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RE: re cultural essentialism
Referring to human indentity, essentialism entails that what makes one
person, and by extension, a group of people different than another can be
distilled into its "-ness," a unique, fixed, eternal and clearly understood
quality or cohesive set of qualities.
It's controversial because, like the Leviathan or the fasces, uniformity is
a dangerously seductive idea. One only see the examples of essentialism in
action- Rwanda, or the history of blacks in the US- to understand its
destructive power. Hirschfeld is mentioned below- he's done work on the
cognitive development of racial categorizations...
I think it's useful to go over some Plato for a second...
Plato's ideal world constituted the essential or "true" form of everything-
chairs, trees, whatever. The word phenonmenon relates directly to this
principal- "the thing appearing"- as a replica of the real, ideal thing. So
when we see a chair, it's a copy of what is in our minds as the ideal form
of chair. How did that ideal form get in our minds? Reason (don't ask). The
closer the copy to the ideal, the better.
Kant countered by saying the ideal was impossible to know. Would that I had
time to delve into how categorizations of natural kinds are made (Aristotle,
Darwin and lately Medin & Atran)...
One question to take from all of this might be, can we pinpoint the essence
of a culture, perhaps through an ideal individual or experience? Some might
say yes- this guy is quintessentially English or that was a classic Italian
But I think all of us here would be of the mind that culture and identity
are continually made and reshaped, as history- there is no one answer to
what is ______ culture. Each person at least in part making themselves and
made by the intersection of their own experience and their version of
But the nagging, and compelling question remains (as I mentioned in an
earlier post)- how do we account for continuity in identity, culturally and
historically? And how do we do it without falling into reductionisms like
essentialism or overly evolutionary theories?
I know I'm talking around a lot of stuff so please make some comments...