• Gnomon
    715
    I'm currently reading a book on Human Nature, that raises the volatile question of Essentialism. I'm only superficially familiar with that worldview, which seems to go back at least to Plato's "Forms", and the "Kinds" of Genesis. Apparently, Essentialism was the default assumption of science up until Darwin's theory of evolution blurred the boundaries between Species (Kinds)*1.

    After a brief review, I get the impression that today the notion of fixed categories in nature is held primarily by Conservatives, both political and religious. But I suspect the topic may be vociferously debated among philosophers of various political & religious views. Non-philosophers may be expected to prefer a simple black or white scheme for Human Nature, but deeper thinkers tend to dissect their topics into smaller chunks, and into rainbow colors. Yet those fine distinctions are not so easily verified by evidence or by appeals to authority, hence leading to an infinite regression of unresolved debates.

    The Human Nature controversy in recent years seems to be centered primarily on Gender issues. If God created Man & Woman for distinct roles in the world, then where do LGBTQ humans fit into the scheme of things? Are those who refuse to remain in their rigidly-defined physical and social niches, somehow defying the law of God? Even for those who are not concerned about the laws of God, what about violating the laws of Nature?

    Although my moderate worldview does not divide the world into simplistic dualistic categories, it also can't abide the absurdity of infinite regression. So, before I bring my own Intrinsic Biases to this polarizing book, I'd like to see what others on this forum have to say about Essentialism in general, and Gender Categories in particular. :cool:


    *1 Natural Kinds : In biology and other natural sciences, essentialism provided the rationale for taxonomy at least until the time of Charles Darwin.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essentialism

    Human Nature, David Berlinski; author of The Deniable Darwin

    Theory of Human Nature : https://aeon.co/essays/theres-no-philosophy-of-life-without-a-theory-of-human-nature
  • god must be atheist
    2.1k
    I'd like to see what others on this forum have to say about Essentialism in general, and Gender Categories in particular.Gnomon

    I believe gender categorization is placed on similar FALSE platforms as race categorization.

    We are one race. The entire humankind.

    We are one gender. The entire humankind.

    Period.

    (WTF...)
  • softwhere
    111
    If God created Man & Woman for distinct roles in the world, then where do LGBTQ humans fit into the scheme of things? Are those who refuse to remain in their rigidly-defined physical and social niches, somehow defying the law of God? Even for those who are not concerned about the laws of God, what about violating the laws of Nature?Gnomon

    Did God create some to be slaves and others to be masters? Perhaps He marked their skin to help us figure out who's who. This offensive thought is used to make a point. Using the idea of God in this way is the primary justification perhaps for anti-religious feeling. Imaginary creators in such cases are transparently used to dominate and control. I consider such superstition to be pre-philosophical.

    IMV, the heterosexual norm was a fiction from the beginning, imposed on a polymorphous perversity for various reasons.

    As for human nature in general, I view it as dynamic and historical. We are radically cultural and historical animals. Our nature is to have no nature, or our nature is to always be developing our nature. Some philosophers have believed that this development process would cease at a kind of perfection (was on the way to some satisfying and process-stopping finale.) I don't believe them, though I do think individuals often evolve into relatively settled personalities. Indeed, I think philosophers tend to project their own semi-concluded process onto human history in general.
  • softwhere
    111
    We are one race. The entire humankind.god must be atheist

    I agree with you. To me this is humanism, the 'religion' of intellectuals. There is one human rationality. This 'transcendental pretense' is central but also unnoticed as too close to us, too obvious. I think it's a modification of monotheism. God died and became the rational/enlightened community.
  • PoeticUniverse
    807
    If God created Man & Woman for distinct roles in the world, then where do LGBTQ humans fit into the scheme of things?Gnomon

    All fetuses begin as female, and then, if it is supposed to become male, the body needs to be masculinized, as well as the brain. If something goes wrong with one or the other process or both or partially then you can imagine all the resultant special genders of LGBTQ. 'God'/Bible gets shown up again, as always.
  • David Mo
    635
    First of all, I apologize for my English. Obviously, it's not my first language. I hope my ideas are better than my English.

    The first problem of essentialism is to develop a safe method of distinguishing the natural from the artificial. In the case of human nature the problem is defined in terms of the opposition between the innate and the acquired. Comparison with similar species? Traits common to the entire human species? I think that method does not exist, or at least it is not safe.

