The Essentials of Essentialism

By Johnny Apocalypse

November 1, 2011

During one of my brief readings of some general philosophy, I came across the idea of "Essentialism". The idea in itself is fairly simple: for every object, there are "essential properties" and "accidental properties". The essential properties are those that describe the object in it's "essence", the properties without which the object is no longer an object. Accidental properties pertain to descriptions of the object and can be changed without the object being something else.

That's a mouthful, isn't it? A good way to break it down is looking at an object. Let's use a chair for an example (for some reason, philosophers like using chairs in their hypothetical scenarios). A decent (although not foolproof) description of the essential properties would be "A piece of furniture designed for one average-sized person to sit comfortably and raised off of the ground level". Pretty complex, but it'll do. Now if the chair were to be lengthened to the point where two people could sit on it, it's no longer a chair. We'd call it a loveseat, a sofa or a couch.

Accidental properties of the chair would be what it's made out of (metal, plastic, wood), the number of legs (three or four), and the color. You can change these out, but it would still be a chair.

But as with most things in philosophy, it's just not that simple. Re-read the essential property of a chair that I listed above. Now think of a chair designed for a very, very obese individual. You may be able to comfortably seat two people side by side on it, but it looks like a chair in all other respects. We'd simply see it as "a fat guy's chair". So we'd have to amend the essential properties, either chopping out "one average sized person" or editing it to include the very large and very small.

Still following along? I barely am, but let's keep going.

At this point, trying to create a fool-proof list of essential properties becomes difficult, regardless of what it is you're trying to describe. In fact, it may even be impossible. Let's take a human being. An attempt at the essential property might be "a featherless being that walks on two legs". But if you can pluck a chicken without killing it, then you have the same description. So you say "a featherless mammal that walks on two legs", so the plucked chicken can no longer qualify. At this point, someone mentions the fact that several primates can walk on two legs for a period of time, and that humans can live without their legs, and can even be born without them.

What's really odd is that even though an essentialist could have a hard time finding the essential properties of a human being, he'd still know what a human being is. It's kind of like trying to articulate your feelings about an issue and having trouble finding the right words. You innately know what you're talking about, but you just can't describe it perfectly.

But let's take the idea of essentialism into contrasting two similar things, mountains and hills. Now if someone says "I'm going camping in the mountains", you'll have a vague idea of where he's camping. But if someone asks you "when does a hill become a mountain?", the problems arise. You're being asked to come up with essential properties for two similar objects, and furthermore being asked to define exactly where the two are separated. Aiming to do it by height, you can say "a hill raises from the ground less than fifty feet, and a mountain is taller than fifty feet". You're saying that the difference of a fraction of an inch is what turns a hill into a mountain, and it may even be a good place to draw the line. But this fraction of an inch wouldn't much change the appearance of a hill or mountain, would it? Other people around may not be convinced by your definition.

The problems only get worse from here. Take any two similar things and try to find exactly where they are separated. Kittens and cats, for example, are separated by age. But at what age do we make the distinction? If you say "sixteen weeks", are we meaning sixteen weeks to the day of birth, or the exact minute of birth? And what fundamental change occurs at this precise moment, changing it from a kitten to a cat?

The point is this: when you really try to delineate the differences between two similar objects, and you have trouble, it starts looking like we humans have absolutely no idea what the hell we're talking about. Sure, we can instinctively 'know' what a mountain is versus a hill, or that the cat we see is not a kitten, but if we really have trouble pinpointing the exact properties, then we're simply talking in vague concepts instead of specifically defined things. We've made huge progress in medicine, space travel and telecommunications, but how many people can say they know exactly when a stream becomes a river?

So let's toss another wrench into the system! The problem of relativity. I'm not talking about Einstein's fancy physics relativity, but the idea that many concepts are 'relative' to the person thinking about them (and according to some, truth is relative too).

Three men are driving to the Rocky Mountains from Denver, Colorado. They reach the town of Golden, and one says "well, we're officially in the mountains."

"What are you talking about?" says a second man, "the mountains started a few miles back."

"You're full of shit, Golden marks the start of the mountains."

Then the third man pops his head between the two from the back seat, "you're both idiots. The mountains don't start until you're a quarter mile past Golden."

"Shut up, Tim. We put you in the back seat for a reason."

Now the problem here is that of relativity. These men each have their own specific idea of when they leave the foothills and when they hit the mountains. The city of Golden itself says that it's on the edge of the foothills and the mountains, but two of these three men disagree. And trying to convince all three to agree upon exactly when the mountains start would likely be an exercise in futility. They would argue and debate until they got to their campsite, and then got drunk, or until one of them kills the other two and dumps their bodies on the side of the road (which pretty much makes him right about where the mountains start).

Essentialism can solve this problem. If we precisely define the essential properties of both hills and mountains, we can pinpoint where exactly the mountains start and the foothills end. The flip side is that relativity, if true, destroys the purpose of essentialism. By 'true' I mean the idea all truths are relative. With this approach, all three men are basically correct, and their argument has no valid basis upon a truth.

Me, I hate relativism. I think there are underlying truths to our ideas and concepts, but we may be far enough removed from them that we have no real way to see "the truth", and possibly never can. But that doesn't mean there isn't any real truth at all.

One thing I see relativists use for an example is insanity. We societies have drawn our own lines of where one is sane and insane. "If you hear voices, you're insane. If you don't, you're sane". And the relativists make a pretty good point, the lines of where good mental health start and end are very much decided by the society itself. But then I like to throw out my favorite counter-argument. Death.

Let's go back to the three men mentioned earlier. They have reached their campsite, set up a tent and began drinking beer earnestly. A hunter deep in the woods sees Tim slugging a Coors, decides that he looks suspiciously like a deer, and shoots Tim in the head.

The moment Tim's head pops and he falls over, his friend Mark says "huh. Well he's dead. Give me the rest of his beer."

But the medical definition of "death" would disagree with him. It says something along the lines of "the permanent cessation (end) of all biological functions". Now Tim's brain may be splattered across an aspen tree, but his heart is still beating, and his stomach may be producing digestive fluids for the beer it holds, so not all biological function is done (and there have been a few people to get shot in the head and recover from it). Mark has called Tim's death a bit prematurely, in the mind of the medical field. Their ideas of "death", are relative.

My assertion: at some point in time, from when the bullet hits Tim in the brain to the point where the last scrap of his body turns to dust and is blown away, he will, in fact, be dead. Humans may make the determination of when he dies, which is relative, but there is still the end-all truth that he is dead. Period. End of story.

This is something that essentialism can try to determine. If one comes up with solid essential properties of life and death, we can determine that precise line. But while I may like to read philosophy and boot it around in my head a little, I think that task might be a bit beyond me. At least, for the moment.

So now you're sitting in your chair in front of your computer, reading this, and you may start to realize that you have no idea what a chair essentially "is". The good news, it may not really matter. You instinctively know what a chair is, right? You can tell a chair from a couch? Then you're all set.

Essentialism may really have no absolute meaning in day-to-day life. It can help us define things, and decide when a car becomes an SUV, but so what? Unless you're a philosopher, the ideas really won't change your life all that much. You can tell a car from and SUV, a chair from a dog, so you're all set.

After saying that, you're probably wondering why I decided to write this article in the first place. Well, that's an essential property of Johnny Apocalypse. "A human being who writes whatever is on his mind."


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