eli5: what is essentialism?



I’ve looked it up, but apparently my brain is too tiny right now to figure it out…thanks for nothing wikipedia.

My wife brought it up when I said I hated league of legends but felt the need to play it…She said its like I have to do something, even when I dont like it or I feel like I lose my identity.


In: Other

Essentialism is, basically, the idea that every thing has an “essence” that makes it what it is, and without that essence it’s not that thing. The “essence” is vague. Typically it’s a set of traits that are unique to to the thing (a dog barks, so it is different from a cat, which meows), but sometimes is more intangible (e.g. the classic difference between pornography and artistic nudity is “I know it when I see it” – you just “sense” it rather than being able to define it).

The thing about essentialism is that it’s really reductive and typically not helpful in understanding the world or ourselves. Like, it’s essentialist to believe that liking pink is part of the “essence” of womanhood, so *only* women like pink and *all* women like pink.

In your case, you might think of yourself as a gamer and therefore “must” play certain games, and you’re not a gamer if you play other kinds of games. But you don’t have to play LoL if you don’t enjoy it. There’s no Gamer Essence™ that gets taken away if you think it’s boring or not fun.

Long answer incoming:

Essentialism is the theory that things have permanent and unchanging “essences” that make them what they are, or that there is something that is essential for a thing to have in order to be that thing.

It gets a bit tricky with people, but let’s say it’s plausible that Socrates wouldn’t be Socrates if he weren’t human, so that means that being human is part of his essence (Spock wouldn’t be Spock if he weren’t part Vulcan; a fully human Spock just wouldn’t be Spock). It’s plausible that Socrates’ snub nose was not essential and not part of his essence – that if he had a different nose, he’d still be Socrates. It gets tricky because what about his desire to go around questioning everyone (something we associate strongly with Socrates and plausibly made him who he is)? If he didn’t have that would he still be Socrates? If we think the answer is yes then the trait is not essential, if no, then it is essential.

What if Socrates hated questioning people, but felt the need to do it anyway, or, as in your case what if you don’t like playing league of legends but keep doing it anyways?

The suggestion from your partner could be taken two ways, as far as I can see. First, that this is evidence that playing LoL is part of your essence – even when there’s part of you that doesn’t want to do the activity, you still continue doing it, showing that there’s no way to get rid of the drive to do the activity, and therefore the drive is an essential part of you. This is a bit of a bizarre view. To take a non-psychological example, it would be as if Socrates hated his snub nose and kept getting nose jobs, but the snub nose kept returning – clearly an indication of the fact that Socrates is incapable of existing without snub nosedness, and therefore being snub nosed is part of Socrates’ essence! I say this is bizarre not just because it’s implausible when we take a non-psychological example, but because normally this isn’t what we mean when we say a thing’s essence is unchanging and immutable. We don’t think that essential traits are somehow incapable of being changed, but rather that if something related to a thing’s essence changes, then the thing ceases to be that thing. (So it would be more normal to think about a change like this: the day Socrates got his nose job was the day Socrates ceased to be; he was forever changed that day and it was as if he was an entirely new man; clearly his snub nose was an essential feature after all).

The second, more reasonable way to take your partner’s suggestion is that there’s something psychologically going on in you where you take (subconsciously?) part of your essence to involve playing LoL, and so, despite not enjoying it, you keep playing it. The thought would be that it’s frightening and existential-dread-inducing to have to build yourself up as a new person, or determine who you are and what makes you you, and if playing LoL has been a part of how you conceive of yourself, then stopping would require a reckoning with questions like: What features make HalfInsaneOutdoorGuy HalfInsaneOutdoorGuy? Would HalfInsaneOutdoorGuy cease to exist if he stopped playing? Who or what would take his place?

“Existence precedes essence” – That is, ‘who I am’ isn’t something inherent or deep ‘within’ me, ‘who am I’ is what I do out in the world.