- This article is not about Educational essentialism, the education theory that stresses rigorous teaching of basic subjects.
Essentialism is the belief and practice centered around a philosophical claim that for any specific kind of entity it is at least theoretically possible to specify a finite list of characteristics, all of which any entity must have to belong to the group defined. A member of a specific kind of entity may possess other characteristics that are neither needed to establish its membership nor preclude its membership.
Essentialism in philosophy
The definition, in philosophical contexts, of the word "essence" is very close to the definition of form (Gr. eidos). Many definitions of essence harken back to the ancient Greek hylomorphic understanding of the formation of the things of this world. According to that account, the structure and real existence of any thing can be understood by analogy to an artifact produced by a craftsman. The craftsman requires hyle (timber or wood) and a model or plan or idea in his own mind according to which the wood is worked to give it the indicated contour or form (morphe). In Plato's philosophy, things were said to come into being in this world by the action of a demiurge (Gr. demiourgos) who works to form chaos into ordered entities. (See Plato, Timaeus.) Aristotle was the first to use the terms hyle and morphe. According to his explanation, all entities have two aspects, "matter" and "form." It is the particular form imposed that gives some matter its identity, its quiddity or "whatness" (i.e., its "what it is").
Plato was an essentialist since he believed in ideal forms of which every object is just a poor copy. This belief is clearly manifested in his famous parable of the cave.
Karl Popper splits the (ambiguous) term Realism into Essentialism and Realism. He uses Essentialism whenever he means the opposite of Nominalism, and Realism only as opposed to Idealism.
Essentialism in biology
According to the essentialist view of biology all species are unchanging throughout time. This view is directly contradicted by Darwin's widely accepted theory of Evolution, according to which organisms can gain new characteristics and can lose old characteristics over the passage of time due to mutations.
Essentialist views of society
Essentialist positions on gender, race, and characteristics, consider these to be fixed traits while not allowing for variation in the group or individual. Contemporary proponents of identity politics including feminism, equality for gay people, and anti-racist activists generally take constructionist viewpoints. However, these proponents have taken various positions including essentialist ones. Extreme examples of essentialism, which hold that these characteristics are inherent and accompanied by negative ones, include racism, sexism, and anti-gay bias.
Contrast with: constructionism, poststructuralism, existentialism
For more information on Essentialism and related topics, see the Dictionary of Philosophy by Dagobert D. Runes (Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1972). See the articles on essence, page 97, quiddity, p. 262, form,110, hylomorphism, 133, individuation,145, and matter, 191.