I kept threatening to write about essences, but never seemed to get around to it.  I’ll now put my money where my mouth is and try to say something at least semi-intelligent...


(Btw, I was going to put this in the machine consciousness discussion because that's where the inspiration came from, but it seems too off-topic, so I've decided to make a new thread.)


An essence refers to what something “is”.  This works by having a set of essential properties or qualities, which act as necessary and sufficient conditions for it to “be” that thing.   For example, I can say of a poodle that it “is” a dog.  This implies that the essential features of “dogness” (an abstract entity, so to speak) are instantiated in that particular (concrete) poodle.  I hope I’m not over-simplifying things here.  There’s a lot more that I could say that doesn’t seem all that relevant, so I’m leaving it out.


As a result of all this, I can say that cats “are not” dogs because they do not meet the necessary and sufficient conditions of “dogness”.  Note the bivalent (0 or 1; true or false; black or white) logic at play here – either something “is” that thing or it “is not” that thing.  Robert Anton Wilson wrote strongly against this kind of “either/or” logic, rightly I think (though perhaps too aggressively at times).  In any case, even if one distrusts RAW, in my opinion Wittgenstein had already effectively demonstrated years ago that there are no essences in the sense just described, and I further suggest that, taken to its logical extreme, his point also implies that we can’t use bivalent logic to describe objects without doing metaphysics.


To illustrate his anti-essentialist ideas, Wittgenstein used the example of games.  He pointed out that there is no essential description that fits all games – no fully consistent set of necessary and sufficient conditions that applies to all games.  This results in a sort of Goldilocks paradox, where any attempt at creating an essential definition either results in a standard too permissive, that lets too many things count as games, or a standard too restrictive, not letting in things that uncontroversially count as games.  For example, if we treat the quality of using balls as a necessary condition, then games that do not use balls are excluded.  If, however, we treat using balls as a sufficient condition, then anything that involves balls counts as a game.


Instead, Wittgenstein suggested that definitions function instead more like a sort of family resemblance model.  Imagine a family that has lots of tall members.  That is, most, if not all, have this quality.  Also, most, but not all, have black hair; and most, but not all, have large noses, etc.  So some might be tall and have black hair, but a normal nose; and some might be tall and have large noses, but not black hair, and so on, for all combinations.  The family resemblance, then, consists of a set of overlapping features, with no, one necessary and sufficient definition that works for everyone.


This generalises to all “objects”.  For example, a while ago, I saw a media programme about technology featuring a journalist trying to decide where computers begin and where they end.  He phrased the question as “what is a computer?”  But if there is no “computerness” essence—no essential definition of computers—then the question makes no sense.  “Is” an iPod a computer?  What about a Smartphone?  In effect, we can only say things like, “for legal purposes, that counts as a computer” or, perhaps, “I don’t consider that a computer”.


Unfortunately, these family resemblance models—nominal essences, if I can call them that—change with time and experience, according to needs or perspective, or across cultures (or subcultures... or even from individual to individual).  Wittgenstein used the rules of tennis as an example.  There is no rule stating that one can’t throw the ball 200’ in the air in order to serve.  But if someone started doing that, a new rule banning it might come into effect very quickly.  In this way, nominal essences can change; they do not have a fixed nature.  (I’ll give a real-life example shortly.)


The situation gets worse, however.  Not only do nominal essences have a fluid and imprecise nature, but we can’t even be absolutely sure we are all using words to mean the same things.  (I believe I am saying something similar to Derrida, where we can’t be totally sure that the same signs have the same referents.)  I don’t think this problem of communication need concern us too much, but it’ll take me too long to explain that point here.  Another post, perhaps.  Anyway, that example...


Kant suggested that two words with same meaning can be used synonymously.  He called this an analytic truth.  The classic example being: “All batchelors are unmarried men”.  But if the meanings of both “bachelor” and “unmarried man” refer to fluid, imprecise nominal essences, rather than rigid and fixed essences—like Platonic ideals, equally transparent to all—then we can’t really say that bachelors “are” unmarried men.  This point was made by the philosopher W.V.O. Quine.  Rigid essences don’t exist – or, perhaps more fairly, we have no right to insist that they exist.  To say that one knows the essence of something seems like bad metaphysics – an article of faith.


