Convention (6) – Essentialism

by Neil Rickert

Today I want to look at “essentialism” as a possible alternative to the use of conventions.  And then, toward the end of the post, I’ll briefly consider some other possible alternatives.

With today’s post, I will continue to use the hypothetical that I introduced in my previous post.  That is to say, I will assume that small animals are classified into two species, which I shall call “cats” and “dogs”.  There is no assumption that I am talking about what we usually call “cats” and “dogs”.  I’m just borrowing those names for convenience.


The idea of essentialism, is that what makes an animal a cat is that it contains the essence of cathood.  Likewise, what makes an animal a dog is that it has the essence of doghood.  The name “essentialism” comes from this reference to essences.

As far as I know, essentialism has fallen out of favor.  Or, at least, many philosophers will deny that they are essentialists.  Yet many of them say things which make one wonder if they really are still essentialists, but perhaps in denial that they are beholden to such a view.

The most obvious problem with essentialism, is that if there are such essences, nobody knows what they are or how to identify them.


As discussed in the prior post, biologists who identify a species are likely to come up with criteria to use for identifying whether a particular organism is in that species.  In terms of our hypothetical, I used the terms “cat criteria” and “dog criteria” for the criteria that they offer for identifying whether a small animal as a cat or a dog.

If species are conventional, as I have previously argued, then those criteria are defining characteristics for the species.  The convention amounts to agreement among the community of biologists that the cat criteria are what it take for an animal to be a cat.

If we are essentialists, then that won’t do.  We cannot go by conventions.  Instead, we have to say that the cat criteria are our tentative guess as to what constitutes the essence of being a cat.

Let’s revisit the statement “A cat is any organism that meets the cat criteria.”  If we are conventionalists about species, then that statement is true by definition.  That makes it an analytic statement.  But, as John argued, there is no matter of fact.  The statement expresses a relation of ideas rather than a matter of fact.  If, instead, we are essentialists, then that statement is no longer true by definition.  It is no longer an analytic statement.  It is a synthetic statement.  It expresses a putative matter of fact.

Unfortunately, what makes that statement synthetic, is that it is very likely to be false.  Since we cannot identify what is an essence of cathood, we are left guessing.  And guesses have a poor track record with respect to being true.

In my prior post, I suggested another statement.  I suggested that I looked out the window, and reported “There’s a cat in the backyard.”  This was a statement that the convenionalist could use which does express a matter of fact.  Whether or not it is true could be checked using the cat criteria.  However, the essentialist has a problem.  The essentialist can only say “That’s probably a cat in the backyard.”  The essentialist has no way of knowing, for his criteria are only a tentative guess at identifying the unknowable essence of cathood.

In terms of knowledge, we seem to be worse off with an essentialist view of species than with a conventionalist view of species.

Other alternatives

Another possibility is what can be called “God’s eye view” philosophy.  Whether something is a cat depends on whether God sees it as a cat.  Many philosophers are atheists or agnostics, so a “God’s eye view” philosophy is not very appealing.

What the various alternatives to a conventional view of species have in common (and expressed in terms of our hypothetical) is this:

  1. What makes something a cat is determined outside of human decision making.  It is not up to us humans to decide.  Whatever determines that is independent of human activity;
  2. We cannot know for sure what makes something a cat.  If we could know for sure, then there would be a canonical division into species, and I argued against that idea in an earlier post.
  3. Therefore we cannot have clear criteria for what is a cat, and we cannot be sure that a particular animal is a cat.

So these are the same problems as I saw with essentialism.

Science doesn’t work that way.  Science depends on clear crisp definitions for its core concepts.  And a clear crisp definition, shared among the scientific community, amounts to a convention.  Scientists often call this “an operational definition.”  Scientists study what is determined by their own operational definitions, rather than on essences or on a God’s eye view.  It is because of this use of operational definitions, that science has been so successful.


Alternatives to a conventional account of species seem unworkable in the context of scientific research.


5 Comments to “Convention (6) – Essentialism”

  1. I’m enjoying this series very much, Neil. I don’t understand, though, how it all fits together. Didn’t one of the earlier contributions OBJECT to a relativistic (in the sense of purely conventional) take on biological characterizations?




    • You are probably thinking of our discussion, perhaps in your “Quick Philosophy” group.

      I’m not a relativist. Relativism is not the same as “purely conventional”. But I do need to discuss that in more detail in a future post in this series.

      Thanks for the feedback.


  2. I think it was this passage from (5) Objections:

    “Are the categories real?

    “The reality of the categories seems to be something that John doubts. I’m not sure why, because I went through an argument for their reality earlier in the discussion.

    “Here’s the point. Anyone who applies those sets of criteria will come out with pretty much the same groupings. I suggested that if an alien from the Andromeda galaxy were to visit, and apply those criteria, he would come up with the same decisions as to what are cats and what are dogs. The scientists who established these criteria have tested them for the reliability with which they can be applied.

    “I’ll note that I suggested an alien from Andromeda, to make the point that the categorization into the two groups is not a matter of purely subjective or purely human judgment.

    “So it seems to me that the criteria are therefore real, and the division is into groups or categories that are thus also real. There may be people who disagree, but I really wonder what it is that they mean by “real.””

    Maybe you clear this up in the next installment, which I haven’t had a chance to look at yet….



  3. I don’t think anything in THAT post was relativist. Quite the contrary–it seems essentialist! My problem is that I don’t see that it quite jibes with THIS post–which is clearly anti-essentialist. I take it you’re looking for some middle ground here, but I’m kind of befuddled as to precisely what it is.

    Thanks for any clarification.



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