What is an essence? When do we and when should we attribute essences to natural and social kinds? For instance, what does it mean to say that there is an essence of being a human being, or of being a woman, or of being a sports fan? When are we justified in making claims about essences, i.e. how can we know about essences? If the category at issue is of social and political importance, essentialist claims are naturally contested not only within academic discourses, but also in the arena of political and social discourse and activism. It matters academically and socially how we think about essences since essentialism can support social stereotypes, and, on the basis of that, othering, discrimination, exclusion, hatred, etc. At the same time, essentialism has certain cognitive functions and can have positive psychological effects too (e.g. for identity maintenance) as well as social effects (e.g. in preventing discrimination and stigmatization).
In this course, we will not directly engage with the growing literature on positive and negative social consequences of essentialism about human kinds, even though we will discuss the suggestion of ‘strategic essentialism’ for defending human rights. The aim of the course is rather to train students in the philosophical foundations of the various debates about essentialism that one finds in the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities, in order to enable them to use these foundations in a systematic manner in debates about social consequences of essentialism.