Notes on essentialism

[I compiled these notes February of 2003. There are several things I would revise now, and some specific points where I feel I am in error. However, there are a lot of nice quotes here and plenty food for thought, so please enjoy.]

My notes on Essentialism

1. "Never let yourself be goaded into taking seriously problems about words and their meanings. What must be taken seriously are questions of fact, and assertions about facts: theories and hypotheses, the problems they solve and the problems they raise." Karl Popper, Unended Quest, page 9, 1976

2. "Meaning philosophies and language philosophies (so far as their concern is with words) are on the wrong track. In matters of the intellect, the only things worth striving for are true theories, or theories which come near to the truth — at any rate nearer than some other (competing) theory, for example an older one.
"Letters play a merely technical or pragmatic role in the formulation of words. In my opinion, words also play a merely technical or pragmatic role in the formulation of theories. Thus both letters and words are mere means to ends (different ends). And the only intellectually important ends are: the formulation of problems; the tentative proposing of theories to solve them; and the critical discussion of the competing theories." Karl Popper, Unended Quest, page 15, 1976

3. One of the first ways to think about essentialism is this. If I ask you what you mean in reference to any particular word, you will answer me with words. At this point, I can turn around and take each of the new words you have supplied me with and then ask, well what do these words mean? Needless to say this is an endless process. Searching for the exact, precise meaning of a word can only lead in a circle or into an infinite regress.

4. Example: What is rationality? I pull out my Webster’s and it says: The quality or state of being rational. Okay. What is rational? The first definition I see says: having reason. Okay. What is reason? One definition I find is: the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways. See, it’s already beginning to get a little circular. Definitions are like this, you either go in a circle or end up in spiraling whirlpool (infinite regress).

5. Nevertheless, we do seem to know what we are talking about, right? What gives?

6. Inevitably we start asking: well what the heck are meanings? But think about it –  how are we going to answer that question? Look it up in the dictionary? See, same problem. You either go in a circle or spiral downwards.

7. But you do basically know what words mean well enough to use them, right?

8. Interestingly enough, several philosopher’s seem to believe, not only can they explain meanings to you, they can do so in a definitive and precise manner. In fact, entire philosophies have sprouted up to tell us how to find the precise meanings of words.

9. A quote: "I use the name methodological essentialism to characterize the view, held
by Plato and many of his followers, that it is the task of pure knowledge
or ‘science’ to discover and to describe the true nature of things, i.e.
their hidden reality or essence. It was Plato’s peculiar belief that the essence of sensible things can be found in other and or real things – in their primogenitors of Forms. Many of the later methodological essentialists, for instance Aristotle, did not altogether follow him in this; but they all agreed with him in determining the task of pure knowledge as the discovery of the hidden nature or Form or essence of things. All these methodological essentialists also agreed with Plato in holding that these essences may be discovered and discerned with the help of intellectual intuition." Karl Popper, Open Society and Its Enemies, vol 1, page 31, 1944

10. Meanings = Things? My view on this is as follows. An essentialist looks at the world as existing completely independent of his own existence. Meanings = Things. That’s Things with a capital T. And Essentialist sees the world as made up of independent Things/essences, and he sees his job as one of assigning names to each of these Things/essences.

11. It’s like the Sheryl Crow song by Karl Wallinger

Then there came a day it moved out ‘cross the Mediterranean
Came to Western isles of Greek young men
With their silver beards they laughed at the unknown of the universe
They could just sit and guess God’s name.

12. No one was more aware of infinite regresses and the problems they can lead to than Aristotle. However he solved them in an essentialist way. Another quote:
"Undoubtedly, Aristotle was right when he insisted that we must not attempt to prove or demonstrate *all* our knowledge. Every proof must proceed from premises; the proof as such, that is to say, the derivation from the premises, can therefore never finally settle the truth of any conclusion, but only show that the conclusion must be true *provided* the premises are true. If we were to demand that the premise should be proved in their turn, the question of truth would only be shifted back by another step to a new set of premises, and so on, to infinity. It was in order to avoid such an infinite regress (as the logicians say) that Aristotle taught that we must assume that there are premises which are indubitably true, and which do not need any proof; and these he called ‘basic premises’. If we take for granted the methods by which we derive conclusions from these basic premise, then we could say that, according to Aristotle, the whole of scientific knowledge is contained in the basic premises, and that it would all be ours if only we could obtain an encyclopedic list of the basic premise. But how to obtain these basic premises? Like Plato, Aristotle believed that we obtain all knowledge ultimately by an intuitive grasp of the essences of things. ‘We can know a thing only by knowing its essence’ Aristotle writes, and ‘to know a thing is to know its essence’. A ‘basic premise’ is, according g to him, nothing but a statement describing the essence of a thing. But such a statement is just what he calls a definition. Thus all ‘basic premises of proofs’ are definitions." Karl Popper, Open Society and Its Enemies, vol 2, chapter 11, section II, 1945

