thinking (in which groups need to be understood in terms of characteristics of the larger group; e.g., interbreeding populations, in the case of species). Sober suggests there is no essence for biological specieslet alone groupings of people, such as racesat a surface level or even at a genetic level.


Some psychologists, such as Susan A. Gelman in her 2003 book and Douglas Medin in his 1989 article, have proposed that (causal) essentialism is a cognitive bias (psychological essentialism ) found cross-culturally and even in early childhood, with important implications for a range of human behaviors and judgments: category-based inductive inferences, judgments of constancy over time, and stereotyping. Psychological essentialism requires no specialized knowledge, as people may possess what Medin calls an essence placeholder for a category, without knowing what the essence is. Preschool children expect category members to share nonobvious similarities, even in the face of obvious dissimilarities. For example, on learning that an atypical exemplar is a member of a category (e.g., that a penguin is a bird), children and adults draw inferences from typical instances that they apply to the atypical member (e.g., they infer that penguins build nests, like other birds). Young children judge nonvisible internal parts to be especially crucial to the identity and functioning of an item. Children also treat category membership as stable and unchanging over transformations such as costumes, growth, metamorphosis, or changing environmental conditions. Therefore, essentialism as a theoretical construct may emerge from fundamental psychological predispositions.

SEE ALSO Blackness; Cultural Studies; Darwin, Charles; Gender; Groups; Identity; Intergroup Relations; Meaning; Race; Sexual Orientation, Determinants of; Sexual Orientation, Social and Economic Consequences; Social Science; Stereotypes; Whiteness


Aristotle. 1924. Metaphysics. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon.

Barth, Fredrik, ed. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Boston: Little Brown.

Downs, Laura Lee. 1993. If Woman Is Just an Empty Category, Then Why Am I Afraid to Walk Alone at Night? Comparative Studies in Society and History 35: 414-437.

Gelman, Susan A. 2003. The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought. Oxford, U.K., and New York: Oxford University Press.

Irvine, Judith, and Susan Gal. 2000. Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation. In Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities, ed. Paul V. Kroskrity, 35-83. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Jensen, Arthur R. 1969. How Much Can We Boost I.Q. and Scholastic Achievement? Harvard Educational Review 33: 1-123.

Mayr, Ernst. 1982. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Medin, Douglas. 1989. Concepts and Conceptual Structure. American Psychologist 44: 1469-1481.

Sober, Elliott. 1994. From a Biological Point of View: Essays in Evolutionary Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1985. Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography. In Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society IV, ed. Ranajit Guha, 330-363. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Strevens, Michael. 2000. The Essentialist Aspect of Naive Theories. Cognition 74: 149-175.

Templeton, Alan R. 1998. Human Races: A Genetic and Evolutionary Perspective. American Anthropologist 100: 632-650.

Susan A. Gelman
Bruce Mannheim


views updated May 18 2018


Essentialism is a concept that suggests that a thing or a class of people has an inherent quality that comes from nature rather than from culture or history. Essentialism is studied and debated often in philosophy and also plays an important role in studies of race, gender, and sexuality. In philosophy the notion of essence can be found in Platonic idealism, in which all forms in their ideal state have eternal and unchanging characteristics. Essence is related to being and concerns the special nature of a thing that makes it different from everything else.


Essence thus is concerned especially with both nature and difference. Humanists are said to be essentialists insofar as they see something basic in human nature that remains stable over time and is not affected by culture or geographic location. Human nature is natural in that it is inherent in all human beings as a quality of the species. Essentialism also is concerned with difference in that it separates humans from all other creatures in the natural world.

Essentialism has functioned for centuries to promote and enforce racism and human slavery. In the past it was convenient to believe that human beings differ from each other in quality and humanness because that belief justified treating others inhumanely. From the eighteenth century onward European and North American culture developed a strain of scientific racism that insisted that some races are inherently inferior to others. That form of essentialism justified genocide in the Americas, the British conquest of India, the European colonization of Africa, and slavery in the American South. Scientific racism was used in the twentieth century to oppress African Americans under Jim Crow and to murder 6 million Jews and others during World War II. It still is used by white supremacists and by regimes around the world to promote what is termed ethnic cleansing.


One of the oldest, strongest, and most pervasive forms of essentialism relates to gender. It is found the world over encoded in religious texts and customs, social and gender roles, art, literature, and science. Gender essentialism holds that men and women have distinctly different natures, or essences, that are particular to them. Women are thought to be closer to nature because they are considered to have more difficulty transcending their bodies, whereas men are seen as more easily able to distance themselves from embodiment so that they can engage in abstract thought, political and social activity, and other pursuits not linked to reproduction. This difficulty of transcendence among women is viewed in many societies as natural rather than cultural, though it is imposed on women culturally to ensure that someone will raise the next generation.

Sexually active men bear no physical burden and little social burden that tie them to reproduction; after ejaculation a man can walk away from the woman he has copulated with and resume his life. Without some form of birth control, however, a sexually active woman may become pregnant and physically tied to the fetus growing inside her body for nine months. The burden of the body grows heavier for her as she becomes larger and more uncomfortable, though women throughout history have continued to work, hunt, farm, and fight until they give birth to their children. After giving birth to the baby, a woman may wish to be free to abandon the child and resume a pursuit or adventure, but custom, culture, and law bind her to care for her children until they can sustain themselves, something that takes years.

Essentialism naturalizes gender inequality by maintaining that it is women's special nature to care for children and men's special nature to create culture and commerce. Woman's nature is held to be more passive, nurturing, peaceful, domestic, emotional, and content; men's nature is seen as more aggressive, intellectual, competitive, worldly, remote, and restless. Such views naturalize both sexual difference and a social structure in which women stay home and men run the world.

