Essentialist philosophy may be a bit difficult to understand, especially because people have been educated, and I would say indoctrinated, in the modern scientific worldview. I have thought of a parable that may help explain the various historical and current worldviews in a simpler way and how essentialism differs from these worldviews.
I will start this parable with a reference to a mini-series that was made in 1971, titled Elizabeth R, which is based on the life of Queen Elizabeth I of England. In this parable, England sinks under the ocean, but the mini-series, Elizabeth R, is preserved and retains popularity.
In this parable, Queen Elizabeth represents Perfect Form, or Pure Essence. The mini-series itself represents the reflection of Perfect Form in Substance. The making of the mini-series represents Substance.
A hundred years pass after the destruction of England, but people are still watching Elizabeth R. Elizabeth R becomes so popular, most people now believe that this is the best possible rendition of the life of Queen Elizabeth. At about this time, someone comes along. We will call him Mr. Aristotle. Mr. Aristotle taught that we can learn all there is to know about Queen Elizabeth from the mini-series. If there is information that exists about Queen Elizabeth that contradicts the mini-series, that information is wrong.
Over time, Mr. Aristotle’s teaching becomes the general consensus, and the mini-series, Elizabeth R becomes the first and foremost authority on the life of Queen Elizabeth. Any other work about her life must be derived from and able to defend itself using the mini-series.
After another thousand years or so, Mr. Ockham comes around and teaches that there was no Queen Elizabeth, but the mini-series is important to study in and of itself. This idea does not really become part of the general consensus at the time. Most people believe that Queen Elizabeth did exist, but that we can learn about her from the mini-series.
Even though Mr. Ockham’s ideas did not catch on as such, they started to become mixed with Mr. Aristotle’s ideas for another 500 years, and then Mr. Literal picked them up. Mr. Literal held the belief that the mini-series was not a story based on Queen Elizabeth’s life made 500 years after her life, but was an actual documentary filmed in real time. Mr. Literal’s views became the general consensus, and no respected scholar could say otherwise.
Another couple of hundred years later, Mr. Rationalist came along. Mr. Rationalist “discovered” what seemed to be new information in the form of artifacts which showed how the mini-series was made. His friend and colleague, Mr. Enlightenment, was able to prove that the woman in the mini-series was not Queen Elizabeth, but was Miss Glenda Jackson. After that, more and more information was discovered about the making of the mini-series…in intricate detail. With these new “discoveries”, the entire belief in the existence of Queen Elizabeth was called into question.
Not being able to contemplate that Queen Elizabeth might not have existed, many still held on to the beliefs of Mr. Literal. Literalists and Rationalists began a long and hard battle. Literalists called Rationalists heretics; Rationalists called Literalists hidebound, naive, and stubborn. How could one cling to the idea that Queen Elizabeth existed in the face of all of this evidence about the making of the mini-series?
The idea of the non-existence of Queen Elizabeth was truly a hard pill to swallow, but what could one do in the face of all of this evidence of the making of the mini-series? Most people held on to the belief that Queen Elizabeth existed, but the belief became a bit amorphous. Many different clubs sprung up around Queen Elizabeth, with different ideas of who she was and how she lived. Some still clung hard to Mr. Literalist’s teachings, but most just compartmentalized their thinking.
After another few hundred years, along comes Mr. Post-Modern. Mr. Post-Modern sees the bickering between the Rationalists and the Literalists, and between the various clubs that fought among themselves. He starts to believe that maybe the most important thing is not the mini-series, but the story told by the mini-series. Mr. Post-Modern is skeptical about the existence of Queen Elizabeth, but thinks it is a very good story.
Mr. Post-Modern’s followers, Post-Modernists, do a lot of strange things with the story. Some say that Queen Elizabeth is figure that was derived from the collective unconscious of humans. Some say that the mini-series was a metaphor for depictions of social inequality. Some create new purely fictional stories about Queen Elizabeth.
In the meantime, other movies are discovered about Queen Elizabeth, as well as material that was written during the time of Queen Elizabeth. Rationalists take this as further evidence that Queen Elizabeth could not have existed. These materials predate the mini-series. Queen Elizabeth was obviously just a “myth.” This mini-series must have been based on these “myths.” Look how much we know about how this mini-series was made.