13. The important thing to note here is that once you have a final premise, you are finished. It’s a done deal. You intuitively grasp it through the faculty of your mind or soul or rationality or what-have-you, and that’s that. Now, what if someone disagrees with you? Should you even pay attention to them? Should you at least consider what they say? Well, why bother if you’ve intuited the real truth. Clearly if the person disagrees with you they are either ignorant or lying. Now if they are ignorant, why is that? If they are the same age as you and have had roughly the same experiences then why can’t the see the truth. Perhaps it’s because they are impure … the ethical places where essentialism leads you are not pretty. Generally they are quite authoritarian.

14. While the Aristotelian form of essentialism might give one pause to wonder, some of us don’t stop to think how many other common ideas about how we learn represent a kind of essentialism. Another quote:
"In the earlier days and precisely when philosophers like John Locke first sought to
account for the genesis of knowledge, they thought to account for it by using physics as
their model. Early physics was very much a push-me-pull-you affair, a
universe in which masses moved in response to a stimulus. In this kind of
universe, knowledge came to be thought of as something like energy
transfer. A body emitted light; the light hit the retina; the retina sent a
message to the mind; and so, the mind ended up by having knowledge of the
source of the light. The quality and veracity of knowledge was considered
to be proportional to the energy transfer. In essence, knowledge was
considered to be the effect the known object had on the mind of the knower.
The known caused knowledge, or induced knowledge, in the mind of the
knower." by Peter Munz, Our Knowledge of The Growth of Knowledge, page 21-22, 1985
This is or at least was an old form of empiricism. Yet when you stop to think about it, it’s not really so different from Aristotle’s intuitionalism.

15. So what might knowledge be. How should we approach the problem of meanings. Another quote:
"Instead of aiming at finding out what a thing really is, and at defining
its true nature, methodological nominalism aims at describing how a thing
behaves in various circumstances, and especially, whether there are any
regularities in its behaviour. …[It] sees the aim of science in the
description of the things and events of our experience, and in an
‘explanation’ of these events, i.e. their description with the help of
universal laws. And it sees our language, and especially in those of its
rules which distinguish properly constructed sentences and inferences from
a mere heap of words, the great instrument of scientific description; words
it considers rather as subsidiary tools for this task, and not as names of
essences. The methodological nominalist will never think that a question
like ‘*What is* energy?’ or ‘*What is* movement?’ or ‘*what is* an atom?’
is an important question for physics; but he will attach importance to a
question like ‘How can the energy of the sun be made useful?’ or ‘How does
a planet move?’ or ‘Under what condition does an atom radiate light?’ And
to those philosophers who tell him that before having answered the ‘what
is’ question he cannot hope to give exact answers to any of the ‘how’
questions, he will reply, if at all, by pointing out that he much prefers
that modest degree of exactness which he can achieve by his methods to the
pretentious muddle which they have achieved by theirs." Open Society and Its Enemies, vol 1, page 32, 1944

16. Basically Popper solves the problem of meanings this way: There is a problem so let’s get on with the business of figuring thing out. Meanings are tools and you use them or you lose them. Meanings are never precise or perfect and the idea of establishing some kind of one to one correspondence with Things is plain out silly. Despite this, we seem to be able use meanings quite effectively.

17. An example: Say I want to make a assertion. I want to say that "All swans are white." Now, remember no matter how many white swans we’ve seen we still don’t now for sure if this is true. However, if we see one black swan then we know for the most part that it is false. Now say, we come across a black swan. And you say, "Look, there’s a black swan right there. You’re assertion was incorrect." Then, I say, "well, that’s not a swan." Then, you say, "of course it is. Right there, are you telling me that’s not a swan?"
I’m grinning and beet red, but I say, "well, what is a swan, really? I mean, can you tell me precisely what a swan is?" And of course you can’t. But you know that I am lying merely to save face.
Do you see the problem? We can always waffle, equivocate and downright lie. And in fact, given how strong a role pride plays in all of our mental make-ups, it’s a damn easy thing to do. However, this isn’t a problem with words, this is a problem with us. Basically, if we are honest and we don’t waffle, equivocate, or lie, we will probably get along fine with our words. We won’t need philosophies to tell us how to talk precisely and unequivocally.

