University of Exeter ‘Essentialisms’ Workshop Report (May 2010)

Over 40 academics from various disciplines convened at the University of Exeter in May for a day-long workshop on ‘The Roles of Essentialism’. Attendees travelled from as far away as Germany and Canada, and their expertise spanned from history and literature to science and sociology. The event was funded by the British Academy and co-hosted by Exeter’s Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis) and Exeter Interdisciplinary Institute. Speakers explored various definitions and uses of essentialism, provoking lively debates with the audience.

Organiser Dr Angelique Richardson began the day by introducing Professor Nick Talbot, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, who stressed the university’s ambition to forge closer links between researchers in the sciences and humanities. Dr Richardson then introduced the main points of debate. While the rejection of essentialism in science has become an accepted development, there has been a tendency in literary and cultural studies to look to biology as a site and source of essentialist thinking. What different meanings have accrued around ‘essence’ in different disciplines, and can this create misunderstandings? How did “essence” come into being as a concept, and is it ever needed or desirable? Dr Richardson argued that ideas of species changeability, interdependence and common origins proposed by Darwin in the Victorian period played an important role in the rejection of essentialist thinking.

The first panel considered essentialism in biology old and new. Professor of Philosophy at Exeter John Dupre began the discussion with a demolition of essentialist ideas of biological kinds. Such accounts of nature, built around exclusivity and hierarchy, are contradicted by evolution. Classing things together based on what they do in nature does not always match their evolutionary descent from each other. Professor Dupre argued that such essentialist presuppositions continue to shape discourse in contemporary society, from searches for criminality ‘in the genes’ to claims that coalition government is ‘not in Britain’s DNA’.

Chris Gill, Professor of Ancient Thought at Exeter, continued the discussion by interrogating Aristotle’s position as a supposed father of essentialism, both in general and in biology. He argued that the Greek philosopher’s concept of ‘essence’ reflects his rejection of Platonic idealism, in which essential forms are fundamentally separate from concrete entities in the world. Aristotle’s empirical work in biology sometimes conflicts with his metaphysical framework, suggesting less fixity of forms than his philosophy claimed. His account of animal generation focuses less on development towards fulfilling species-membership and more on bodily parts operating “for the best” regarding survival and reproduction. Thus, generation is analysed as movement towards concrete embodied form, rather than species-membership conceived as essence. Professor Gill contested that Aristotle’s biological work is not fundamentally opposed to evolution, since it describes animals as complexes of bodily parts adapted to respond to their environment.

The second panel focused on essentialism in history, its presence or absence in different epochs and how it has served particular socio-political needs. Dr Staffan Müller-Wille, senior lecturer in Sociology and Philosophy at Exeter, attacked historiographies of life sciences which describe pre-modern knowledge as dominated by essentialism – ‘two thousand years of stasis’, in the words of David Hull. Conversely, Dr Müller-Wille argued that the working practices of most naturalists and philosophers before Carl Linnaeus do not match with modern definitions of essentialism. He contended that ideas might be essentialist without entailing what we now understand as heredity. In the world of Aristotle and others, norms of class and genera certainly existed, but these could be violated by all manner of hybrids and deviations. In contrast to this, Carl Linnaeus and those he influenced established laws of species generation which were permanent and fixed. Dr Müller-Wille suggested that researcher may need to become essentialists themselves in order to trace these changes. That is, to believe in the reality of ‘ideas’ directing the development of science, and to consider deflections from these ideas in the historical record as mere exceptions or deviations.

This was combined with David Feldman, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, who discussed how essentialism has mediated social and religious conflicts in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain and its colonies. Professor Feldman observed how essentialism provided resources for governors and governed, rich and poor, majority and minority groups in both promoting and resisting power relations. Irish and Jewish immigrants in Victorian Britain, and freed slaves in Jamaica often identified their group identities as essential in order to counter other essential identities imposed upon them. Similarly, the modern lexicon of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ was traced to the same practice of entrenching groups of people in typologies. Professor Feldman suggested that essentialism could also enable repression, just as it was necessary for protecting minorities against repression. The recent case of a London Jewish School attempting to bar a mixed race pupil from admission was cited to show how the rights of individuals could conflict with the rights of essentialized communities.

Both papers prompted energetic debates among the audience. Professor Anja Mueller-Wood of Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz questioned whether pluralism could become a form of ‘negative’ essentialism if communities are privileged over individuals. Dr Jason Hartford (Exeter Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Sexuality and Gender in Europe) suggested that essentialist traps might be avoided by describing phenomena in ‘scatterings’ or ‘overlaps’ rather than monistic categories. The discussion also ignited arguments about resistance to class power relations being sabotaged by exclusive forms of ‘identity’ politics.

