Rehabilitating ‘essences’

It’s difficult to express quite how much I agree with the passage below. Historically, some justified objections to specific understandings of essence led to a repudiation of the concept in its entirety. As Christian Smith points out there has been a pervasive tendency within social network analysis (though I think it’s much broader than this, at least in its implicit dimensions) to construe issue of entities and relations in either/or terms whereas, instead, we might construe it in both/and terms. Many of the problems associated with the notions of essences stems from an insufficiently relational view of what an essence is. If the essence of an entity is seen to be shaped by, though not reducible to, the network of relations in which it is spatially and temporally entangled then the notion of an eternal (ontologically unchanging) or knowable (epistemically transparant) essence ceases to make sense. Conversely, without some sense of entities having characteristics beyond their relational existence, it’s difficult to even make sense of the possibility of change. The attributes of entities cannot fully explain outcomes in which they are involved but nor can the relations between entities.

if things are not purely relational, then it  also follows that things have essences. I am not the same person as you are. My individual qualities do not erupt into the world for the first time only once they have an effect on something else. I thrived in Egypt, while other expatriates gained nothing from being there; presumably there are things about me that Egypt successfully addressed, while those same traits were absent from the others. Matisse became an artist by accident at around age 21, and van Gogh even later in life. Yet it would not be nonsensical to claim that both of them had artistic gifts preceding those biographical dates, at least for a little while in advance. There is also a reason why it was Matisse and van Gogh rather than any other two people selected from their generation at random. This points to an essence, a reality in the two artists that is not exhaustively deployed in their total artistic catalogs or in their public “performativity,” no matter how unpopular essence has become in philosophy.

There are really just two problems with essence, and it is frankly not that difficult to remove them from your metaphysics while keeping the term “essence.”

1. The idea that the essence can be known. In other words, there is no political problem when we simply speak of “the Arab world.” The political problem comes from thinking that a certain elite group of Orientalist scholars from Oxford and Cambridge can identify the features of that Arab world, and use those features to proclaim that it is essentially Arab to be undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, disorganized, and so forth. This would be an attempt to identify the essence of the Arabs with certain tangibly determinable traits, most of them negative. But in a philosophy like mine, the essence of the Arabs is no more knowable than the essence of van Gogh, a cat, a table, or a neutron. Orientalism results not from calling the Arabs dark and mysterious, but quite the opposite— it comes from explicitly identifying them as undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, and disorganized. The minute you realize that everything is withdrawn from immediate access and can only be known obliquely, an automatic dose of caution and humility is injected into your knowledge.

2. The related idea that the essence is eternal is also a problem. Consider the Scandinavian people, who once produced an endless supply of ferocious Vikings, but are now often viewed as the “peaceniks” of Europe, champions of human rights and social and gender equality. Obviously, one must analyze the history here. If you were simply to say “the Scandinavians are such a civilized people,” this would be no more and no less true than saying “the Scandinavians are brutal marauders with no respect for the sanctity of monasteries.” We must recognize that Scandinavia will follow a different future path from Japan, Kenya, or Lebanon, because these places all have different cultures and histories and different aspirations. But this essence of a culture, like the essence of a person, eagle, army, or coffee mug, is not so easily pieced together from a list of explicitly proclaimed properties that one knowingly ascribes to them.

Stated more technically: metaphysical essentialism is politically harmless, but epistemological essentialism is not.

– an interview with Graham Harman

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