What is the essentialism of Plato

The Essentialism (from lat. essentia: Essence, whatness, so-being), too Essence, is of the opinion that there is an essence or a true nature of a thing that determines, defines, explains and establishes what its nature is, and why it necessarily behaves as it does. The essence is that which remains the same with any change in a thing: the core, the identity, the "essential", the "essential" or the main distinguishing features of a given, which are unchangeable (irreversible), precede the existence of a thing and Are "older" and "purer". In this sense, it can mean the general, the meaning, the genre or the idea of ​​the object under consideration, in contrast to the particular, individual and occurrences subject to accidental changes. Specifically, in contrast to appearance, being can mean the “real”, “proper”, “true” and “authentic” being of a being; the peculiar or distinctive being, the so-being in contrast to Dasein; the essence as opposed to existence. The general thus becomes the true, that is, what can and should be, the yardstick for criticism and ethical judgment. The essence of a species or genus is determined by a finite list of necessary characteristics (criteria) that something must meet in order to belong to it. Essentialism is opposed to actualism, according to which everything being is in constant change. At the same time, essentialism is one of the sub-positions of realism that opposes nominalism in the universality controversy. The name goes back to Pierre Duhem. According to many philosophical theories, the essence of things is not revealed by sensory perception, but only by theoretical thinking; first clearly formulated in this way by Plato in his theory of ideas (see also Essenceschau).

In philosophy and philosophy of science

In philosophy, essentialism is traced back to Plato and Aristotle. The Aristotelian concept formation was largely incorporated into theology and scholasticism by Thomas Aquinas. Expressed in Leibniz's terms, this teaching says that there are necessary and contingent properties of things, regardless of how we conceptualize or describe things.[1]

Because of "Aristotelian essentialism", Willard Van Orman Quine thought he had to reject the quantified modal logic.[2] However, he did not clarify which position on this question Aristotle can actually be ascribed to. Based on texts by Aristotle, Michael-Thomas Liske discusses the extent to which a kind of essentialism for characterizing individuals can be maintained, and defends against Quine's demand for an exclusive consideration of extensionality: The difference in meaning between two extensionally equivalent specifications can be scientifically significant because they have different explanatory potential can have.

According to Karl R. Popper, essentialism or the "essence philosophy" goes back to the view that a definition can be right or wrong by reproducing the "essence" of a term better or less well.[3] In contrast, Popper argues that definitions are in principle arbitrary. Accordingly, they can only be more or less useful or fruitful for the development of a certain theory and must always be read from right to left: As a short name for a number of structural properties.

Thus, essentialism can be understood as a methodology that sees the task of science in the discovery of pure knowledge, i.e. the description of the true nature of things, their hidden reality or essence. Particular points of criticism here are: the coupling with a strategy of justification or a final justification, with teleology, which is often associated with a mixture of statements about being and statements about being (value judgment).

"What is ...?" - questions are mostly based on essentialist premises as follows:

  1. There is a natural order of things, at least in that area.
  2. There is only one correct answer, and this is ideal, definitive, recognizable, for example, by looking at the essence and a secure starting point for any justification.
  3. There is a final explanation, and it is provided by the self-describing essential property.
  4. A particular linguistic expression is always assigned the same meaning regardless of the problem context in which it is used.
  5. A value judgment is often hidden in the external form of a factual statement.

Those who use this form of expression have a rhetorical advantage as long as these premises remain undiscussed. Essentialism is therefore at least susceptible to abuse, something the criticism of ideology has repeatedly drawn attention to since Theodor Geiger, Gunnar Myrdal and Hans Albert.

The controversy between essentialism and nominalism is led in philosophy under the title problem of universals. Popper saw the main point in the problem of universals in the fact that universals and individualies or proper names are fundamentally logically separated.[4] This debate continues in the field of philosophy of science, especially about the priority of concepts or statements, as well as in the field of the theory of definition. It is reflected here in particular in the dispute about the sense and nonsense of a nominal definition versus a real definition (definition).