18. Now, there might be times when words genuinely do create misunderstandings, when word really aren’t so clear. There may even be a time when a definition that seemed clear is no longer clear in light of new observations.
So what do we do?
Basically, if we can’t agree about what a swan is, we can propose a theory about swans. We can say a swan is a bird that fits such and such a description. Then you might want to say, well, what if we don’t agree about these words as well. Then, we just have to keep trying till we can find some words we can agree on. However, I would caution a person from assuming too much about this. Basically in life we get by every day using words and this is without knowing the precise meanings of each term we are using. There is something to be said for the old expression, "making a mountain out of a mole hill." To take the extreme view that we can’t talk about things unless we have precise meanings in my opinion just doesn’t hold any credence. Clearly we can.

19. One point that needs a little reemphasizing here, is that old words do from time to time become obsolete. In fact, these days it seems to happen all to fast. For a non-essentialists this is no problem. After all, an essentialist views a word as a tool not as a Thing with a capital T. If the word ceases to function as a tool, an non-essentialist will let go of it and try to solve his problem with some new tools.
An essentialist won’t do this. After all his words correspond with Things with a capital T. Things don’t just disappear. In this way essentialists are less likely to want to change their opinions on something if at all. After all, they are sure that as they have word for some Thing, that that Thing can’t just disappear. There is a very strong streak of authoritarianism and conservatism built into the Essentialist view point.

20. One more time, the same point as above. If two non-essentialists can’t agree on terms (words) they merely search for some new terms (words) they can agree on and go forward from there.
However, an essentialists is sure that some Thing corresponds with his words, so he begins to try to figure out why you don’t admit there is such a Thing as the Thing he is talking about. He might graciously admit you are merely ignorant for not seeing his viewpoint, or perhaps he’ll thinking your special Acme intellect/intuition unit which helps you apprehend is out of order, or he might just decide you are all out evil. But he certainly won’t agree that the Thing he is referring to can be so quickly dismissed.

21. Now a question might arise as follows: Well, okay, words=Things might not be the best way to approaching language. Instead, words (very roughly) = tools. But tools to do what? And the answer to this would be tools to question with, tools to probe reality with, tools to try understand the world with. I think this is primarily what Popper is saying. However, perhaps we can extend this a little and say that words are a bit like proposals. This is a term I am borrowing from Peter Munz. Allow me another quote. This follows right on the heels of the quote I gave in 14 above:
"We know today that this account of knowledge on the model of physics is
only partially correct. To be sure, there is always a certain amount of
energy transfer. But once the energy reaches the nervous system of the
knower, the process becomes infinitely complex and interpretative. Feedback
starts to operate inside the nervous system and what emerges in the end as
‘knowledge’ bears very little resemblance to the ‘object’ which can be said
to have caused the initial energy transfer. Rather, we now know that the
acquisition of knowledge can be understood much better when we use a model
from biology instead. Biological evolution does not proceed by energy
transfer and the emergence of new organisms is not induced or constrained
by the environment. On the contrary, the initiative lies inside the
organisms. They make proposals to the environment and the environment
selects those proposals which are viable. Similarly, we can think of
knowledge as a theory about the world and evaluate the theory, in order to
distinguish true theories from false theories, by trail-and-error pattern
matching. (footnote deleted) The biological model is a better guide to the
acquisition and growth of knowledge than the physical model and, for that
matter, even knowledge about the physical universe must be seen to have
been acquired on the biological model." Our Knowledge of The Growth of
Knowledge, by Peter Munz, page 22

22. Now, this is neither like Aristotle’s intuition nor like Locke’s empiricism.
Instead of Aristotle’s intuition which grasps the ultimate truth of the essence of Things, we blindly propose about what Things might be out there.
Instead of Locke’s reality which impinges the ultimate truth of the essence of Things upon us, reality helps us test our proposals to see if they stand up or not to the facts.
That is we make a proposal. Now as long as this proposal works well enough we stick with it, but when it begins to fail for whatever reasons, we let go of it and try to form new proposals that work better.
See, we can learn about reality but in a fallible way. There might be something essential out there, but our experience with it is indirect and imperfect.