Essentialism was the first gender prejudice to be challenged by the successive waves of feminism. However, some feminists have embraced essentialism because it grants special strengths and powers to women on the basis of sexual difference. American cultural feminism in the 1960s and 1970s attributed the presence of large numbers of women in antiwar activism to the natural expression of their peaceful and motherly natures. That form of essentialist thinking was adopted by antinuclear feminist activists around the world in the 1970s and 1980s in defense of the natural world and the environment against nuclear testing and nuclear power.

In dealing with the traditional devaluation of women in culture and history, French feminism in that era viewed the essentialisms linked to women's bodies as sources of separatist resistance to patriarchal culture and its phallocentric, logocentric chauvinism, embracing essentialism and physical difference as a basis for women's empowerment. Thus, the two lips of a woman's genitalia might offer multiple possibilities for meaning in stark contrast to the unyielding singularity of the extruded male phallus, and the soft mellifluous sounds of the body and the womb of the mother offer another linguistic alternative to the violence of patriarchal language and its focus on castration and enforced gender normativity.

Strategic essentialists attempt to retain a critique of the social construction of gender roles while hanging on to the specificity of female experience in a gendered body. They argue that women deserve the same economic and political advantages that men have but that they are not the same as men and their difference from men should be respected. This type of essentialism often has racial and cultural undertones; many women of color argue that although they should have access to the same advantages as white men and women, they do not want their differences to be devalued and erased. Strategic essentialism maintains that the embodied experience of gendered beings of color should be seen as specific and important and can be employed by women of color as a locus of identity, political organizing, and social and economic empowerment.


Social constructivism is the opposite of essentialism, holding that all the qualities of a person are socially constructed and are made to seem natural only to establish an ideological advantage for one group over another. If men and women believe that women are essentially equal to men but have been coerced into assuming dependent and subservient roles by cultural institutions controlled by men, they probably will view a woman's lot as unjust and work for social change. However, if everyone believes that female inferiority is natural, men and women will be more likely to accept the status quo, in which men dominate the cultural, political, religious, and economic institutions of their society.

Marxism was one of the earliest theories of social constructivism, followed by psychoanalysis, feminism, deconstruction, postcolonial theory, Foucaultian historical analysis, and queer theory that employs elements of all of those systems. Nineteenth-century Marxism argued that people's material relationship to the means of production entirely shaped their lives, whereas twentieth-century Marxist considered ideology crucial as well. Freudian psychoanalysis uncoupled the libido from essential gender, arguing for the innate bisexuality of all infants and outlining the cultural processes of sex and gender differentiation. Feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir (1993) described the cultural construction of woman as other to man and traced the advantages men gained from an investment in this myth. Deconstruction argued that binary opposition is a self-serving cultural construct that often is used to justify the oppression of one group by another. Foucaultian analysis showed the body and sexuality to be historical constructs that changed over time, taking their shape from operations of power and resistance. Queer theory uncoupled sexuality from gender, using all those theories to celebrate queer identities and queer cultural forms as parodic and transformative social projects.

More recently, transgender theorists and activists have taken the essentialist-social constructivist binary a step further, coupling and uncoupling gender behavior, bodily sex, and sexuality by insisting that gender can be experienced as an essence but that one's essence does not have to match one's physical body and that one's sexual expression can be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, regardless of one's physical sex or felt gender essence. Sex researcher John Money (Colopinto 2000) held that gender and sexuality are constructed by society, and he performed an experiment on a set of identical male twins in which a boy who accidentally had been castrated during a circumcision was raised as a girl. Money insisted that the experiment was a success, but the boy's subsequent depression, reversion to a male identity, and suicide helped expose the violent repression of gender variant and intersex bodies by the medical profession and helped spark new interest in hormones as agents of biological determinism.

Some scientists and activists continue to seek a biological component to gender and sexual behavior, and this is highly controversial. Many queer activists believe that if a physical component to homosexuality, such as brain type or genetic markers, can be identified, it will be less defensible to persecute gay men and lesbians as social deviants. Others believe that this type of science resembles the disturbing historical essentialism of scientific racism and misogyny, in which physical differences were used to justify social inequality, oppression, and extermination. Opponents of essentialist science fear that homosexual genetic markers will be used to screen out and abort fetuses that might become lesbians, gay men, or transgender people. Despite this possibility there is strong support for the role of biology as a determinant factor in gender and sexual behavior. Thus, society can be said to be experiencing a new era of essentialist thought that no doubt will spur more scientific study of the degree to which biology essentially determines the eventual gender and sexuality of children.


Beauvoir, Simone de. 1993. The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Colopinto, John. 2000. As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. New York: HarperCollins.

De Cecco, John P., and John P. Elia. 1993. If You Seduce a Straight Person, Can You Make Them Gay? Issues in Biological Essentialism versus Social Constructionism in Gay and Lesbian Identities. New York: Haworth Press.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

                                                   Jaime Hovey


views updated May 18 2018

essentialism A philosophical term which has been used in a variety of ways. According to Karl Popper (Conjectures and Refutations, 1969), essentialists make the twin claims that it is possible to establish definitively the truth of a scientific theory, and that scientists can arrive at complete explanations by discovering the essence or reality that lies behind the appearance of a phenomenon. However, the term is also applied to the theory of descriptions which states that definitions are descriptions of the essential properties of things, and that one can evaluate attempts at definitions in terms of the falsity or truth of the descriptions given by them. From this point of view, science requires the discovery of such essences, and thus of correct definitions. The contemporary usage of the term is largely pejorative, since most philosophers of science accept that descriptions and knowledge are provisional, and that facts (like truth and reality) are always conceptualized in terms which are informed by theory. See also CONVENTIONALISM; RELATIVISM.