A concrete instance of this might help to flesh it out.  Under UK law, homosexuals cannot marry.  Therefore, using Kantian logic, if we know that George “is” gay, one could say that, by definition, George “is” a bachelor.  However, relatively recently, the law was amended to allow homosexual couples to register under “civil partnerships” (a legally recognised partnership, but not technically a marriage).  So if George “joins” with his partner under a civil partnership, “is” he still a bachelor?  One person might want to answer “yes” – a conservative, say, who wants so stick literally to the old definition, because the idea of gay relationships offends his sensibilities.  But a more liberal person might not consider George a bachelor anymore because he is in a legal partnership, which, although it might not be called a marriage by law, to that person, it still counts as a marriage in spirit.


So we can say neither that George “is” a bachelor nor that he “is not” a bachelor, because either description implies that there is a “bachelor” essence we have access to.  Really, we can only say something like “some people consider George a bachelor”.  That might sound silly to some people, but there are other ways in which using the “is of identity” results in dogmatic metaphysical proclamations.  Consider Wilber’s language (paraphrasing from memory, with italics added for emphasis: “... that is beautiful. It really is.”  But if we assume that no one knows the essence of beauty, we should instead say something like, “some people consider that beautiful”.  That adds context and forces us to admit perspective – it changes beauty from an object to a suobject.  (Or considering that socio-linguistic concepts are socially constructed, an inter-suobject.)


Another example, one that RAW used a lot: light “is” a wave and “is” a particle.  Saying instead something like “In some experimental conditions, light behaves as a wave; in other conditions, it behaves as a particle” avoids invoking the idea that we know the essence of light.  I asked a physicist friend today and he agreed with me that this sort of essence-agnostic language seems more appropriate for fundamental science.  Obviously, I know relatively little of physics myself, but it seems to me that if we treat scientific theories as just models rather than literal, metaphysical truths, then we acknowledge our own role in the perception of reality.  The world ceases to consist of “things” that we view objectively, and shifts to a more confusing (but more metaphysically honest) mass of (inter-)suobjects.


That shouldn’t be taken as license to annoy people.  I recommend a charitable reading of everyday language, e.g. we can assume that “the movie was great!” means the person liked the movie.  For metaphysically sensitive topics, however (or other things, if we feel up to the task), I suggest we drop the “is of identity” altogether.

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Tom:  In this limited context, I agree with Korzybski when he said, "Whatever you say it is, it isn't."  Saying is of anything particular limits that particular to the currently specifiable, the currently defined, which to me is offside the basic rule of relationality which implies that nothing can be defined in any final way, because to do so would absolutize that particular and engender contradiction.  A particular is a relational which by definition is non-absolute; to render it absolute is to fall into contradiction.  Relationality is in my opinion infinitely specifiable (per Godel, Nagarjuna, Derrida, etc.).

I believe this is generally the thinking behind common objections to 'essence': it absolutizes particular; it often is used to posit absolutely an 'intrinsic property' of some particular object, to finally define said object.

In your own preferred vision or frame, how would you use the word, 'essence,' in a sentence?

Hi Balder,


I believe this is generally the thinking behind common objections to 'essence': it absolutizes particular; it often is used to posit absolutely an 'intrinsic property' of some particular object, to finally define said object.


Yes, I use the word "essence" to mean something like that, a view of a "thing" as if there is no perspective involved in shaping it.


Also, I put "thing" in scare quotes because it suggests there is some ill-defined object there, something that we can interpret subjectively.  But what counts as a thing is also influenced by perspective, hence my use of "suobject" rather than "object".  Is a teapot a single object?  If we remove the lid, are there two objects?  If we then snap off the handle, are there three objects?  Then, when we put the pieces back together, is it one object again?


