"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.

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§ 13 Responses to "Essentialist" means just what I say it means…

  • Step2 says:

    The title cracked me up (in a Humpty Dumpty sort of way). Sweet irony.Going back to the previous thread, given the ease with which we can overgeneralize with labels, is it not better to hold back from using them until we have some more particular knowledge? As a software person, I am sure you know how time delaying and energy consuming error corrections are.BTW, I was wondering if you could point me to where you argue that liberalism is evil? Thanks.

  • zippy says:

    <>The title cracked me up… <>This blogging stuff is like falling off a wall, I’m telling you.<>…given the ease with which we can overgeneralize with labels, is it not better to hold back from using them until we have some more particular knowledge?<>Thier use should be safe, legal, and rare. Or at least medium-rare.<>BTW, I was wondering if you could point me to where you argue that liberalism is evil?<>I have not done so in this forum under this nom-de-plume. It just isn’t my focus here. But I may at some point. In this discussion it is just a place-holder: any ism, good or evil, will serve my purposes.

  • zippy says:

    BTW, I will point out that because I am an essentialist, it is entirely possible that I am completely wrong about liberalism. It is what it is, independent of what I think of it, and I may even have loyalties to it myself despite the fact that I am pretty convinced that I do not. To the extent anyone cares about my opinions that may be some comfort.

  • Steven says:

    Dear Zippy,In the 12:51 post below you stated:<>I also understand liberalism to be an evil thing. But because I am an essentialist I don’t understand liberals to be “evil things”, whereas if I was an antiessentialist it would immediately follow that liberals in general are just plain evil.<>This does not constitute an argument, and perhaps step2 was asking for that, but as I phrased my responses, this was what I was responding to.shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    Steven,I suppose my choice was polemically unfortunate, and I should have selected a less controversial “ism” like Nazism or cannibalism when I made that particular comment.

  • Steven says:

    Dear Zippy,I apologize if I gave the impression that I was contesting the statement, I wasn’t. I was merely supplying the answer to step2’s last question.In fact, I’ve never challenged your contention that it is evil. It’s evil is less manifest than some, and thus perhaps more insidious. After all to be in favor of the human freedom and self-determination sounds, at the surface to be very benign–but when you start with a lie, you can only descend.shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    <>I was merely supplying the answer to step2’s last question.<>Ah, thanks for the clarification Steven. For the record I acknowledge that Step2’s question/point remains valid: even just as a concrete example in the general discussion of essentialism I have merely asserted that liberalism is evil, I have not argued it.

  • Steven says:

    DEaer Zippy,You will note, in my first reply that I acknowledged that it didn’t constitute an argument. That said, I’d love to see a fuller explication of that premise when you’ve a chance to think about it. It is good to take advantages of the strengths of one’s colleagues. Mine, as you may have noted, isn’t necessarily logical argumentation–but I do enjoy reading it and reading about it.shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    The problem with talking about liberalism (or its variants, e.g. neoconservatism, libertarianism, welfare-state liberalism, etc) isn’t that the core argument itself (or really the core set of arguments) is necessarily lengthy or overly complex. It isn’t. But any well executed discussion of it would still take a whole shelf full of prose.There are a number of reasons why. Many or most people in the modern first world (including and especially many who are presently labeled “conservative”) have some significant degree of loyalty to political liberalism and at the least share many of its presumptions. So just establishing a basis for discussion is nontrivial, and involves getting to a priori agreement on other things that nobody ever agrees with me about – from the philosophical to the historical – at least without substantial prior discussion.So in short, it would take a great deal of work to do it well, and while I’m a long way from being a perfectionist I think it is the sort of thing better done well or not at all.Or perhaps I am just rationalizing my laziness.

  • Steven says:

    Dear Zippy,Rationalizing laziness seems a perfectly acceptable thing for a Blog Lord. 🙂shalom,Steven

  • Step2 says:

    Zippy,I look forward to your argument when you decide to compose it. If I may wander off topic here, I would point out that many of our belief alignments, like language itself, contain recursive elements which make it easy to consider “what we are against” rather than what we are for. In attempting to justify an -ism as good or evil, the tendency of many, including myself, is to think in terms of opposition. Since Steven states his opposition to human freedom and self-determinism so cavalierly, I wonder that he has reflected on the consequences of what he is defending.

  • zippy says:

    <>I would point out that many of our belief alignments, like language itself, contain recursive elements which make it easy to consider “what we are against” rather than what we are for.<>Could be. This may be topologically true too, at least in contexts where there is presumably one truth and a multiplicity of errors. Although maybe we are saying the same thing?<>In attempting to justify an -ism as good or evil, the tendency of many, including myself, is to think in terms of opposition.<>Well, you know, some things are dichotomies and some aren’t, heh.

  • Steven says:

    Dear Step2,<>Since Steven states his opposition to human freedom and self-determinism so cavalierly, I wonder that he has reflected on the consequences of what he is defending.<>I think you misconstrue what I am against–it is not human freedom and self-determinism, but rather, these things viewed as the <>highest good<>. These are goods in themselves, the ability to choose and the freedom to do so are gifts from God. But they are not the highest goods–when they are so elevated, they become in themselves a tyranny. That was the implied point, and as I was only sketching the vaguest outlines of the argument, the need for precision did not seem urgent. When we begin to define our terms more closely, then we can scrutinize definitions.But any systems that chooses a good other than the highest good as its apex is, essentially evil from good–it is misdirected and in the etymological Hebrew sense of the word “sinful,” missing the mark.Hope this clarifies.shalom,Steven

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