In ethics

In biology

In biology, essentialism (= typology) means that the species has (ontological) priority over the individual. Thus Aristotle represented the idea that a chicken is the material expression of the type (essence, idea) of the chicken and that the development of the chicken is determined by the entelechy of 'chickenness'.

In modern biology, on the other hand, the view is widespread that the real object of biological research is the individual; the species is pragmatically defined as the totality of individuals who can produce fertile offspring with one another. The concept of species is here logically behind the concept of the individual. So the evolutionary selection mechanism is applied at the level of the individual, not at the level of the species. There are even approaches[5]who view the individual genes as the units of the selection process.

In society

Essentialization refers to the classification of people, processes or things in a category that is understood as natural, which, due to the nature or essence of this category, is supposed to have certain characteristics, properties or behaviors.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte's Philosophy of Germanness can be seen as a model case of an essentialist conception in the political field. The place of the people, the nation, the language, the culture, the religion in an essentialist theory can also be taken by race or any other category that can be socially identified by characteristics that are as visible as possible.

In addition to the critique of essentialism, there has recently been an expanded critical perspective, which argues that anti-essentialism or universalism can also mask attitudes that are basically essentialism with regard to one's own culture of origin. What Europeans or Americans for universally valid cultural achievements[6] hold, do not appear to other societies otherwise than like an unacknowledged essentialism.[7].

Psychological essentialism

Psychological essentialism prefers natural categories, i.e. categories traceable to biological origins. He assumes that categories are built on the essence of their members. The term “essence” stands for the natural basis or the meaning of a living being, object or event. The essence itself does not have to be known in every case - knowledge of a certain “essence placeholder” is sufficient. When using such a placeholder, it is assumed that, for example, external similarity also has a natural basis - the essence.

It is impressive that children as early as four years of age have a clearly demonstrable sense of recognizing the essence. Blackbirds are more likely to be classified in a category with flamingos than with bats - despite the fact that they tend to be more similar to the latter. However, psychological essentialism can be overcome through scientific thinking. This is necessary every now and then because the essence-placeholder construct is quite error-prone. Both maple and pine fall into the “trees” category, but a rose does not. Phylogenetically, however, maple and rose are much closer than maple and pine.

See also

  • Essentialization
  • structuralism
  • Integral tradition
  • Cultural essentialism
  • phenomenology
  • German idealism

In contrast to:

  • constructivism
  • Post-structuralism
  • existentialism


  1. Hägler, Rudolf-Peter: Critique of the New Essentialism. Paderborn Munich Vienna Zurich 1994, p.10
  2. Michael-Thomas Liske: Aristotle and Aristotelian Essentialism. Individual, species, genus. Freiburg, Munich 1985. p. 19; see Ulrich Nortmann: Modal syllogisms, possible worlds, essentialism. An Analysis of Aristotelian Modal Logic.ISBN 978-3-11-014660-8
  3. Karl Popper: The two basic problems of epistemology. ed. by Troels Eggers Hansen, Tübingen 2nd edition 1994. ISBN 3-16-145774-9, P. 177
  4. Karl Popper: The two basic problems of epistemology. ed. by Troels Eggers Hansen, Tübingen 2nd edition 1994. ISBN 3-16-145774-9, P. 245 ff.
  5. see Richard Dawkins: The selfish gene.
  6. "Evolutionary universals," as Talcott Parsons said
  7. S. Sayyid: Anti-essentialism and Universalism. Innovation - The European Journal of Social Sciences, 11, 4, 1998, pp. 377-390


  • Kamp, Georg: Essentialism, in: Mittelstraß (Ed.), Encyclopedia Philosophy and Philosophy of Science, 2nd edition [2005], pp. 398 - 404 (with 2.5 columns bibliography)
  • Herbert Marcuse: The Concept of Essence.. In: Negations. Essays in Critical Theory. Boston 1968 (first: Journal of Social Research, Vol. V, 1936)
  • Josef Seifert: Being and being. Winter, Heidelberg 1996, ISBN 3-8253-0367-5
  • Brody, Baruch A .: Identity and essence. Princeton Univ., Princeton, N.J. 1980, ISBN 0-691-07256-6

Category: evolution