Plato said that language ought to carve nature at its joints.  I am saying that nature has no joints... well, not exactly, nature may have joints in-itself, but even it does, we can't know them.  So the joints that "exist", we make them... a biosocio-linguistic process of co-creation.

Rosch openly admits what her tradition espouses: in the terms of this thread, the identity with essence. There is one thing exempt from emptiness, Tathagatagarbha, awareness of and identity in (Buddha) essence. She also admits that this shentong view in not accepted by the rangton, the “earlier” Mahayana view. I have used experts before to show that this earlier view was indeed Nagarjuna's, and that the shentong was an addition of Yogacara ideas. It's the same difference with how Rosch and Lakoff use the same cognitive research, but again with this core disagreement. Recall Lakoff from PF:


“We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, 'get beyond' our categories and have purely uncategorized and nonconceptual experience. Neural beings cannot do that” (18).


Now I've also made arguments that we can allow the nonconceptual and the absolute, but it depends on how we define them. Yes, define, like with the polydoxers doing so in a non-essential and non-identifying way. And they tend to do so with an emphasis on the “compliments” as not completely different nor completely the same, both absolute and relative informing each other. So while there is no “purely” nonconceptual there is also no “purely” conceptual, for it requires the implication of that groundless ground (khora) like we've seen in Derrida. Whereas the more metaphysical notion is where they are extreme and completely different poles of different and pure kinds altogether, contradictions, with one being enlightenment and the other illusion though in some kind of relation nevertheless, generally nested hierarchies with said synthesis.

"There is no escape from metaphysics." --Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc. (1988) (Also see Desilet's comments on this.)

"Metaphysics is a fancy name for our concern for what is real....we are all metaphysicians" (9-10). Metaphysics in philosophy is, of course, supposed to characterize what is real--literally real. The irony is that such a conception of the real depends on unconscious metaphors" (14). --Lakoff & Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999).

Perhaps also see Desilet's "Physics and Language," which discusses physics including QM (starting on p. 348). For example:

"As both the one and the many, the continuum does not require, and in fact precludes, a thorough merging of opposites. Where there is a tendency to see unity as fundamental the continuum asserts that difference is equiprimordial with unity. Oddly enough...[this is] consistent with descriptions Derrida gives for the term differance" (349).

Hi Theurji,


"Metaphysics is a fancy name for our concern for what is real....we are all metaphysicians" (9-10). Metaphysics in philosophy is, of course, supposed to characterize what is real--literally real. The irony is that such a conception of the real depends on unconscious metaphors" (14). --Lakoff & Johnson,Philosophy in the Flesh (1999).


Thanks to your frequent reminders of embodiment, I now prefer to say that suobjects are (co-)constructed by a process of "biosocio-linguistic" enculturation, rather than just "socio-linguistic".  That seems more accurate, but it also feels a bit... unwieldy.  You have a knack for coming up with new terms.  How about just "bio-social"?  Or... ?


Tom:  For me, essence is indefinable, and as indefinable is absolute.


Korzybski: Whatever you say it is, it isn't.

How about just "bio-social"?  Or... ?

'Embodied' is a good term because it refers to all types of bodies, from the bio to the social to the cultural and the hermeneutic. It's one reason L&J call it embodied realism, since there is a 'real' but it requires a body of some kind (but not any particular kind). In kennilingus the body is not at the lowest end of the spectrum but co-arises with an inside (of some kind but not any particular kind) at every level. The word 'suobject' (or intersobject) is all of that, and more (or less), no explanation required.

