Essentialism in Philosophy and Biology

August 28, 2007 at 4:27 pm 3 comments

UPDATE (6-8-09): I have a new, and better post up about philosophy, essentialism, and population thinking. Read this one if you must, but my most recent thoughts are here.

In the second paragraph of Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume describes philosophy as a field in the throes of essentialism. I mean essentialism in a sense parallel to how it is used in philosophy of biology; Hume describes it as a search for “original principles” rather then a search for the absolute essence or form of a being, but I think he is describing something very similar in origin. Both ideas have the same platonic origin, and it makes sense that this origin would hold far more sway in philosophy than biology. After all, Plato wasn’t much of a biologist, but nobody can argue against his philosophical influence.

An answer to essentialism in philosophy can be found in many places prior to Hume, although I think Nietzsche was the first to write with the goal of an explicit and comprehensive refutation of essentialism. Although Nietzsche wrote very powerfully, essentialism in philosophy is still very much alive and well. It seems to me, then, that philosophy can learn from how biology rejected essentialism and have since been operating without it.

Perhaps this comparison would help calm those who would cry that, “if philosophy is not after original causes, then what is it after?” After all, biology has flourished since the debate over essentialism has largely closed. Biologists also don’t seem to see its demise as some sort of postmodern obfuscation. If anything, biology has operated with a more clear and transparent conceptual framework since essentialist thinking was thrown out.

Although I have only limited experience reading Heidegger, I think that he represents a transformation of essentialism in philosophy. His work stands in contrast to Nietzsche’s in that he addresses essentialism as a concept which has been ambiguous in the history of philosophy, one which he wants to make transparent. Rather than reject essentialism, Heidegger seeks to change it into something for analytic study.

In his “Introduction to Metaphysics” Heidegger famously outlines the question of why there is being at all, instead of nothing. To thoroughly investigate the question, he first dedicates himself to clarifying its meaning. In this way he is attempting something similar to Darwin’s work of clarifying the meaning of affinity in biology. Rather than leave ideas like “natural and essential” as ambiguous terms in the definition of affinity, or terms with definitions that included the supernatural, Darwin described members of a taxon as similar because of common descent (a more eloquent explanation of this can be found on pg. 209 of Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought). Darwin was pursuing an explanation of an essential question, and answered it in way owing nothing to the supernatural and capable of further investigation. Heidegger’s work reflects the pursuit of an essential question in a similar manner.

The debate over essentialist thought in philosophy is very different from the similar debate in biology, but I think one can learn from the other. Essentialism in philosophy is a more complex idea with many more possibilities for transformation or refutation than it was in biology, but I can’t help thinking that philosophy as a field would benefit from a closer examination of the concept in philosophy of biology.

And who knows? Maybe I’m the person to do it.


Entry filed under: Biology, Darwin, Essentialism, Heidegger, Hume.

Haack, Bayesian? pt. 2 I Guess I’ve Been a Good Blogger…

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. katrooland  |  August 29, 2007 at 1:57 am

    Essentialism, as seen through the lens of the theory of evolution, may have an affinity with how our minds process the meaning of existence. However, with the recent proof that a molecule can exist in, at least, two places at once, quantum physics manages to question both Hume’s theory of causality and Darwin’s theory of evolution. To refer back to your earlier blogs, can quantum physics explain how empiricism and transcendentalism can exist at the same time? We live in fascinating times. Einstein tipped us over the edge.

  • 2. donescience  |  September 1, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    I guess I’ll try to respond to this point by point.

    1) The theory of evolution (specifically the idea of common descent) offers an alternative idea (one opposed to essentialism) of the important characteristics of species and a system of classification.

    2) I don’t know enough about quantum physics to understand how certain people in that field are of the idea that a molecule can exist in two places at once. Could you be thinking of the idea of quantum indeterminacy, where the measurement of any phenomena affects the phenomena measured?

    What I’m thinking of here is the idea of an atom’s electron cloud. Anyone who’s watched the Simpsons (or been paying any attention) knows the classical idea of an atom. You’ve got the nucleus, and then these electrons have neat little orbits around it.
    Or not. It’s actually really hard to measure the cloud/swarm of the stuff. Measuring the patterns they make is very difficult. And, due to quantum indeterminacy, the act of measuring them may throw off those patterns. I think the best way to talk about electrons at this point is to give a probabilistic assessment of where they are located at a given point in time. For example (although it can’t be this simple), an electron could have a 20% chance of being in one location in space and an 80% chance of it being located at another at the same point in time.

    Not that I’m any good at physics. Most of my knowledge of physics has been picked up in between philosophy classes and hydrology. If you have a link I could follow to more information on the idea that a molecule can exist in two places at once, I’d appreciate checking it out. Phew.

    3) There’s a lot that quantum physics can’t do. This seems like one of those things. If you want to get an idea of how the CONCEPTS of transcendentalism and empiricism can exist at the same time, I don’t know if I can recommend any better activity than reading Thoreau’s journals. Thoreau’s transcendentalist philosophy and poetry was grounded in excellent and thorough empirical observation. I hope I didn’t misunderstand this part, but if I did, you can write another comment! Ah, the magic of the internet!

  • 3. katrooland  |  September 7, 2007 at 8:55 am

    I downloaded the interview about the atom from an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio. I have it on CD. It’s in the middle of a 2 hour show on new stuff. The guy said they shot an atom at a white sheet and it appeared at 2 places at the same time. It might have been that famous scientist from Hampshire College who is now head of physics-something at the University of Toronto. He’s written a book on physics for people like me. I’ll listen to the CD again and try to get the reference on the atom. However, I’ll look for a copy of Thoreau’s journal at Powell’s or somewhere online…Thanks.


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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