THR Web Features   /   July 16, 2021

Who Killed Essentialism?

On the forbidden but unavoidable concept.

Charlie Riggs

( Study B by Pedro Ribeiro Simões. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Modern Collection, Lisbon, Portugal. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

As recently as a few years ago, when I was in graduate school, anyone making an “essentialist” argument was generally thought to be committing an intellectual and moral error. Essentialism most often functioned as a pejorative term in left-leaning, academic parlance, naming the retrograde belief that groups, people, or identities were defined by immutable “essences”—ontological or biological substrates that determine action and behavior.

How strange, then, to find “essentialism” being flung as an accusation in the culture war du jour, the recent controversy over critical race theory—but now as an epithet against the Left. Florida governor Ron DeSantis says that “critical race theory is basically race essentialism.” Pundit Ben Shapiro calls the pushback against CRT “a rejection of racial essentialism in favor of individualism.” Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who more than anyone else invented the campaign against CRT (on the cynical, though not incorrect, understanding that “strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American”), accuses CRT-influenced pedagogues of “explicitly endorsing principles of segregationism, group-based guilt, and race essentialism—ugly concepts that should have been left behind a century ago.”

The merits of these arguments—about the nature of critical race theory, and of the larger left-wing cultural politics for which it has lately become a symbol—are less interesting to me than the universal disrepute of “essentialism.” No one in academia wants to be accused of essentialism, and conservatives seem to have selected the term partly because they know where to slip the knife in. It is a classic example of what Kenneth Burke called the “stealing back and forth of symbols.”

But how did essentialism acquire its bad reputation, now on both sides of the ideological spectrum? And is that reputation deserved? As Rufo’s comment suggests, at least part of the backlash against essentialism—or racial essentialism, at any rate—originated in the early-twentieth-century collapse of racial/biological deterministic thinking in the social sciences. The story of how Franz Boas and his merry band of cultural anthropologists debunked the scientific racism of the Madison Grant school, toppling rigid biological race categories with a careful attention to culture as a human artifice or “social construction,” is a familiar tale. Charles King’s recent book Gods of the Upper Air tells it as well as anyone, adorned with ample, colorful details on the lives of Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and others.

But anti-essentialism has other histories, too, some more recent. As Daniel T. Rodgers showed in Age of Fracture, his masterful intellectual history of the last quarter of the twentieth century, the radical politics of the 1960s and ’70s produced notions of “essential” blackness—as well as “essential” womanhood—that came in for increasing skepticism from both Left and Right during the 1980s when the range of black and female experiences became more visible and the terrain of racial and gender politics shifted. The “post-essentialist” black writers of that time who sought to destabilize the concept of race—among whom the much-maligned critical race theorists can, ironically, be counted—were sometimes discomfited to find their ideas being mirrored or taken up by conservatives pressing a “color-blind” agenda against Affirmative Action, reparations, and other policies aimed at rectifying historical injustice. The more things change…

How to mediate between, on the one hand, the indisputable fact that racial categories have taken shape within history and, on the other hand, the lingering sense that there is some inner being in something like the “black experience,” even if it cannot be located on the level of biology? Otherwise, how could we speak of it at all? In Age of Fracture, Rodgers quotes Henry Louis Gates—a post-essentialist par excellence—inveighing against the “treacherous non-sequitur that moves us from ‘socially constructed’ to essentially unreal.” Wise words. However, what I find interesting is the appearance of “essentially” in Gates’s formulation.

We seem to be unable to do without our essences.

The word itself has a long pedigree that might draw us closer to the heart—dare I say the “essence”?—of these controversies. Essence: from the Latin esse, “to be.” In ontological metaphysics, from Plato to Spinoza to Heidegger, “essence” played counterpoint to the category of “existence”—which is the missing term in our flailing conversations about identity. Essence and existence are paired concepts, and if we seek the cause of essentialism’s present disfavor, we could do worse than attending to its opposite: existentialism.

Existence means “to stand forth,” “to become,” “to make real.” Essence, classically, is latent; existence is manifest. Essence is nouminal. Existence is phenomenological. Most romance languages have two words for “to be”—one that denotes essential being, and another that indicates more transitory, existential states. Like essence, existence also concerns being, but in a more active, immersive, and performative mode.

Essence relates to what we are, or might be, in the deep places. Our essences are good. Esse qua esse bonum est, wrote Augustine: “being as being is good,” a Latinate philosophical expression of the biblical verse, “And God looked over all that He had made, and it was very good.” But then…keep reading the Bible. It’s a disaster. Existence describes our fallen state, our being in the world, in our ambiguity, as we know ourselves in history and biography, in our striving and failures, with our half-revealing and half-deceptive masks on. Essence and existence together constitute the poles of a metaphysical process: an imperfectly expressive act that is nothing less than the self-unfolding of reality, the creation of the world out of nothingness.

Essence versus existence: true being versus visible manifestation, original unity versus fallen multiplicity, potentiality versus actuality, idealism versus realism, depth versus surface, innocence versus experience, the honest soul versus the unhappy consciousness. Here is one of the great quarrels running through western culture. There have been moments, openings, partial realizations in which a creative synthesis—a living tension—between these twin powers has been realized, but the general rule has ever been a pendulous swinging back and forth between them. Such is our existence.

One way to understand the academic left today is to recognize that most politically active people in the humanities and social sciences, despite having largely abandoned existentialism as a relatively transient intellectual fashion a generation ago, and despite continuing to cling to a number of essentialist premises (as a matter of functional necessity, so as to be able to say anything at all), are still in thrall to the existentialist critique of “essence.” The habit of critique has persisted even as the larger duality that gave it meaning has disappeared from view.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the great French existentialist of the mid-twentieth century, put that critique concisely, in a kind of philosophical call-to-arms, in terms that at least still acknowledged the field of contest: “existence precedes essence.” The radical offense intended by this phrase is no longer felt. It means, in effect, that our confused and alienated position in the here-and-now of experienced reality—what Heidegger called our Geworfenheit, or thrownness-into-being, our existence—comes prior to our sense of unity, oneness, and wholeness, our essence. We are not defined by our essences, which are not real until we make them. This is our freedom.

An unfashionable word on essentialism’s behalf: The problem with this Sartrean perspective is that it does not demote “essence” so much as surreptitiously redefine and expand it—implausibly—to infinite proportions. Even if you attribute to man what medieval theologians attributed to God—total freedom, the ability to be completely simple and sufficient, a se—then you are still describing an essence, a deeper being, a nature: one of absolute freedom. Even in the most radical existentialist critique, then, there is always an implicit vision of essence at work. For to abandon essence is not to become an existentialist. It is to cease to be, to die.

Existentialism—in its philosophical as well as its manifold artistic, psychoanalytic, and vernacular forms—is best appreciated as a half-justified revolt against the intellectual culture of Europe and America in the nineteenth century. The claims of “existence,” as experienced in its full “blooming, buzzing confusion,” as William James put it, had for too long been ignored, minimized, or waved away by elaborate system-builders like Hegel, by dreamy, congenial optimists like Emerson, or by progressive evolutionists like Herbert Spencer—all partisans, in different ways, of the essential over the existential. A return was needed “to the things themselves.”

But a healthy, dynamic balance should be the aim, not a theoretical confusion in which things lack “essences” but are somehow still “essentially real.” The larger problem is that we are imprisoned within the terms of a scientific positivism that only permits things to be “really real” if they are measurable and solid. When, in reality, the realest things about us emerge out of our unknowable depths and we ourselves are erupting constantly out of a mystical void. But try saying that in a graduate seminar.