Essentialism Regarding Natural and Social Kinds

Course Description: 

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.

Learning Outcomes: 

Students will learn how to ask and answer philosophical questions about a frequently used concept and how to integrate knowledge from other fields in doing so. The ultimate aim is to train students in analysing, criticizing and using a contested philosophical concept such as “essence”.

 

Assessment: 

Onsite: After an introductory lecture in the first week (recorded and distributed as an audio-file), meetings will normally start with a structured discussion of a predetermined set of questions related to the background reading for that week and the study material sent in addition to that (e.g. a background lecture of 10-15 min each week). 

  • Mandatory readings will be specified for each session. Access to the elearning platform of the course is required. Class attendance is mandatory. Students will have to study course readings, participate in class discussions, and practice their research skills.
  • Participation in discussions counts towards active participation and will not be graded. Students will regularly get faculty-feedback and/or peer-feedback on their weekly written contributions.
  • For each class, one or more students will take over special responsibility and do a written discussion report.
  • Certain extra tasks (counting toward active participation) will be assigned on an irregular basis, depending on case, but in particular in the last Part of the course.

 

Online: After an introductory lecture in the first week (recorded and distributed as an audio-file), students will normally have to provide each week written answers to a predetermined set of questions related to the background reading for that week and the study material sent in addition to that (e.g. a background lecture of 10-15 min each week).

  • Mandatory readings will be specified for each session. Access to the elearning platform of the course is required. Weekly online-participation is mandatory. Students will have to study course readings, reply to distributed questions, and practice their research skills. 
  • The replies (the weekly study assignment regarding the questions sent to students) count towards active participation and will not be graded. Students will regularly get faculty-feedback and/or peer-feedback on their weekly written contributions.
  • Once in the term an online student has to join for a synchronous session and report on the discussion.
  • Certain extra tasks (counting toward active participation) will be assigned on an irregular basis, depending on case, but in particular in the last Part of the course.