The essence of a child”s development

For the 2014 book, see Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of The essence of a child’s development. Not to be confused with Existentialism.

Essentialism is the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function. Essentialism has been controversial from its beginning. Plato’s Socrates already questions the notion by suggesting, in the Parmenides, that if we accept the idea every beautiful thing or just action partakes of an essence in order to be beautiful or just, then we must also accept the “existence of separate essences for hair, mud, and dirt”. An essence characterizes a substance or a form, in the sense of the Forms or Ideas in Platonic idealism. Plato was one of the first essentialists, believing in the concept of ideal forms, an abstract entity of which individual objects are mere facsimiles. Karl Popper splits the ambiguous term realism into essentialism and realism. He uses essentialism whenever he means the opposite of nominalism, and realism only as opposed to idealism.

Essentialism, in its broadest sense, is any philosophy that acknowledges the primacy of Essence. Unlike Existentialism, which posits “being” as the fundamental reality, the essentialist ontology must be approached from a metaphysical perspective. Plato believed that the universe was perfect and that its observed imperfections came from man’s limited perception of it. For Plato, there were two realities: the “essential” or ideal and the “perceived”.

Despite the metaphysical basis for the term, academics in science, aesthetics, heuristics, psychology, and gender-based sociological studies have advanced their causes under the banner of Essentialism. Among contemporary essentialists, what all existing things have in common is the power to exist, which defines their “uncreated” Essence. In 2010, an article by Gerald B. Paul Bloom attempts to explain why people will pay more in an auction for the clothing of celebrities if the clothing is unwashed.

He believes the answer to this and many other questions is that people cannot help but think of objects as containing a sort of “essence” that can be influenced. Essentialism has emerged as an important concept in psychology, particularly developmental psychology. There are four key criteria which constitute essentialist thinking. According to this criterion, essences predict developments in entities that will occur throughout its lifespan. The implications of psychological essentialism are numerous.

This may be due to an over-extension of an essential-biological mode of thinking stemming from cognitive development. Classical essentialists claim that some things are wrong in an absolute sense, for example murder breaks a universal, objective and natural moral law and not merely an advantageous, socially or ethically constructed one. Many modern essentialists claim that right and wrong are moral boundaries which are individually constructed. In other words, things that are ethically right or wrong are actions that the individual deems to be beneficial or harmful, respectively. One possibility is that before evolution was developed as a scientific theory, there existed an essentialist view of biology that posited all species to be unchanging throughout time. Recent work by historians of systematic biology has, however, cast doubt upon this view of pre-Darwinian thought. The neutrality of this section is disputed.

Relevant discussion may be found on the talk page. In social and political debate, the critique of essentialism arose from post-modernist theory, according to which the essentialist view on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, or other group characteristics is that they are fixed traits, discounting variation among group members as secondary. In social thought, metaphysical essentialism is often conflated with biological reductionism. Most sociologists, for example, employ a distinction between biological sex and gender role. However, this has been contested by Monique Wittig, who argued that even biological sex is not an essence, and that the body’s physiology is “caught up” in processes of social construction.