The panel on literature and culture was led by Ann Heilmann, Professor of English at the University of Hull. She spoke about first-wave, second-wave, and third-wave feminism, and how each has adapted essentialist discourses used against women to contest essentialist ideas. With reference to first-wave feminism Professor Heilmann discussed three essentialising discourses of the mid- to late-Victorian period. During the 1860s, cultural philosophers such as John Ruskin suggested that women should be confined to the home, with an attendant lack of citizenship rights, because they had been created as helpmates and spiritual guardians. In the 1870s, psychiatrist Henry Maudsley argued that all female education had to be geared to the child-bearing function. If women’s energy was drained away from their reproductive systems, he contended, this could lead to mental problems, infertility or problems giving birth to functional children. Children could thus be damaged if their mothers achieved a high level of education. Also in the 1870s, the doctor William Acton asserted that the perfect wife and mother felt repelled by sex, but was willing to sacrifice herself for her husband’s happiness and health, and for the sake of her prospective children. Professor Heilmann considered how New Woman fiction writers responded to these discourses by essentialising the character of the husband-doctor who prescribes the rest cure for his wife in order to limit her intellectual activity. She cited Mona Caird as a rare example of an anti-essentialist first-wave feminist, who drew attention to the cultural and social aspects of motherhood as opposed to the instinctual, thus anticipating aspects of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s.

Professor Heilmann went on to discuss the anti-essentialist stance of many second-wave feminists, who argued that individuals were socialised from an early age into artificial gender roles. She concluded by considering the politics of ‘choice’ of third-wave or post-feminism from the 1990s onwards, with choice being narrowly interpreted as female sexual self-objectification. She asked how freely women actually choose to participate in and gain pleasure from pornography, engage in pole and lap dancing, or supplement their PhD studies with prostitution, provoking lively debate during the question session which followed.

The final panel of the day returned to questions of biology, this time from a sociological perspective. Professor of Sociology and co-director of Egenis at the University of Exeter, Barry Barnes, contemplated the important role that essentialism has played in scientific research and achievement. Professor Barnes considered the constant interaction of the essential and the empirical in science. The important question, he argued, is: how is essentialism used? He observed that there is nothing inherently wrong with essentialism – its effects are always the effects of people using it. Sometimes this is to the great benefit of cultures and sometimes it is very harmful. Hilary Rose, Professor of Social Policy at Bradford University, suggested that biologists ‘read out’ the essentialism in Darwin’s ideas of radical indeterminacy. A feminist sociological approach reveals how Darwin essentialises categories of race and gender. Professor Rose ended by elaborating further on the idea that essentialism can be socially harmful or useful depending on how it is deployed or read by institutions wielding cultural authority.

During the concluding roundtable discussion the chair, Professor Regenia Gagnier of the University of Exeter, summarised questions raised by the workshop:

  • Are essentialisms irreducibly normative?
  • From an historical perspective, what are the uses of essentialism? When is it salient to talk about essentialisms and why?
  • What are the relations of identity, essence and kind to time?

Professor Gagnier also suggested some themes which merited further discussion:

  • The idea that essentialism is that which is not contestable by law.
  • The implications of essentialisms being transmitted through authority and accepted by trust.
  • The power dynamics of essentialism and how we reflect on these.

Each of the day’s speakers was then invited to offer a final thought on essentialism to the audience. David Feldman reflected on the tension between history writing’s dependence on essentialism and historians’ anti-essentialist tendencies. Chris Gill suggested that essence always needs a framework or context and that there can be good applications of essentialism – our concept of human rights being one example of this. Ann Heilmann emphasised that literature is an important tool for reflection and protest, showing how essentialism and anti-essentialism works in society. She stressed the responsibility of academics to provide positive role models for students, challenging reactionary forces in society. Hilary Rose reiterated the need for responsible uses of essentialism. Barry Barnes suggested that attribution of status is one of the key things in accounts of human essence, rather than individualistic modes of reason and rationality as is often thought. John Dupré highlighted the potential dangers of using essentialist models to account for human behaviour to the exclusion of other perspectives. Staffan Müller-Wille called for the analysis of essentialism in terms of material practices rather than discourses.

The open discussion, raising many issues for ongoing debate, ranged over definitions of essence and identity in politics, changing historical concepts of essence, the possibility of establishing the essence of essentialism in an interdisciplinary forum, ways of negotiating non-essential popular accounts of history and biology and the difference between stereotypes and essentialisms.


~ by essentialisms on July 16, 2010.

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