The Roots of Essentialism
According to Philosophy Basics, Essentialism began with Plato and “is the view that things have essences—the attributes, or set of attributes, that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is. Thus, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics (or properties or traits), all of which any entity of that kind must have.” The question is, to what extent is thinking about human identity in terms of unchanging essences illuminating or necessary for Christians?
Conceiving of the nature of human being as “essential” along the lines of Platonic or Aristotelian philosophical analysis, as Dr. Bruce Little does, certainly can be consistent with the Bible. After all, many (but not all) of the Patristic Fathers and several Church councils made use of such Greek philosophical ideas in their analyses of the nature of reality in general, and of human nature in particular. Greek philosophical thought forms were the intellectual inheritance of the first centuries of Christianity, and many early Christians worked with these thought forms in their analyses of biblical truth. Indeed, Christians have always used the cultural and philosophical tools of their day to help them understand and interpret Scripture, but doing so has always also required caution, lest those tools inappropriately reshape the biblical text. As a case in point, other early Church Fathers challenged those very same Greek thought forms on the basis of biblical revelation, specifically looking to the Trinity as a model for human being as centrally relational, rather than essential.1
Evolutionary theorist Ernst Mayr did argue that essentialism has historically been an obstacle to acceptance of evolutionary theories.2 From the time of Plato forward, the Western tradition took it for granted that species are fixed, unchangeable things, though more often than not, this immutability was rooted in the unchangeable nature of Platonic or Aristotelian forms rather than essences defined by fixed characteristics.3
This conviction led many commentators on Scripture to use fixity of species as the rubric through which they interpret min (the Hebrew word translated ‘kind’ in Genesis 1), though that meaning is foreign to the ancient Hebrew understandings of min. Indeed, Little himself identifies min with the ‘natural kinds’ of the Aristotelian framework, though the word did not have this meaning in its original ancient Hebrew context.
So essentialist analysis can be made consistent with the Bible in some cases, and has been used to understand the Bible in many others. However, this does not imply that essentialism gets at the truth of the nature of reality, nor at what truly makes a human being. Indeed, contrary to Dr. Little’s reading, essentialist analyses of reality lost ground even in the 17th century under pressure from corpuscular and mechanical analyses of matter and objects. These more materially-focused analyses were offered by theists, and found to be superior as explanatory frameworks for nature based on theological as well as philosophical and empirical reasons.4
The Decline of Essentialism
Though Little speculates that essentialism fell out of favor due to the advent of metaphysical naturalism, that account leaves out important intellectual developments within theism that led to essentialism’s replacement. Pierre Gassendi, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and most of the natural philosophers of the 17th century thought that there was little or no evidence for essential natures, with the occasional exception being human nature. For example, Gassendi, Daniel Sennert and Boyle argued that the “essential nature” of elements such as silver and gold was actually determined by specific arrangements and motions of the underlying corpuscles (presaging the later discovery of atoms). In this manner the chemists’ mechanical manipulations and transformations of elements could easily explain the changes in the natures involved, whereas the Aristotelian framework foundered on such cases. John Locke gave philosophical expression to this new corpuscular account as a replacement for Aristotelian categories of substance and essential natures in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk ii, 23 and bk iii, 3-4. Furthermore, it also appears that essentialism did not (and still does not) take full advantage of the resources of revelation for understanding what a human person is—a point I take up in more detail in Part 2.
In other words, there is no evidence to finger metaphysical naturalism as the main factor in essentialism’s demise. It was critically compared with a new framework for understanding nature and found wanting for both evidence and explanatory power. Moreover, far from removing God from creation, the new explanatory framework was viewed as elucidating how God was at work in creation. For instance, despite Little’s claim to the contrary, Newton clearly thought that Jesus was intimately involved in the making of creation as well as in directing the forces causing the motion of material bodies, while God the Father worked through gravity as an expression of His omnipresence. Newton did see God as the ultimate cause of gravity; he ultimately refused to pronounce on whether the Father was the immediate cause of gravity, but also on whether gravity was a material force.5
Nevertheless, with essentialism already well into its decline, Darwin’s work called into question the fixity of species as a matter of biology, not metaphysics. As 17th-century chemists moved away from the idea that the elements were defined by ideal essences and towards a view that they were defined by the characteristics and interactions of smaller corpuscles, so 19th and 20th-century biologists came to see “species” as a way of describing the aggregate qualities of individuals in a group of similar animals (including Chihuahuas, Great Danes, Terriers and Spaniels, for instance), rather than as an expression of an idealized type: the dog. In both cases, the non-essentialist view came to the fore because it offered a more helpful framework for understanding what was being studied, not because of the metaphysical commitments of the scientists.
Evolution did provide yet one more challenge to essentialism as a whole; and with Darwin’s suggestion that humans shared common descent with all other organisms, any vestiges of essentialism pertaining to human beings seemed to all but disappear. Whether the evolutionary framework is ultimately consistent with any forms of essentialism is too large a question to pursue here. Suffice it to say, though, that of the wide variety of definitions/conceptions of species in the biology and philosophy of biology literatures, those that are essentialist are not without their problems.6
In general, then, Little’s discussion appears to identify the very practices of science with metaphysical naturalism (“The claim that science provides the best framework for understanding creation begins with the commitment that all there is to reality is material” and “It is as if understanding of reality is shut up to the scientific method.”). But metaphysical naturalism is a late 19th-century add-on to science, and an ill-conceived add-on at that. There is nothing about scientific practices suggesting that reality has to be treated as if there is nothing more than material reality or what our senses can detect.7 And more pertinent to our discussion of essentialism, it is certainly not the case that if one rejects essentialism, one therefore must necessarily reject all claims of non-material existence or meaning. In Part 2, tomorrow, I’ll look at two alternatives to essentialism that have equally-deep roots in the history of Christian life and thought.
1. For detailed examples, see Colin C. Gunton, The one, the three and the many: God, creation and the culture of modernity. The 1992 Bampton lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1993); Gunton, The Triune Creation: A Historical and Systematic Study, Eerdmans (1998).
2. Mayr has suggested a distinction between the traditional and Greek-based "typological essentialism" that presumes unchanging forms or types as the basis of a species, and what he calls 'population thinking,' in which it is the group, or an aggregate of individuals, that defines species—even though individuals within it show a wide distribution of characteristics. Mayr, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press (1988).
3. Mayr tended to over-generalize from some cases in which defining characteristics were used to identify species (diagnostic essentialism) and map those activities onto an essentialist philosophical framework. See John Wilkins, Species: A History of the Idea, University of California Press (2009).
4. See Robert C. Bishop, “Psychology and Revelation,” Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 23 (2012): 239-267; and Bishop, “God and Methodological Naturalism in the Scientific Revolution and Beyond,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 65, no. 1, March 2013, pp. 10-23
5. See Newton, Keynes MS 3, fol. 12, King's College, Cambridge (accessed 11 February 2012); Newton, Yahuda MS 15, fols. 47v, 96v, Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem (accessed 11 February 2012); and J. T. Dobbs, “Newton's Alchemy and His Theory of Matter,” Isis 73 (1982):511-528.
6. See, Marc Ereshefsky, “Species,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 7 July 2012).
7. Bishop, “Revelation and Psychology” and “God and Methodological Naturalism.”