More from “Physics and language” (my comments in brackets):

“Iterability….says that the word [and reality, for that matter]…is split: it both is and is not what it is…[it] contradicts the Aristotelian law of noncontradiction…. Iterability everywhere effects a decentering of what would pose as a center. Nevertheless interability…turns out to be a kind of center…[which] consists of the revelation that there can be no center. In…displacement a new way of thinking replaces the old while serving a similar, but not the same, function. Since it harbors duplicity this new ‘center’ does not so much provide a basis for knowledge as a means for understanding the limits of knowledge…. It becomes, like matter in quantum theory, a superposition. With respect to exactly what it is it is undecidable until it emerges in a specific contextualization…. Even then it does not present itself as a totality; like subatomic quanta it offers only a perspectival glimpse of itself and then recedes again into multiplicity until the next [measurement]…. The quasi-transcendental* displaces the transcendental. Postmodern theory thereby ‘situates’ the…absolute and transcendental concepts [and reality, for that matter]” (350 – 51).

* Akin in many respects to Quasimodo.

It's coming!  This is a busy week for me (I'm in the midst of grading 65 final research papers! Grades are due this weekend...)

Briefly, we're doing it right now: a core focus of metaphysics has been investigation of topics such as essence, substance, absolute.  Post-metaphysics is not anti-metaphysics (no essence! no absolute! whatsoever!) but a reimagining, a new epistemological understanding of, and approach to, some of these categories -- one which no longer privileges, for instance, theory (or, say, Rationalist metaphysics) over practice as the 'way' to identify what is fundamental or 'essential.'

In Wilber's hands, this in part requires those who would make assertions about classically metaphysical topics -- God, essence, substance -- to 'kosmically address' such statements, to make explicit the performative 'context' in which such a claim is being made.  But it in no way forbids folks from making them.

Regarding my last post to you (setting your statement alongside Korzybski's), yes, you may be right that I'm putting the cart before the horse.  You've done more of the 'language yoga' -- at least in this particular area -- than I have, and I'm open to learning from you if there's something I'm not seeing.  But Ed's recent post by Desilet gets at what I was going to pursue with you regarding your statement about essence.  In declaring essence absolute, I wondered about whether that amounts to erecting an idol in the field of language.  I wondered about your claim that essence is undefinable -- by which I took you to mean, not finally definable, since it obviously does have a dictionary definition and a philosophical meaning, and since describing it as absolutely and fundamentally undefinable -- without any possible definition whatsoever -- would be incoherent.  But it seems no word is finally definable; all words bleed into the tacit.  So, I wondered what is accomplished by setting 'essence' apart in this way ('set apart' being one of the etymological meanings of absolute)

Balder: "In declaring essence absolute...by setting 'essence' apart in this way...I wondered about whether that amounts to erecting an idol in the field of language."

Desilet: It "turn out to be a kind of center" but "even then it does not present itself as a totality." [I.e. metaphysics of a differant sort: postmetaphysics]

Which is a version of the very two truths debate often referenced, with Rosch being our latest representative within an admitted shentong position. I know you've argued Balder that Dzogchen, for example, does not slip into eternalism or essentialism with their language. But even Rosch admits that there is certainly an ongoing debate about it within the Tibetan tradition along the lines she draws. And that this appears to be the same, or at least similar, issue we're discussing with Tom?

Sorry for all the quotes but Desilet’s referenced article is quite good, for me. Another snippet:

“Contexts are not absolute, [they] are in motion and continually changing within an infinite, changing net…. The reality that emerges though particular contexts is not objective reality in any traditional sense of the word. Reality as a superposition does not conform to the idea of objectness or thingness. This way of thinking places it in a conceptual category for which adequate metaphors are difficult to find—thereby necessitating terms such as ‘continuum’ or ‘differance,’ ‘superposition’ etc.

“Yet the contextualization that limits interpretation does not function with the closure of totalization; its boundary remains open. This lack of closure entrails, paradoxically, that reality both is and is not what it is interpreted to be. It is, at one level, what is interpreted to be but also always exceeds, at another level, what it is interpreted to be. This ‘exceeding’ means that at every point of capture reality escapes calculation and thereby admits construction” (352).

I like the word ‘continuum,’ for it reminds me of the character Q from Star Trek, a member of the Continuum. (A part in an infinite net... I hear Indra's siren call, barely audible, but can't make out the words...)

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