Posts filed under ‘Heidegger’

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

Popular Ideas of Epistemology and Metaphysics

My understanding of the difference between epistemology and metaphysics is best summed up like this: epistemology is the human study of truth, while metaphysics is the human study of what exists. In reading Heidegger’s Intro. to Metaphysics, a new understanding of these terms came to me. This happened early on; somewhere along the Nietzsche reference between 3 and 4.

 It seems to me that (at least in the stereotypical sense) a computer scientist would have little use for metaphysics but a keen interest in epistemology. This is because they aren’t interested in “semantics” or “philosophical mumbo-jumbo” but in how things really are. The “really” is what strikes most people as important; you can talk in logical circles all you want, but a glass of water is still nothing more or less than a glass of water. What’s interesting is that this interest in how things “really are” seems to run contrary to my original idea that computer scientists are more interested in epistemology than metaphysics. It seems to run contrary to my definitions of the terms.

A computer scientist (at least as it applies to their work) seeks an epistemic understanding of artificial situations. In those situations, there really is a definitive way the world works; in their creation, artificial situations have a set of known parameters created for them. Science looks for these same parameters in the real world, but it is impossible to know for sure that there is a set of rules which the universe follows, or whether the rules we have are correct. This is what engenders metaphysical indifference in the sciences: nobody wants to consider the possibility that their phenomena really doesn’t have a way for it to be explained. Indeed, I really don’t see a way for science to work efficiently if the idea was considered more often.

July 14, 2007 at 3:38 pm 2 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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