23. The idea that reality doesn’t impinge itself upon us might feel strange to some, and so I’d like to go off on a slight tangent. I want you to consider the situation of learning a new word.
Imagine this. You don’t speak English at all. You speak Japanese or Chinese and aren’t even remotely familiar with English. Now say I hold up a big, red pen in front of you and I say, "red". Now from this, will you be able to learn the color red? Especially imagine the case where I give you no feedback. Why you might associate with the word "red" with who knows how many different meanings. You might think I mean big or pen or if you’re lucky red. Now imagine I show you something else, a big red notebook. And imagine again that I say, "red". Well, at this point you might be able to determine that at least I wasn’t talking about pen. So you’ve got it narrowed down to red or big. Now say I show you a small red cup. And say "red" again. Finally, it dawns on you, oh, now I got it. "Red" is red.
Of course this example is really simplified. There might a near limitless number of meanings you might have initially tried to ascribe to the word — sound — "red." Yet the more *different* examples I gave you, the greater chance you had of catching on to what I meant.
My main point here is: where did the notion or concept of red come from? Is it possible that it came from the outside? I think anyone who carefully considers this will have to say no. While one might be able to put together some kind of biological argument, or psychological argument, I think in the end these would become a kind of essentialist argument. There was not special kind of Thing (psychological or physical) that impinged itself on us making us see red.
It seems clear to me that red is merely an idea that comes to us in the form of a proposal and is directed outward and then tested. And as it seems to work and help us talk about reality, the world, and so on, we continue to use it. However is there really a red Thing?
This question seems to be almost identical to asking what is red, really? And so we are back to where we started. Asking questions like this really isn’t fruitful or helpful. What is red? (Essentially?) If we continue along this line, we’ll destroy a perfectly good word, because there is not a satisfactory way to answer the question. We could describe red as a sensation, or as a certain light frequency – however, we would then have to ask, well, what are those? And this would go on forever. So basically, as long as we both understand the term red well enough to communicate, and can therefore use the term effectively, that’s enough. Nevertheless, it should be clear that red doesn’t *necessarily* correspond with any Thing, and that’s Thing with a capital T.

24. Now another good question is, how do we test proposals? After all if all our knowledge is all proposals, guesses really, then are we to test guesses against guesses? Don’t we need at least a little bit of essentialism to get the ball rolling?

25. This question is misleading in many ways. Incomplete knowledge shouldn’t be compared with the complete absence of knowledge. We shouldn’t confuse not being able to prove something with not having good criticisms against theories that don’t hold up.
A person who asks for just a little essentialism is asking for a way to justify proposals not just a little bit, but in some ultimate way. And ultimate justification just isn’t possible, as far as I know. Even the notion of probable justification creates confusions and problems, and doesn’t seem possible. The problem, as I see it, is we’ve been so trained to think in essentialists ways, its really difficult to let go of essentialism.
Ultimately whether we hold one theory over another as say a critical preference depends on a decision. There is something deeply paradoxical in thinking we could determine precisely how we make this kind of decision. Knowing how we decide one proposal over another in some definite justified manner would be to view us as machines. For such a proposal would not only have to be regarded as a kind of Thing, a fact — a justified –determined fact, it would be to make the fluid decision process into nothing but a static Thing. (Is-statements becomes should-statements, if you will.) If you follow what I am saying here, you’ll grasp that such justification is to view humans as mere robots. It is to eliminate ourselves entirely from the process. This is why I say it is paradoxical. Its like saying I found justification and learned I don’t exist at all. I’m just a cog in a nihilistic machine.
Let me repeat myself:
Incomplete knowledge shouldn’t be compared with the complete absence of knowledge. We shouldn’t confuse not being able to prove something with not having good arguments for or against theories. Lack of justified knowledge doesn’t equate no knowledge.
We need to realize there is always a bit of a mystery here. I say there is a bit of a mystery here not as something that can be proved, but as a proposal of my own that has survived any criticism I’ve been able to expose this proposal to. It is a critical preference. The only way effective criticism of this preference would for you to show me how we can justify knowledge in some ultimate sense. Yet, I fail to see how anyone can do this.

About Matt

My full name is Matt Dioguardi. I have been interested in critical rationalism for about 10 years. I am the administrator of this blog, if you have an questions or problems please let me know.
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One Response to Notes on essentialism

  1. Peter D Jones says:

    “At this point, I can turn around and take each of the new words you have supplied me with and then ask, well what do these words mean? Needless to say this is an endless process. Searching for the exact, precise meaning of a word can only lead in a circle or into an infinite regress.”

    This argument is invalid. If the meanings of most words are already mutually established, then they can be used to give a precise definition of the word in question. If the meanings of most words are not mutually established, a coherent
    question regarding an issue of meaning cannot be posed. That the question
    can be posed, and understood, presupposes that the basic of communication necessary to answer it are already in place.

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