May 2, 2008

What is "essentializing"?

As a student of history and philosophy, one of the best items of advice that I have received is: "Learn how to essentialize." So, I have been a student of essentializing, and I am still looking for ways to improve. Following is my interim summary.

WHAT IS ESSENTIALIZING? As a noun, the term essential is shorthand for the phrase "essential characteristic." Characteristic of what? Of any existent--a table, a man, a society, or a philosophy.[1]

In a metaphysical (ontological) perspective, an essential is a certain kind of feature of a thing--a feature that causes all, most, or many of the thing's other characteristics to be what they are.[2] For example, in a philosophical (not biological) context, an essential characteristic of man is his ability to reason. That ability does not cause his chromosome count to be what it is, but his ability to reason does enable him to write symphonies, plan a garden, design a computer program, choose a suitable spouse, measure a board for framing a new house, and debate laws.

BENEFITS. Epistemologically, an essential is a characteristic which explains all, most, or many of the other characteristics of a thing. (What is a cause in reality is an explanation in cognition of that reality.)[3]

As a second benefit, identifying essential characteristics also allows me to simplify my mental activities. Holding all of a thing's characteristics in mind at one time is impossible. Rather than needing to remember thousands of characteristics of a thing, when I think of that thing, I can remember an essential characteristic that causes and thereby explains all, most, or many of the other characteristics.

When I recall the definition of a thing, I am recalling its essential characteristics. A table is an "item of furniture, consisting of a flat, level surface and supports, intended to support other, smaller objects."[4] In part, its essential characteristics are its structure (a flat surface raised off the floor to a level accessible to human hands) and its purpose (to support other objects in a way accessible from all sides). Remembering structure and purpose is much easier than trying to remember a table's many other, inessential characteristics.

A METHOD. Essentializing is a mental method. It is looking for the underlying characteristic of a thing -- whether the thing is a perceptible object, such as a table, or a set of wide abstractions, such as a philosophy. For example, an examination of Ayn Rand's philosophy leads to an identification of an essential characteristic ("essence") of Objectivism as the concept of objectivity.

The process of essentializing is analogous to harvesting a carrot: Follow the many little green leaves to the single large root, and then extract it. The process of essentializing is a form of integration, that is, a form of finding the One from which the Many appear.[5] Consider an example. For students of philosophy of history, Leonard Peikoff has sketched a method of finding the philosophical roots (the fundamental ideas that cause it to be what it is) of a particular society, such as Germany in the 1920s.[6] Generalizing his comments further, I would suggest that the method of essentializing has four main steps:

1. Immerse yourself in identifying the many characteristics of the thing you are examining. The question to ask at this stage is Aristotle's basic question of all inquiry: "What is it?"[7] Whatever you are studying -- whether a new life-form in the jungle of the Amazon River Valley or a long paragraph in a philosophy textbook -- ask yourself particular questions whose answers will help you characterize the object. Examples for a physical object are: How much does it weigh? What color is it? Does it have parts? If so, how do they interconnect? At this stage, do not be concerned with the importance, breadth, or relationship of the characteristics. Simply collect them.

2. Classify the answers. For example, for a rare monkey, red hands and purple ears might fall under the heading of skin color, and skin color and shape of eyes fall under the heading of physical characteristics.

3. Sort the characteristics by fundamentality--that is, by cause and effect. Which of the characteristics are effects, and which are causes of other characteristics? An illustration: Philosophically speaking, man's ability to reason is a cause (an enabling cause) of man's ability to create music--not vice versa.

4. Look for the characteristic that explains most other characteristics. It is the essential characteristic. Sometimes, the thing being essentialized may have more than one essential characteristic. For example, an essential characteristic of Nazi philosophy was a set of three ideas--irrationalism (in epistemology), altruism (in ethics), and racial collectivism (in politics)--working together.[8]

CONCLUSION. What is the essential nature of the method of essentializing? Ask questions to find the "root," the characteristic of a thing that causes and thereby explains all, most, or many of the other characteristics of the thing.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For Ayn Rand's discussion of essential characteristics: Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ch. 5 ("Definitions"), especially pp. 42, 45-46, and 52; also see pp. 230-231. Leonard Peikoff discusses essentializing in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 96-101. [2] For the meaning of "fundamental" and "essential," see: Ayn Rand, ITOE, p. 45. [3] For the distinctions between metaphysically fundamental as cause and epistemologically essential as explanation: Rand, ITOE, 2nd ed., p. 45. [4] For the quoted definition of "table," see: Rand, ITOE,, 2nd ed., p. 41. [5] For integration: Leonard Peikoff, OPAR, p. 77. [6] For the example of philosophical detection, a form of essentializing, in analyzing a culture: Leonard Peikoff, Ominous Parallels, pp. 143-144. [7] For the basic questions of inquiry: Aristotle, Analytica Posteriora, Bk. I, Ch. 1, lines 89b21-25. [8] For the essential philosophical characteristics ("the essence") of Nazism: Peikoff, Ominous Parallels, p. 97.

No comments: