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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Hi Theurji,


In that thread, you ask rhetorically, “So if there is no completely objective universal reason then is reason just relative?”


If I may be allowed to answer your pertinent, rhetorical question...


Yes, we must consider reason relative.  But we can distinguish between two types of relativism: meta-relativism and normative relativism.


Meta-relativism just argues that we have no “completely objective universal reason” – no privileged point of access free from the filters of perspective... no God’s eye point-of-view... no logocentric way of knowing the essences of things.


Normative relativism agrees with all that, but goes one step further.  It says that, because we have no logocentric access to The Truth, we have no choice but to consider all opinions equally valid.


Normative relativism does indeed contradict itself and IMO rightly deserves the sorts of ridicule Wilber and others heap on it.  However, if normative relativism is mistaken for meta-relativism, then such criticisms risk turning into those dreaded straw-man attacks that we know so well, and the meta baby gets thrown out with the normative bathwater.


In other words, any developmental theory has to make at least some unprovable assumptions, but I don’t consider that a serious problem – it’s not as if we have an alternative, anyway.  So long as we recognise that our ideas only seem true, we can avoid essences (mostly).  I think we agree on that.  Please tell me if you see a problem with it.


In that respect, I treat SD-type models as useful, but not as metaphysically true.  And in any case, I don’t cling to them.  If I find something that seems better, I’ll happily switch.


Anyway, I’m starting to feel tired so I’ll return to this later.

From The Embodied Mind (MIT Press, 1999) by Varela et al., p. 176:


“Piaget...never seems to have doubted the existence of a pregiven world and an independent knower with a pregiven logical endopoint for cognitive development. The laws of cognitive development, even at the sensorimotor stage, are as assimilation of and accommodation to that pregiven world.”


Thereafter they launch into a discussion of Rosch and prototype theory*, as well as L&J and image schemas, all reflective of my discussion in real/false reason on the difference between categories as seen by the metaphysicians like Piaget (and his offspring, Commons et al) and the postmetaphysical embodied realists.


* See for example Rosch's “Prototype classification and logical classification” in Challenges to Piaget's Theory (Psychology Press, 1983).

It is interesting to note that in the classical, metaphysical notions of nested hierarchical development the lowest level is obviously the first learned, with subsequent levels thereafter transcending and including their predecessors. But this empirical study showed that children learn basic categories first, which are in the middle of the hierarchy. They learn superordinate (more general or abstract) categories next, and subordinate (more specific or concrete) categories last. Implications?

From the SEP entry on The Philosophy of Childhood:

“This finding [prototype studies] seems to have implications for the proper role and importance of conceptual analysis in philosophy. It is also a case in which we should let what we come to know about cognitive development in children help shape our epistemology, rather than counting on our antecedently formulated epistemology to shape our conception of cognitive development in children.”

Taking a tangential turn within I note that Rosch is (like Varela was) a practicing Buddhist. Or at least a meditator using Buddhist practices. Her home page at UC Berkeley has a link to her works, including this in press paper, "Beginners mind: paths to the wisdom that is not learned." An excerpt:

"What is meant by beginner’s mind? William James speaks of 'that which is seen as most primal and enveloping and deeply true' (James, 1902, p. 34). The beginner’s mind claim, ordinary yet radical, is that we already have such basic wisdom -- the 'innate primordial wisdom in the world as it is,' the 'self revealing truth' that 'God has put into everything that exists' (see quotes above). Thus people do not need to acquire more information, more logic, more ego, and more skills to make them wise. What they need is to unlearn what they have accumulated that veils them from that wisdom. When they do this, it is believed, they find not only what they themselves really are already but what the world actually is, and, from that vantage point, they can live a good life.

"It’s time to pay attention to inner wisdom paths....these paths radically overturn how teaching and learning are imagined in the world of the outer mind. Here are some of the ways: the end-state is already present. One needs to unlearn rather than learn. All one’s concepts need to be seen through. Language is used to transmit rather than refer. The dualities and polarities we use to guide our lives such as self and other or good and bad, rather than being augmented, are to be given up in unity. One traverses a path, but, in the end all the stages are seen as one thing, and there is no path. Rather than promising ego a rose garden, the teachings are adamant that ego is not going to get anything."

Oh my! A metaphysician after all.