During this time, there is another voice, and that is the voice of Miss Essentialist. Miss Essentialist says, Queen Elizabeth was a real person that existed centuries before the mini-series. We can know about her from the material that was written during the time of her life, including things she wrote herself.
Everyone is all in arms. Literalists call this heresy. The mini-series is a documentary of Queen Elizabeth’s life, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. There is not much to say to respond to this, accept to perhaps acknowledge that at least they believe in the existence of a real Queen Elizabeth.
Rationalists say, how can you prove that there was a Queen Elizabeth? Miss Essentialist responds with evidence of written material from her life and says that for thousands of years, Queen Elizabeth’s existence was common knowledge. The Rationalists reply, yes, but all of those materials are myths written by people who lived long before anything was known about how movies were made. We know who wrote the script, the actresses who played the roles, and we have uncovered the set that the mini-series was made on. Given all of this, how can you prove that Queen Elizabeth existed? By the way, you are not allowed to use anything other than physical evidence about how the movie was made; everything else is off limits to this discussion. Miss Essentialist throws up her hands, baffled at how to respond given the parameters set by the Rationalists.
Post-Modernists say, sure who knows, Queen Elizabeth, or someone like her, may have existed. Look at all of these different movies that have been made. We are still making movies about her. Miss Essentialist says look at this material written while Queen Elizabeth was alive. You are going to get better information from this material that what is being produced today. The Post-Modernist gets offended that the Essential treats modern material as less reliable than contemporaneous Elizabethan material or even the mini-series itself. The Post-Modernist explains how much better at movie making people are these days, so why do you continue to venerate all of these old materials. The Essentialist says that there was an actual Queen Elizabeth, so if one wants to understand her and her life, it makes sense to read the materials closer in time to her life, don’t you think? The Post-Modernist scoffs at the Essentialist’s belief that Queen Elizabeth existed, extolling the virtues of “thinking for yourself,” and saying that one should not naively believe in the mini-series.
Miss Essentialist disengages from all of these conversations, quietly goes back to her Essentialist cottage in the blogosphere, continues to study the life of Queen Elizabeth, and engages in conversation with those with whom she can communicate.
4 thoughts on “Essentialism, Rationalism, and Post Modernism: A Parable”
Dear Miss Hildotter,
Thank you for this parable.
I hold to the basic teaching of the perennial philosophy, that Earth is created in the image of Heaven or in the Hermetic version “as above, so below”.
We apprehend the world as consisting in individual entities persisting in time which also share qualities in common (compare Artistotle’s ousia). For perennialists, this metaphysical constitution of the world is a reflection of higher order principles of manifestation (that is of individual essences and archetypes). Essence (Plato’s eidos) governs form, intelligibility and teleology on this view. Specifically, essentialism in some form seems to be a necessary part of the doctrine of creation (and is not inconsistent with a teleological understanding of evolution).
A significant problem is that in most discussions, essentialism is reduced to a discussion about sets of properties, and essentialism is usually dismissed because this reduction fails. Properly essence is a transcendental principle (not a mere human conception) that preceeds and makes possible human understanding in terms of properties. Equally, essence can’t be reduced either to an aggregation of substance, or to a matter of social convention (at least no attempt, and there have been many, has yet succeeded).
Our whole mental life is bound up with essences. We don’t have to follow Plato in seeing essence as metaphysically transcendent, but so long as we are engaged in discursive thought, we are engaging with essences, and with respect to our position they are at least cognitively transcendent.
This was very interesting. Thank you for posting, Miss Hildotter.
I’ll take the opportunity here to point out that the material view of Essentialism is used in biology. Perhaps we can gain some insights from looking at the limitations of trying to determine “essence” physically.
Here’s a very short summary of the material view: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/3821
Thank you for the comment and the article, Larxene-san.
Yes, essentialism is related to biology, but I think one of the differences in the Traditionalist approach is that in this approach, the Essences proceeded from the Divine.
What you have mentioned is the difference between the Aristotelian approach to essentialism and the Traditionalist approach. Or, whether the physical forms must match the Divine Essence exactly, or whether the movie is exactly the same as the life of Queen Elizabeth I.
The Traditionalist approach that was also explained by Plato is that there is a Perfect Form to species; however, the animals that we see in physical form may or may not exactly match the Perfect Form. So, of course, species vary within themselves and adapt to their physical environment. There is a difference between animals in a species adapting and a species changing to another species!