    The second problem is ethical. Even if it were possible to distinguish innate from acquired, there is no rule that innate is better. If one came to the conclusion that humans are aggressive by nature, to infer from this that war is a natural state is a fallacy.

    I think essentialism is only useful to conservative ideologies based on rough slogans.
  • Wayfarer
    9.8k
    Excellent first post. However I feel compelled to ask, could it have been composed and written by a non-human?
  • Gnomon
    715
    'God'/Bible gets shown up again, as always.PoeticUniverse
    I can understand why the Bronze Age Bible condemned homosexuality. First, they had no knowledge of genetics, and judged gender only by obvious characteristics. Second, at least 90% of the human population seemed to fit neatly into the two basic sex categories --- both physically (innies vs outies), and behaviorally, (masculine vs feminine norms). So those persons who didn't fit their normal natural niche, were deemed abnormal unnatural perverts. Third, humans and animals have an innate revulsion or disgust reflex toward strange (queer) or suspicious (dangerous) things and behaviors. Consequently, until modern science began to study such atypical anomalies in detail, the safest course for people was to avoid them, to quarantine them, and to label them as taboo or cursed. Most world cultures had similar attitudes toward perceived perversions and deviations from cultural norms : gender/behavior misfits, left-handedness, extremes of skin color, witch-like improprieties, and so forth.

    Therefore, those who didn't fall into the middle of the normal Bell Curve of common experience were treated with wariness at best, and those on the extremes (flaming queers) could trigger subconscious reactions of disgust, that we now assume are evolutionary products of experience with dangerous snakes, spiders, and poisonous plants. From our scientifically-enlightened modern perspective, we can regard those negative attitudes --- common to 98% of homo sapiens existence --- as primitive, benighted, and wrong. However, a majority of the human population today still treat the novelties of empirical Science with suspicion, and when faced with cognitive dissonance, may prefer the security of their traditional black & white beliefs over the multi-valued precepts of Science. That's a common turtle-defense mechanism for challenges to settled beliefs.

    Liberal attitudes toward the varieties of human nature may be the norm on a philosophical forum. But such open-mindedness may be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of the world. And Conservative intellectuals, such as David Berlinski, can make a convincing case for the validity of Essentialism, and the dangers of modern Relativism. Ironically, the best-selling author is an agnostic secular Jew, who denies the validity of Intelligent Design, but who works for the conservative think-tank, Discovery Institute (purveyors of ID). So, I will be interested to see how his reasoning comports with my own middle-of-the-road philosophy. Presumably, his arguments will not be appeals to the authority of the Torah, but exercises in Greek reason. We'll see about that. :nerd:
  • NOS4A2
    3.4k


    Identity politics in general is a sort of essentialism, insofar as people are deemed this or that based on some superficial, phenotypical characteristics. So essentialism isn’t so much conservative given the prevalence of identity politics on one side. But to be of a certain sex one must have some essential biological qualities that pertain to that sex.
  • Gnomon
    715
    The second problem is ethical. Even if it were possible to distinguish innate from acquired, there is no rule that innate is better.David Mo
    Yes. "Innate is better" is a nutshell version of the Naturalistic Fallacy. But that seems to be a very common assumption ("pervasive and persistent"; "ubiquitous and irresistible") throughout history, even among philosophers and scientists. Aristotle's appeal to the authority of nature (Causes) has been assigned that judgmental label by some modern philosophers.

    Apparently what has changed in recent years is our attitude toward Nature itself, since Darwin discovered its fallibility and amorality. Ironically, the current Climate Change debate seems to be a face-off between ancient and modern attitudes toward Nature. Some view it as fragile and in need of protection, while others treat it as all-powerful (i.e. God's Will in action), and impervious to human damage. Hence, both sides view their behavior as ethical. Relative to the topic of this thread, Naturalism would find homosexuality to be, not only unnatural, but unethical. So, who's to say what's right : Darwin or God?