This is also interesting, from footnote 5:

"Here we come to a watershed in Tibetan Buddhist teachings and, in fact, in Buddhist teachings in general. Three of the four major Tibetan lineages (Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma) adhere to the shentong (other empty) interpretation of emptiness in which all things are empty of other than wisdom. Put another way, things are empty of self nature but filled with wisdom (filled with the essence). Put in a yet more advanced way, all that things really are is wisdom essence. Historically shentong is traced from the Buddha nature (Tathagatagarbha) schools of Mahayana Buddhism. The fourth Tibetan lineage, the Gelugpa, adheres to the rangton (self empty) interpretation in which things are simply empty of self nature, a reversion to an earlier Mahayana position. There has been a good deal of conflict in Tibet over this point. Many of the parallels with Sufism that I am exploring in this chapter depend upon the shentong view because it is a view that says there is a way of knowing beyond the limits of the mind. (See Gyamtso, 1986, and Hookham, 1991 for a detailed account of this distinction.)"

The above footnote of course elucidates upon footnote 3, following:

"How can we know what is beyond the mind -- given that the senses, reason, and whatever other states of consciousness one thinks one has are part of the mind? Theistic answers make reference to God. The Vajrayana Buddhist answer is that there is an awareness that is more fundamental and more inclusive than consciousness (from a path perspective Sanskrit: vipashyana, Tibetan: lhagthong; from the more fundamental perspective of nondual awareness Sanskrit: vidya Tibetan: rig pa). This is one of the respects in which the Vajrayana sees itself as fundamentally different from the Mahayana schools (described by Shen, this volume). The Vajrayana teacher might point out (for example, Gyamtso, 1986) that all eight stages of consciousness in the Yogacara (Weishi, consciousness only) school of the Mahayana are only forms of consciousness (vijnana): i.e. six sense consciousnesses, a consciousness that turns everything into ego (the manovijnana), and a storehouse consciousness that contains one’s karmic seeds (the alayavijnana). Prescient as this may be, the Vajrayana argues it is still a description of samsara rather than a description from the fully awakened state."

Hi Theurji,


... this empirical study showed that children learn basic categories first, which are in the middle of the hierarchy. They learn superordinate (more general or abstract) categories next, and subordinate (more specific or concrete) categories last. Implications?


I think the notion here between subordinate and superordinate is somewhat arbritary.  Consider Professor Smith.  As a man, Smith is considered essentially male but accidently a professor (he could change career and still "be" a man).  As a professor though, Smith is considered essentially a tenured university teacher and only accidently male (professors can "be" either men or women).  So is Professor Smith essential a man or a professor?  Literally, neither -- essences don't exist.  Practically, it depends on our perspective -- the "essence" works as a hopefully useful (and sometimes misleading) socio-linguistic term.


In that study, for example, a rocking chair was considered a higher level category, from chair -- in turn a higher level category, from furniture.  But we could also have a hierarchy that went material -> wood -> wooden chair.  It seems, once again, to depend on our perspective.  Apparently, the "chair" is a suobject, not an object with a fixed, Platonic essence that we passively observe.


So I suppose SD doesn't describe essences of people.  I think you're right to point that out.  But just as we can chose to categorise a chair as either a type of furniture or a wooden (su)object, without assuming that hierarchy is anything other than a model (as opposed to a literal metaphysical truth), we can presumably do the same with SD.  I for one find it immensely useful in my life, so it seems pointless to give it up.

Also see Rosch's “Reclaiming concepts.” Excerpts:

The world as perceived or categorized is, to echo Skarda's (this volume) terminology, a seamless whole or seamless web, in which perceiver/categorizer and perceived /categorized are simply opposite poles of the same event. In consciousness, those poles appear to be divided into actual separate things. The first function of concepts is to reconnect those opposite poles into functioning, even if still apparently separate, units. Looked at this way, concepts are partially recovering a state which is more veridical, and thus potentially more scientific, than the way we normally look at the world.

Since the subjective and objective aspects of concepts and categories arise together as different poles of the same act of cognition and are part of the same informational field, they are already joined at their inception. They do not need to be further joined by a representational theory of mind, such as that of working cognitivism, and they cannot be separated by the solipsistic representational theory of mind of strict cognitivism. Concepts and categories do not represent the world in the mind; they are a participating part of the mind-world whole of which the sense of mind (of having a mind that is seeing or thinking) is one pole, and the objects of mind (such as visible objects, sounds, thoughts, emotions, and so on) are the other pole.

No matter how abstract and universal a concept may appear to be (square root, for example), that concept actually occurs only in specific, concrete situations. Real situations are information rich complete events... Situations/contexts are mind-world bonded parts of entire forms of life. Concepts only occur as part of a web of meaning provided both by other concepts and by interrelated life activities…. That is because concepts (and the rest of human mentation) are not per se abstractly informative; they are participatory.

