There is much confusion in the world as a result of our friends, the philosophical idealists, and their one-sided views of reality.
For instance, there is the notion that if one observes a pattern of behaviour and remarks on it, one is guilty of “essentialising”.
The concept of “essentialising” derives from philosophy. Its meaning is not primarily an ethical one, designed to sound censorious, but has to do with epistemology (the study of knowledge). To “essentialise” any object is to imply that this object has immutable, inherent qualities by virtue of which it acquires its definition.
The three paragraphs I have written above rely upon a certain degree of ‘essentialism’ for their meaning. In order to convey my knowledge, I must assume that the words I am using retain their meaning, despite the fact that everything around us is constantly changing. If the words lose their essential meaning –that is, if they lose their capacity to “essentialise” — they will not convey anything at all. As shamanistic persons have pointed out, having the capacity to communicate is predicated upon the necessity of seeing the world as simpler than it is.
A certain amount of ‘essentialism’ is, therefore, a necessary and inevitable part of any form of verbal or written communication (emotional communication and communication by gesture are other issues). Yet, it is important to consider that language itself, although inclining us towards essentialising, need not be an entirely blunt instrument. If we consider that ‘essentialism’ makes the world seem simpler than it is, we can also recognise that we have a certain amount of choice as to the degree to which we simplify.
The reason that language generalises is that it is useful to the human mind to recognise general patterns. Pattern recognition is related to what philosophers call “inductive logic” — and this is necessary for us to be able to plan our lives on the basis of having more or less reliable knowledge. (Inductive knowledge is not as reliable as ‘deductive’ knowledge, but it is still the most practical form of knowledge there is.) Pattern recognition means that if we see some person behaving in a particular way in the past, we reason that they are likely to behave in a similar way in the future. This form of pattern recognition can relate to groups of people, who may have particular external features, by which they are easily viewed as the same “type”.
To make an observation that certain “types” quite often behave in a certain way is a fundamental act of the healthy human brain. The act of putting something into language itself implies an act of ‘essentialism’. All the same, the degree of essentialism will be much lesser in the case when one accepts that their statement is based upon phenomenological elements of experience, which may be subject to change. The inevitable essentialism of their statement is thereby reduced and curtailed by the recognition that reality may, at any time, prove to be broader (and more complex) than that which the statement is able to convey.
I hope I have now clarified an important point — that essentialism is inevitable, because of the nature of language, which must make reality seem more fixed and stable than it is. Also, to observe patterns in the world and to state that one observes them is not ‘essentialism’ but inductive logic at work. Only at the point that one states one’s findings in everyday language does one end up necessarily entwined with the degree of essentialism that is inherent in language itself.
The critique of ‘essentialism’ that comes from the left wing side of academia is concerned with those who do something more than just reporting their observations (which always amount to generalisations, to the degree that they involve pattern recognition). Pattern recognition is not the source of the ethical dilemma represented by ‘essentialism’. Rather, over-simplification of reality is the prime source of the ethical problem.
As it has been said, the very use of language involves an oversimplification of the world, but some people take the oversimplification of reality to much greater degrees than is inevitable on the basis of the use of language. Their oversimplifications are very extreme, indeed. This is the form of ‘essentialism’ that poses an ethical problem, because ideas start to take precedence over personal experience. In fact ideas about ‘how things are’ can become so forceful that anyone who suggests that they haven’t experienced what their “identity” is supposed to have experienced is deemed to be a liar and a traitor to The Truth.
When this happens, we are in the province of Philosophical Idealism, which is where ideas create reality — and nobody is allowed to have any particular experience that doesn’t already correspond with accepted and sanctified ideas about what is already deemed “True”. (And, what is deemed “true” are already generalisations about characteristics of a certain gender and skin colour, and so on.) This is a kind of ‘essentialism’ that is entirely avoidable.