"Essentialist" means just what I say it means…
April 27, 2006 § 13 Comments
Rob raises a pertinent question in the comments. Paraphrased: “What the heck do you mean by ‘essentialism’ anyway, Zippy?”
Wikipedia is interesting but not specifically helpful with what I am focused on here.
In a nutshell, an antiessentialist (or nominalist) will view a word like “liberalism” the way Humpty Dumpty views it. The word refers not to an objective external essence but to whatever internal state of his mind that Humpty chooses it to refer to; nothing more, nothing less, and always subject to Humpty’s will. Nobody else can impute an implication that Humpty does not agree to, because there is no essence to the referent other than just what Humpty wills. If Humpty is a liberal, it is only because Humpty agrees in every particular with what liberal means and implies, and further agrees that he is one. “Liberal”, if it applies legitimately as a label to Humpty, does so only because he chooses for it to apply and chooses all that it entails.
An essentialist understands a word to refer to some real essence that is external to and independent of the person who utters it. A speaker is not the God of the words he uses, creating just that reality by speech that he chooses to create: rather, his words refer to objective things and have objective implications about which he may be completely ignorant or mistaken. Humpty is a liberal if Humpty is in fact loyal to liberalism, which is an objective thing independent of Humpty. Humpty may or may not get to decide whether he has those loyalties – we don’t always get to decide what we believe is true, especially if it actually is true – but he doesn’t get to arbitrarily say what liberalism objectively is and what follows from it.
The gist of a number of my recent posts is that when someone starts playing Humpty Dumpty, it is time to make an omelette.