What a thing is is already pre-given as part of the total mind-world situation in which it occurs. The basic function of concepts is not to identify things (just as it isn't to represent)…rather concepts participate in situations in innumerable flexible ways. Much experimental research on concepts and categories, and certainly most models, assume that what is to be explained, disputed, or modeled is the identification function. To be sure, we can participate in specialized identification activities (such as taking a botany exam, playing twenty questions, or being a subject in a concept learning experiment) but these are better considered as particular language games (as in Wittgenstein, 1953) then as the prototypical conceptual activity.

Concepts only exist against a non-conceptual background. We could not even think to talk about concepts and conceptualization without some contrast of what they are not. All systems, other than cognitivism, have some way of admitting and at least trying to approach the non-conceptual. Some examples: knowing how versus knowing that, Heidegger's Background of habits and practices, private experience with its so-called qualia, body based knowing, Searle's ceterus paribus, intuitions, experiences of all the arts, and ineffable experiences in love, grief, doing mathematics, religions, and everything else. But in cognitivism, it's concepts all the way down! -- there is no way that a cognitivist system can deal with the non-conceptual. Yet it is in just those experiences that people find meaning and integrity in their lives. In cognitivism such things must be relegated to a separate sphere where they are either denied to exist or put fundamentally beyond the reach of cognitive science. In the new view proposed here, the non-conceptual is inherently part of mind-world situations, perhaps of every situation. No science of human existence can afford to straight facedly exclude what is most meaningful to people.

Tom:  And yes, post-causal is a negating position so speaks in the language or ethos of cause.  Bohrian qm is a classical negating mode: non-causal, non-temporal, non-spatial, non-conceptual, non-mechanical, non-visualizable.  The way I see this development, qm negates conceptual assumptions of classical physics (that's the move from tier 1 to tier 2---tier-1 negating), but also negates green's negation so at the same time returns to a positing (thing-like) mode.  Quantum is to me wave-background, particle-foreground, but its particle-positing is not the particle of Newtonian thing-mechanics.  It is, as I see it, an ensubtlation of Newton's thing universe.  No more objects-out-there floating apart from subject.  Object-subject collapse, a negating move.

I do not see this as stating anything significantly different from the view I hold, which is what I have described (following Wilber) as "integral postmetaphysics."  Integral postmetaphysics, as I understand it, negates assumptions of 'classical metaphysics' -- thing-thinking, the philosophy of consciousness, myth of the given, etc -- while also negating the 'flat' relativism of Green. 

Tom:  No, in your worldframe, from what I can glean, post means other-than, after that old age called the age of metaphysics, after that dead bird.

As I have stated multiple times on this forum, including back on the Gaia version of this site, I see postmetaphysics indeed as a development beyond 'metaphysics' when metaphysics is understood as a particular ensemble of epistemological and ontological assumptions (such as I listed above, or in my FB post to Bonnitta this morning); but I see it as a critical, refined form of metaphysics if you understand metaphysics broadly as an engagement with ontological questions.  From an integral postmetaphysical perspective, epistemology and ontology are inseparable in any actual occasion (to use Whiteheadian language, as Wilber does in the Excerpts).

Tom:  Contradiction is for me metaphysical.

Meta-physical, yes.  Not necessarily 'metaphysical' in the specialized sense I indicated above. 

Concerning questions of essence (and other related notions, such as causality, ontology, etc), here is an interesting and possibly relevant essay I've referenced before, both here at Ning and back on Gaia as well: Ontology, Matter, and Emergence.


I made a number of positive statements in my previous post, including regarding my understanding of the 'metaphysics' that postmetaphysics negates (e.g., a particular ensemble of epistemological and ontological assumptions).  But if you want further clarification, I'll write a fuller definition (and may post it on another thread).  I do think it's important to get clear about this, because I feel we've been using somewhat definitions of the term, as I've noted before, and have been talking past each other for awhile.

I have no qualms with Rosch’s descriptions on nonconceptuality or the rest, except for what she herself points out in “beginner’s mind” as the “innate primordial wisdom in the world as it is.” Which of course she identifies with the shentong view, and with which there “has been a good deal of conflict in Tibet over this point” between the rantong view. The latter view also seems to agree with all of the other points she makes, as does the L&J view, except that L&J might also disagree on this one point as would their pragmatic forbears like Mead. (James though would likely be on the shentong side.) As I said, same old argument over this sticky point.

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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