On 9/25/06, Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx> wrote:
As for what is here called 'non-essentialism,' one would like an example of a thing's being defined in such a way that none of the properties attributed to it distinguish it in any way from anything else.
While I mostly agree with Robert Paul, as Robert Paul mostly agrees with Donal, I see posing the question in this way as non-serious blowing smoke.
There are, I believe, two sides to the coin of essentialism. On the one hand is a linguistic claim that respectable propositions must be framed in terms of the necessary and sufficient conditions that define the sets to which they refer. On the other is the ontological claim that the sets in question exist immutably as facts in the world independent of the minds that contemplate them.
Serious critiques of essentialism attack both sides of the coin. Against the linguistic claim is a wealth of empirical evidence that human beings mainly utter propositions in terms that require neither necessary nor sufficient conditions to be meaningful to those who use them. The evidence is particularly strong in the case of the subset of human beings called philosophers, the history of whose debates consistently reveals the ability to go on talking in the presence of radical disagreement over what they are talking about.
There are also plenty of alternatives for conceptualizing the management of differences in ways that do not require the apparatus of classical logic or modern set theory. See George Lakoff, _Women, Fire and Dangerous Things_, for a brief but convincing review of prototyping, family resemblances, fuzzy logic, etc.
Against the ontological claim there is the Darwinian (also Buddhist) observation that the perceptible configurations of experience to which allude typically turn out on close examination to be only temporary, existing for only brief or longer durations of time. The second law of thermodynamics ("The entropy of an isolated system not at equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value") reinforces this observation, particularly in a relativistic universe where isolated systems are at best conceptual gimmicks to permit discussion of complexities otherwise too great for human comprehension.
Pragmatically speaking, it may be useful at times to speak as if sets defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions can be treated as enduring entities. But the proper anti-essentialist attitude is that of Confucius' gentleman, who performs the rites as if the gods exist but does not trouble himself with the question whether they really do.
-- John McCreery The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
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