    Aristotle's Fallacy : The naturalistic fallacy appears to be ubiquitous and irresistible. The avant-garde and the rearguard, the devout and the secular, the learned elite and the lay public all seem to want to enlist nature on their side,everywhere and always. Yet a closer look at the history of the term “naturalistic fallacy” and its associated arguments suggests that this way of understanding (and criticizing) appeals to nature’s authority in human affairs is of relatively modern origin.
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/678173?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
  • Siti
    72
    Although my moderate worldview does not divide the world into simplistic dualistic categories, it also can't abide the absurdity of infinite regression.Gnomon

    Well in terms of human gender categories, it wouldn't be an infinite regress, just about 7 and a half billion maximum at one time (as of now). I'm pretty sure human gender identification is a bit of a continuum rather than either an essentialist dichotomy or an infinite array - like a rainbow - you can easily pick out a red bit, but where exactly is the boundary between red and orange? But the colours of the rainbows don't go on forever...although there is a fair bit more to the electromagnetic spectrum than meets the eye...if you follow my illustration...
  • softwhere
    111
    Relative to the topic of this thread, Naturalism would find homosexuality to be, not only unnatural, but unethical. So, who's to say what's right : Darwin or God?Gnomon

    That naturalism Naturalism (our demonic protagonist) would find homosexuality 'unnatural' is...absurd. Homosexuality has probably always been with us. And not only with us: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexual_behavior_in_animals

    'Perversion' is created by the imposition of a norm. The norm and the perversion are created at the same time, like two sides of the same coin. No doubt primitive interpretations of nature have played a role in this. But this is comparable to social Darwinism.

    the theory that individuals, groups, and peoples are subject to the same Darwinian laws of natural selection as plants and animals. Now largely discredited, social Darwinism was advocated by Herbert Spencer and others in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was used to justify political conservatism, imperialism, and racism and to discourage intervention and reform. — dict

    This can be read as a form of 'bad faith' and/or the rationalization of prejudice.

    The thinking is perhaps that homosexual contact doesn't create offspring. Therefore (?!?!) it must be unnatural. [But whatever happens is natural, unless one believes in miracles.] And this crudely assumes that sexuality is a simple phenomenon that is only good for reproduction. It also crudely simplifies human sexuality. I recommend a The History of Sexuality (Foucault), not as an authority but as opening the space for thought. 'Heterosexuality' and 'homosexuality' are useful perhaps for rough categorization, but that's about it. The 'homosexual' is a kind of useful fiction, just like the 'heterosexual.'
  • softwhere
    111
    Even for those who are not concerned about the laws of God, what about violating the laws of Nature?Gnomon

    How can one violate the laws of nature? I think you're framing nature Nature as another god.
  • David Mo
    635
    Excellent first post. However I feel compelled to ask, could it have been composed and written by a non-human?Wayfarer

    Thank you.
    I don't quite understand the scope of the question. Anyway, I suppose I could write a text like this if I were a computer programmed by a human being. But I am not. I can't think of any other alternative.
  • David Mo
    635
    Apparently what has changed in recent years is our attitude toward Nature itself, since Darwin discovered its fallibility and amorality.Gnomon

    Distrust of human nature existed before Darwin. Remember Hobbes: homo hominis lupus.

    My mistrust refers to the possibility of knowing it. I think the concept of the human condition is less rigid and more useful. About man, we know tendencies, not natural laws.
    Social Darwinism? No, thank you.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.8k
    Sex is determined at the moment of fertilization: xx or xy. The body may begin with a female template of sorts, but it is destined to be either xx or xy. Sex isn't decided at birth by a committee -- it's identified at birth. in almost all cases, it's clear whether the neonate is male or female.

    The human genome is 3 billion base pairs. What we are isn't wide open to choice. Those billions of base pairs define us as human with varying degrees of intelligence, physical characteristics, mental and physical features and traits. A lot of what we are, and how we exist in the world, is determined by genetics, like it or not.

    This is an essentialist view. It isn't the sole property of conservatives. There are progressives who are also essentialists and conservatives who are constructionists.

    True enough, our human behavior and personality is at least somewhat pliable. How it all is expressed is determined by both genes and environment. It doesn't make sense to take an extreme essentialist or a constructionist position. Clearly, both methods of shaping behavior are in play,

    Don't get sex and gender mixed up. Males and females all have gender roles, and there is quite a bit of consistency in the roles, but sex is not adjustable; gender behavior is.

    The old expression, "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" applies to animals, including us. Your average cow isn't going to win prizes at the state fair. A dog that is not very bright is going to stay that way. Highly risk averse people have generally been risk averse from their first baby steps, and explorers have, likewise, been that way from the get go. Very smart people tend to stay smart throughout life. Stupid children usually grow up to be stupid adults.
  • Wayfarer
    9.8k
    I suppose I could write a text like this if I were a computer programmed by a human being.David Mo

    Why do you suppose that? Is there any evidence that it's true? Why would a computer join a forum and talk philosophy? What would be its objective? I guess you could create an algorithm to that end, but I don't think it would likely be effective, and it certainly wouldn't serve any purpose.

    I think you casually assume that there's nothing special about being human. I think it's something that nowadays everyone knows, like a kind of folk wisdom. But I also think it's false. Humans have been searching for some sign of life in the vast cosmos for decades, without success. Actually all of the indications seem to be that the chance of human life is vanishingly slight - and yet, here we are having this conversation. I think there's a reason that we are referred to as 'beings', and I think it's something often overlooked.
  • David Mo
    635
    I think you casually assume that there's nothing special about being human.Wayfarer

    You draw excessive consequences from my short comment. It is a personal assumption that electronic brains are capable of holding a simple conversation until a very specific test can catch them in. But I don't draw anthropological or metaphysical consequences from that.
  • SophistiCat
    1.3k
    As for human nature in general, I view it as dynamic and historical. We are radically cultural and historical animals. Our nature is to have no nature, or our nature is to always be developing our nature.softwhere

    There is no denying that human psyche is variable and mutable, both on the historical and the individual human scale, but that doesn't make us blank states and empty vessels at birth, to be filled and shaped entirely by culture. As @Bitter Crank rightly notes, we cannot escape our biological substrate, our animal nature, and why would we need to?

    We understandably tend to focus on our differences, but I think our commonality far exceed our differences - we just take them for granted.

    None of this has much to do with metaphysical essentialism, by the way, but rather with the nature/nurture dichotomy, which shouldn't really be a dichotomy, since it is quite clear that neither exists in a pure form, and I don't think there's much serious debate about that left.

    Welcome, David.
  • Gnomon
    715
    I'm pretty sure human gender identification is a bit of a continuum rather than either an essentialist dichotomy or an infinite array - like a rainbow - you can easily pick out a red bit, but where exactly is the boundary between red and orange?Siti
    Bula!

    Good point. I suspect that Essentialists believe the simplest categorization is the truest : Male/Female (two values) versus the confusing loosely-differentiated Rainbow genders (continuous shades of values). Their justification might be Ockham's Razor --- comparing a simple dichotomy to a perplexing infinite array. Yet this is not a question of absolute Truth, but merely of political justice. In a modern Democracy, to restrict people to either/or choices is an unwarranted limitation on their freedom. But many humans seem to prefer a Theocracy, which makes an unquestionable distinction between right & wrong, hence no need to guess, and perhaps make the wrong choice.

    I have just started reading the Human Nature book, so it remains to be seen if Berlinski's argument is one of prejudice (purity) or merely of accuracy (clear categories). Strict Conservatives, such as Christian Puritans and Muslim Jihadists, seem to be afraid of the harsh consequences of an error in judgment. Whereas, looser Liberals are more willing to exercise their own reasoning, and don't cower in fear of lightning bolts. Is it better to be safe than sorry? :worry:
  • Gnomon
    715
    How can one violate the laws of nature? I think you're framing nature Nature as another god.softwhere
    Just for the record, I was putting words in the mouths of non-theists, who treat Nature as the ultimate moral authority --- as in the Naturalistic Fallacy. Unfortunately, it's not that simple, because the power of Nature has recently been diluted by the power of Culture.
  • Gnomon
    715
    This is an essentialist view. It isn't the sole property of conservatives. There are progressives who are also essentialists and conservatives who are constructionists.Bitter Crank
    That may be true. But as I said, "After a brief review, I get the impression that today the notion of fixed categories in nature is held primarily by Conservatives, both political and religious". Of course, the majority of people will have attitudes somewhere in between the extremes. Can you point me to some card-carrying Liberal/Progressives who espouse the rigid categories of Essentialism?
  • Siti
    72
    It doesn't make sense to take an extreme essentialist or a constructionist position. Clearly, both methods of shaping behavior are in play,Bitter Crank

