Why Essentialism Is Essential (At Least to Me)

Why Essentialism Is Essential (At Least to Me) October 14, 2018

Why Essentialism is Essential (At Least to Me)

Here’s a delicious irony: “essentialism” is the philosophy that says entities have certain necessary properties that define them, that make them what they are. (It is, of course, a form of metaphysical realism as opposed to nominalism.) However, “essentialism” is itself an essentially contested concept. Look it up in dictionaries of philosophy.

So, here, for purposes of this blog essay I am going to use “essentialism” for how I think and write about categories such as “evangelical.” The purpose of this blog post should be obvious to anyone who has followed my writing here for even a little while.

The background is that I often find myself failing to communicate with reasonable and thoughtful people BECAUSE (I conclude) I am an essentialist—with regard especially to religious and philosophical categories—and they are not.

Many people here and elsewhere simply assume that a category such as “evangelicalism” or “Calvinism” is constantly changing depending on what most people think it means and how they treat it—in speaking (for example). The idea lying behind this is that words mean how they are used. I don’t disagree entirely with that, but I do resist the belief that religious and philosophical categories mean however most people use them in everyday language (or how the popular press and media use them).

Next I need to clarify (to avoid misunderstandings) that essentialism as I mean it here does NOT necessarily imply Platonic forms or ideals. For example, when I talk about “evangelicalism” as a historical-spiritual-theological type of Christianity I do NOT envision it as a Platonic form or ideal outside of some metaphorical cave and existing with ontological being.

What I DO believe is that when we are talking about religious-philosophical (and perhaps other) categories we need to root them in their history and not allow them to shift meaning constantly depending on how they are used “right now.”

So how is this “essentialism?” Here’s what I mean by it and I think this is consistent with its description in most dictionaries of philosophy—although I admit I may be giving it a slight “twist” for my purposes here.

Previously, here, I have discussed what is called “prototype theory”—with regard to defining and using categories and their labels. What that means is this: a category such as (for example): “Christian” cannot be endlessly flexible; its use must be rooted in some prototypes of Christianity such as: Jesus and Paul, the early church fathers, the early church councils and their creeds (especially Nicene), reformers such as Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, major ecumenical theologians such as Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, The consensuses among Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant thinkers and leaders—Kallistos Ware, John Paul 2, and Billy Graham.

So now let me turn around and give an example of a clear MISUSE of “Christianity.” Some years ago I read an article on the “religion page” of a major daily newspaper. The article said that a certain newish (to America) Asian religion is “compatible with Christianity.” I reject that claim. It is not.

Any non-essentialist approach to defining “Christianity” (by this I mean one not rooted in Christian prototypes) is bound eventually to leave the door open to people legitimately claiming to being “Christian” or “compatible with Christianity” who do not believe in the unique incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the fallenness of humanity and its need of salvation, salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and faith in him, etc.

Now, once again, to avoid misunderstandings, I DO NOT think of “Christianity” as a Platonic form or ideal, but I do think it is a category with a strong historical-spiritual-theological meaning that cannot be compatible with anything and everything. In other words, even if everyone in the world came to think of Christianity as a form of, say, Buddhism, that would NOT mean that Christianity is a form of Buddhism. It would mean that everyone in the world is confused.

Do I imply, then, that religious and philosophical categories have boundaries and are static? Not at all. They have centers without boundaries. They can be dynamic, but only if they are kept centered and the centers are composed of prototypes.

This is how I think and I find it impossible to think otherwise—about spiritual-theological-philosophical (and perhaps political) categories.

Let me offer another example—“democratic.” Many years ago, even in high school, I loved to study geography and especially political geography. I remember having a conversation with my political science instructor about the “two Germanies” (post-WW2). One was called “The Federal Republic of Germany” and the other was known as “The Democratic Republic of Germany.” I learned, however, that “East Germany” (as the DRG was popularly known) was not at all democratic in any traditional sense of the word and that “West Germany” was.

This threw me into cognitive dissonance which led to a conversation about “democratic” and “federal” with my political science teacher. The conversion, as I recall it, was not helpful. I went away from it as confused as before. Now I realize why. My teacher was not an essentialist about categories and I already was!

Back to the danger of non-essentialism with regard to categories such as I discuss here. Commonly, too much so in my opinion, people use labels and categories in an extremely sloppy manner that makes communication about them nearly impossible. Think, for example, of “liberal.” “Liberal” has a fairly standard philosophical-political meaning anchored in maximum liberty without anarchy. In this sense, many contemporary conservatives are really liberal—insofar as they are broadly libertarian in their view of government. And yet who ever thinks of that historical-political-philosophical meaning of “liberal” in everyday conversation?

I could go on and on and probaby write a book about this. In a way, what I am talking about here mirrors my rants against nominalism and for realism (in metaphysics). But here I am talking about language. Yes, of course the Wittgensteinians are right when we are talking about terms that have no relatively clear historical attachment to categories or movements. Then (and this probably applies to most words) “meaning is use.”

All of this is simply my attempt to explain why I continue to fight against the media-driven popular identification of “evangelical” with Trumpism. It’s simply nonsensical. Bean-counting cannot define a category; history defines it (in this and many other examples).

*Note: Here I speak only for myself, never for anyone else. Responses will only be posted here if they are civil and promote conversation rather than conflict. This blog is not a discussion board; it is a moderated blog. I do not welcome, and will not post here, hostile comments. Also, please keep your responses to me—not to others. And keep them relatively brief—no more than 250 words. Only comment once or at the most twice to any single blog post. Comments that misrepresent what I wrote will not be approved. Do not post sermons, scripture passages (only), your own essays, or mere assertions without explanation of how they are relevant and helpful to the conversation.*


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