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  1. The view that objects have properties that are essential to them.

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Extensive Definition

In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. This view is contrasted with non-essentialism which states that for any given kind of entity there are no specific traits which entities of that kind must possess.
A member of a specific kind of entity may possess other characteristics that are neither needed to establish its membership nor preclude its membership. It should be noted that essences do not simply reflect ways of grouping objects; essences must result in properties of the object.
An essence characterizes a substance or a form, in the sense of the Forms or Ideas in Platonic idealism. It is permanent, unalterable, and eternal; and present in every possible world. Classical humanism has an essentialist conception of the human being, which means that it believes in an eternal and unchangeable human nature. This viewpoint has been criticized by Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre and many modern and existential thinkers.
In simple terms, essentialism is a generalisation stating that certain properties possessed by a group (e.g. people, things, ideas) are universal, and not dependent on context, such as stating 'all human beings compete with each other for success'.
Hirshchfeld gives an example of what constitutes the essence of a tiger, regardless of whether it is striped or albino, or has lost a leg. The essential properties of a tiger are those without which it is no longer a tiger. Other properties, such as stripes or number of legs, are considdered inessential or 'accidental'.

Essentialism in philosophy

The definition, in philosophical contexts, of the word "essence" is very close to the definition of form (Gr. morph). 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 one of the first essentialists, believing in the concept of ideal forms, an abstract entity of which individual objects are mere facsimilies. To give an example; the ideal form of a circle is a perfect circle, something that is physically impossible to make manifest, yet the circles that we draw and observe clearly have some idea in common - this idea is the ideal form. Plato believed that these ideas are eternal and vastly superior to their manifestations in the world, and that we understand these manifestations in the material world by comparing and relating them to their respective ideal form. Plato's forms are regarded as patriachs to essentialist dogma simply because they are a case of what is intrinsic and a-contextual of objects - the abstract properties that makes them what they are. For more on forms, read Plato's 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 ethics

Essentialism in ethics is claiming that some things are wrong in an absolute sense, for example murder breaks a universal, objective and natural moral law and not merely an adventitious, socially or ethically constructed one.

Essentialism in biology

It is often held that before evolution was developed as a scientific theory, there existed an essentialist view of biology that posited all species to be unchanging throughout time. Some religious opponents of evolution continue to maintain this view of biology (see creation-evolution controversy).
Recent work by historians of systematics has, however, cast doubt upon this view. Mary P. Winsor, Ron Amundson and Staffan Müller-Wille have each argued convincingly that in fact the usual suspects (such as Linnaeus and the Ideal Morphologists) were very far from being essentialists, and it appears that the so-called "essentialism story" (or "myth") in biology is a result of conflating the views expressed by philosophers from Aristotle onwards through to John Stuart Mill and William Whewell in the immediately pre-Darwinian period, using biological examples, with the use of terms in biology like species.

Essentialism and society

Essentialist positions on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, or other group characteristics, consider these to be fixed traits, while not allowing for variations among individuals or over time. Contemporary proponents of identity politics, including feminism, gay rights, and/or racial equality activists, generally take constructionist viewpoints, agreeing with Simone de Beauvoir that "one is not born, but becomes a woman", for example. However, this is a vexed issue. To the extent that essence implies permanence and inalterability, essentialist thinking tends to agree with political conservatism and militate against social change. But essentialist claims also have provided useful rallying-points for radical politics, including feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial struggles. In a culture saturated with essentialist modes of thinking, an ironic or strategic essentialism can sometimes be politically expedient.
In social thought, essentialism as a metaphysical claim is often conflated with biological reductionism. Most sociologists, for example, employ a distinction between biological sex and gender role. Similar distinctions across disciplines generally fall under the topic "nature versus nurture." However, this conflation can be contested. For example, Monique Wittig has argued that even biological sex is not an essence, and that the body's physiology is caught up in processes of social construction.

Essentialism in history

Essentialism is used by some historians in listing essential cultural characteristics of a particular nation or culture. A people can be understood in this way. These characteristics have degenerated into clichés serving to justify colonial practices. In other cases, the essentialist method has been used by members, or admirers, of an historical community to establish a praiseworthy national identity. Opposed to this model of interpretation are historical studies which turn from essences to focus on the particular circumstances of time and place.

Essentialism in philosophy of art

Folllowing the Platonic methdology, essentialism has been the predominate methodology in philosophy of art, beginning with Plato's definition that "art is imitation." This methodology has been largely popular until the mid-twentieth century with the introduction of anti-essentialism, a movement popularized by Morris Weitz, W.E. Kennick and Paul Ziff.


  • Amundson, R. (2005) The changing rule of the embryo in evolutionary biology: structure and synthesis, New York, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521806992
  • Müller-Wille, Staffan. 2007. Collection and collation: theory and practice of Linnaean botany. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38 (3):541-562.
  • Winsor, M. P. (2003) Non-essentialist methods in pre-Darwinian taxonomy. Biology & Philosophy, 18, 387-400.

Further reading


  • For more information on Essentialism and related topics, see the Dictionary of Philosophy by Dagobert D. Runes (Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1972). See for instance the articles on Essence, page 97, Quiddity, p. 262, Form,110, Hylomorphism, 133, Individuation,145, and Matter, 191.


  • Barrett, H. C. (2001). On the functional origins of essentialism. Mind and Society, 3, Vol. 2, 1-30. Full text
  • Sayer, Andrew "Essentialism, Social Constructionism, and Beyond," The Sociological Review 45 (August 1997): 456.

Internet resources

essentialism in Danish: Essentialisme
essentialism in German: Essentialismus
essentialism in Estonian: Essentsialism
essentialism in Modern Greek (1453-): Ουσιοκρατία
essentialism in Spanish: Esencialismo
essentialism in Persian: ذات‌باوری
essentialism in French: Essentialisme
essentialism in Korean: 본질주의
essentialism in Hebrew: מהותנות
essentialism in Japanese: 本質主義
essentialism in Norwegian: Essensialisme
essentialism in Polish: Esencjalizm
essentialism in Portuguese: Essencialismo
essentialism in Finnish: Essentialismi
essentialism in Swedish: Essentialism
essentialism in Chinese: 本质主义
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