Posts filed under ‘Essentialism’

Population Thinking for Epistemology

One of my first posts on this blog was about essentialism. For some reason, Google has since picked up the keywords in the article, and it is a popular result for people looking for “essentialism” “philosophy” and “biology”. This has mystified me, because it simply is not a very informative post. If people were looking for a reference on any of those subjects, they would do better to look elsewhere.

For a long time, I have been vowing to write a better and more original post on essentialism in philosophy. This is that post, but it is still not a reference on philosophy, essentialism, or biology. For more information on essentialism, I would encourage everyone to check out John Wilkins’ brief discussion of the subject over at TalkOrigins, here.

This post concerns essentialism not in biology, but in philosophy. And I do not mean Platonic or Aristotelian essentialism; although the roots of essentialism in biology lie in part with the ancient Greeks, I think few philosophers today would say they consider truth in the same way as Plato or Aristotle. I want to discuss essentialism as the term has come to have meaning in biology in the 1930s and 40s, and in philosophy since philosophers have decided to turn their interests to modern biology. Ernst Mayr contrasted essentialist or typological thinking with population thinking in biology, as I mentioned in my previous post, but in discussing essentialism I think philosophers have failed to do the same.

What do I mean? Well, essentialism is primarily about identity, truth, and our capacity to recognize truth in a world in transition. Essentialism concerns knowledge of the characteristics that identify something, whether that thing is a species, a concept, or a person. In contrast to this, Mayr placed population thinking, whereby there is no one single organism that is a perfect model of a species, because that was not what a species is. A species consists of a population of organisms with varying traits. This makes life difficult, but not as difficult as looking for the perfect Gazelle and accordingly classifying all other Gazelles as flawed, but close enough.

Of course, philosophy doesn’t usually work in terms of Gazelles or other organisms. Philosophy deals in concepts, explanations, and other such abstractions. Because of this, I think that philosophers have traditionally focused more on essentialism than population thinking. Philosophers of biology bring both up at the same time, as I have, but when essentialism is discussed in other philosophical contexts population thinking is not mentioned. As in my original post on essentialism, philosophers in more traditional fields like epistemology and metaphysics discuss essentialism as something to be avoided, perhaps, as a pitfall or a fallacy. Sometimes, it seems as if “essentialism” is just to be equated with “oversimplification”.

Population thinking should be involved when essentialism is discussed, however, because it is an alternative to essentialist/typological thinking. How, then, should population thinking figure into the minds of, say, epistemologists? On the one hand, there is what the concept of population thinking actually consists of, which is interesting for sure. On the other, perhaps population thinking has something to say about how we should go about seeking knowledge. In most accounts of knowledge, truth is the goal, the primary ingredient, always an essential part. But truth itself resists explanation; it is what is accurate to the world, intuitive, plausible, and correct. The other bits of knowledge should be truth-seeking or conducive to finding the truth. And, unlike the populations of organisms that make up a species, there can be only one truth. There are arguments for truth pluralism, to be sure, but I can’t say they convince me. A problem for epistemologists and humans everywhere is that finding the truth, singular and perfect, is extremely difficult.

Extremely.

My proposal, then, is this: we should certainly not stop looking for truth, but perhaps we need some waystations before we arrive at it. Population thinking may be able to help us find these way stations. As has been pointed out and rehashed by many philosophers, relying on natural selection to find the truth may not be the best way to go about the search, because fitness ensures survival, not necessarily knowledge. Natural selection alone has not shaped humans into the ultimate truth-seekers. But, to paraphrase one of Karl Popper’s famous metaphors, perhaps humanity is lost on an endless, darkened plain. About this plane are scattered lanterns, all with different ranges of illumination. We can only pick up one at a time, and it is difficult (although not impossible) to tell if one we come upon provides more light than the one we hold. So we go about picking up lanterns and sometimes, after a short or long distance, we have to go back to one we dropped back along the way.

So we are lost in a population of lanterns. But perhaps some may be judged, on sight, as better in some ways than others. We might not be able to judge for truth (as I am not sure we know truth when we see it), but perhaps we can specify the fitness criteria of the better lanterns before we set ours down and pick a new one up. Perhaps, given the range of theories scientific and philosophical, it would be best to leave aside truth for a while and set our energies towards defining new optimums and examining our populations of theories for those.

June 8, 2009 at 1:29 pm 1 comment

Essentialism in Philosophy and Biology

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.

August 28, 2007 at 4:27 pm 3 comments


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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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