    I think that's right - but then what we can do (in the light of your other comments) about the 'essentialist' part of the process? To say, "its contrary to nature, therefore wrong" is surely both an extreme essentialist position and a typical conservative (especially religious conservative) view. And it is almost certainly - in the case of human sexuality - just plain wrong, because whilst sex might be entirely genetic, neither gender nor sexuality are. Homosexuality, for example, is a perfectly natural aspect of the animal world - even it is relatively rare (compared to heterosexuality). And the problem here is that since the 'behaviour' is the only part we can modify, 'we' focus on attempting to force the outward expressions of our natural/nurtural sexuality and gender to conform to an evolving cultural 'norm' that we imagine (or rather we are told by the 'priestly' class we are accustomed to delegate our moral-thinking responsibility to) is the 'natural' status quo. That is a categorical error, for the precise reason that it confuses the biologically-determined and (possibly) immutable fact of sex with the evolving socially- and individually-mediated expressions of acceptable gender and sexual orientation. The world simply doesn't work like that (even if a couple of billion humans think it does) - if anyone doesn't believe me, they should pop down to the local zoo and ask a bonobo.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.8k
    Unfortunately the list of card-carrying Liberal/Progressives was stolen just the other day by Rudy Giuliani and a gang of pro-Russian Ukrainian thugs as part of the Trump reelection campaign. Stay tuned for further announcements on the matter.

    There have been a number of discussions of essentialist vs. constructionist thinking on gender in Quillette. This article is an example, and there are 3 additional articles linked at the bottom of the page.

    The politics surrounding whether x, y, or z is determined by essentialism or constructionism is a swamp one does well to stay out of.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.8k
    Back when psychoanalysis defined homosexuality as a serious deviation, the establishment considered thought it was constructed--domineering mothers, distant fathers, etc. In the early days of gay liberation (1972, to pick a year) the idea that homosexuality was essentialist was dominant and liberating. "Nature composed my sexuality in this manner, and it is good" was an empowering idea. 40 years later constructionism is back, only its more DIY this time around. Now we have this absurd list of 50 genders, which is itself an indication that gender theorists have run amok.

    Essentialism and Constructionism are recruited for whatever purpose is at hand. Gender politics is a form of polymorphous perversity all by itself.
  • Wayfarer
    9.8k
    I think you casually assume that there's nothing special about being human.
    — Wayfarer

    You draw excessive consequences from my short comment.
    David Mo

    Perhaps I did. In any case, my philosophy does recognise a special category for h. sapiens, which is, in fact, sapience - we're capable of wisdom, although looking at the world today, it's in pretty short supply.

    In any case, welcome to the Forum, I encourage you to continue!
  • softwhere
    111
    There is no denying that human psyche is variable and mutable, both on the historical and the individual human scale, but that doesn't make us blank states and empty vessels at birth, to be filled and shaped entirely by culture.SophistiCat

    I completely agree. I just emphasized (by exaggerating, let's say) the historicality and sociality of human existence. In this context, nature was being personified without irony or distance -without an awareness that 'Nature' as protagonist is one more piece of evolving culture.
  • Siti
    72
    Now we have this absurd list of 50 gendersBitter Crank

    That's what happens when you try to categorize a continuum...16 million colours - but there's still only one rainbow - and it is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Neither essentialism nor constructionism can adequately explain that.
  • Gnomon
    715
    The politics surrounding whether x, y, or z is determined by essentialism or constructionism is a swamp one does well to stay out of.Bitter Crank
    Thanks for the warning. I do intend to stay out of gender politics, and any other bi-polar forms of human interaction. At the moment I'm just trying to get some background on Essentialism, to inform my reading of the book on Human Nature. :cool:
  • Siti
    72
    I do intend to stay out of gender politicsGnomon
    Chicken!
  • Gnomon
    715
    The world simply doesn't work like that (even if a couple of billion humans think it does) - if anyone doesn't believe me, they should pop down to the local zoo and ask a bonobo.Siti
    What the "bo" will tell you is that, for the practical purposes of reproduction, the gender rainbow is reduced down to three colors : 1. male, 2. female, 3. other. Apparently, they have no religious or political scruples about "other", which is not practical, but just for funsies. Perhaps the fun aspect is not an evolutionary adaptation, but just a "spandrel".
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