Vacuity of Essentialism?—S.N.Balagangadhara

[For more on the postcolonial diet called essentialism, check this paper]

I have had difficulties in understanding the use and meaning of some words, especially ‘essentialism’ and its cognates. Here are some uses of “essentialism” I am familiar with.

  1. One uses ‘essences’ to designate some basic or fundamental or determining properties of an object, as in: “Water is essentially H2O”. Here the claim is that some liquid is water if and only if it has the chemical structure of containing two molecules of Hydrogen and one molecule of Oxygen for every single molecule of the liquid in question.
  2. One uses ‘essences’ in order to understand counterfactual sentences involving proper nouns, as in: “If I were George Bush, I would not have gone to war with Iraq”. This sentence is a counterfactual because it begins by assuming a non-fact (I am Balu and not George Bush); picks out a state of affairs where this is true (a possible world where ‘Balu’ IS ‘George Bush’) and makes a (true or false) statement about this (I might or might not have gone to war with Iraq). Many historical claims (and many scientific laws) have the form of counterfactual statements. Here ‘essence’ is predicated to Balu (something like “baluhood”) so that Balu remains Balu even if he were to become ‘George Bush’ in some possible world.
  3. One uses ‘essences’ to solve the problem of providing references to proper names, as in “Socrates was not a teacher of Plato”. In many cases, we identify Socrates as that person who has the property of ‘being a teacher of Plato’. If it transpires that such is not the case, we will still not be in doubt about the identity of Socrates because, much like the previous case, it speaks about some ‘essential property’ of Socrates by virtue of which he remains the same person even when he does not have some or another accidental or contingent property.
  4. One uses ‘essences’ while solving the puzzle of identity, as in “This is me, a photograph taken when I was three years old”. Here, ‘me, when I was three years old’, ‘me in America during the 1990 AAR conference’ etc. become spatio-temporal slices of an ‘I’. The ‘I’ has indefinitely many spatio-temporal slices and these are all slices of one and the same ‘I’. The idea is that one does not become someone else other than who one is because of the spatio-temporal career of ‘oneself’.

Even though there are many discussions about each of these uses, there is nothing wrong or illegitimate about using the word ‘essence’ or indeed to “talk in an essentializing way”. Quite obviously, the ‘subaltern’ historiographers could not mean ‘essentialism’ in any of the above senses, because they suggest that essentialism is something to avoid. I know of one such use of the word in Said’s “Orientalism”, where he suggests that to correlate climatic conditions with the psychology or culture of a people (something that often happened in the eighteenth nineteenth centuries) is to commit the sin of essentialism. Clearly, this is not the kind of essentialism that is at issue here.

So, when someone says that ‘one should not treat religion in an essentializing way’ or that “religion … need not be essentializing” or wants to “account for religion in a nonessentializing way” and so on, I am totally lost. Could someone please explain what “essentialism” is and why it is wrong to speak of “essences”? In the absence of some such exposé and defence (neither of which is present in the subaltern studies), I am afraid, all this talk of ‘essentialism’ would become jargon and humbug, and merely a stick to beat the others with.

  1. Essentialism is a philosophical theory about the furniture of the world. In so far as one uses ‘essentialism’ as a term, one uses it the way it is embedded in some theory or another. To rip it out of its contexts, give it arbitrary meanings, and use it as a ‘catch-all’ term is intellectually unacceptable. Surely, that is the problem with the post-colonial and subaltern writers. Not one of them has ever identified the philosophical theory of essentialism they disagree with; most do not appear to know whether ‘nominalism’, ‘realism’, or ‘constructivism’ forms its contrast set.
  2.  It is not even clear whether the ‘essentialism’ they oppose has to do with language or the world. A statement that is trivially true when taken to be about the world is semantic nonsense, if used as a claim about language use. Consider the following example: “There exists no religion but only many religions”. (I am sure we can think of many such examples.) If the claim is about the world, then it is trivially true: no scholar has ever claimed that there is an entity in the world called ‘religion’ that exists alongside such phenomena as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and so on. However, this statement becomes semantic nonsense if one suggests that the use of the ‘category’ of religion, therefore, is ‘essentialistic’. If Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc. are ‘religions’, they are that is only because they ‘belong’ to the category of religion. (In simpler terms, each of them belongs to the set ‘religion’.) The same consideration applies to the ‘plural forms’ of these religions. One hears it often said that there is no ‘Christianity’ but only ‘Christianities’ or that there is no ‘Islam’ but only ‘Islams’ and such like. While trivially true, one does not seem to realize that this is possible only because of the set ‘Christianity’ and the set ‘Islam’.
  3.  Consider the opposite case where theses about language are confused with theses about the world. No intellectual worthy of his/her name (this applies even to the extreme forms of ‘idealism’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) has ever claimed that ‘meanings’ are not socially constructed. I mean to say, no one has ever suggested that human languages are not human constructs or that the meanings of the words in these languages are not socially constructed. No biologist has ever identified a gene in us that provides us with the meaning of the English word, say, ‘essentialism’, nor do the biologists waste their time in pursuing such silly tasks. [Every building, every institution, every literary product, every artifact, etc that human beings have produced has been a human construction. Not even the most rabid sociobiologist (in its zenith) has claimed to the contrary.] From this, of course, it does not follow that the world is a human construct or that the existence of things in the world are dependent on their ‘meanings’ for us human beings. Such a thesis is trivially false.
  4.  Spivak’s ‘strategic essentialism’ is an excellent illustration of how not to talk about things you do not understand. Even a vague familiarity with the history of philosophy teaches one that there could be a ‘strategic’ or ‘tactical’ use of some or another theory of essentialism without subscribing to that ontology. In fact, ‘instrumentalism’ (a philosophical school that claims that scientific concepts do not refer but they are merely useful devices in prediction and control) has a celebrated career in the history of philosophy. By speaking about ‘strategic essentialism’ as some kind of a philosophical theory that Guha ‘invents’ (?), Spivak is not even reinventing the wheel; she merely wants us to discard it altogether without telling us why except hinting that it is a ‘sin’.

What is the essentialism that the subaltern historiographers and postcolonial writers oppose? What is wrong with that variety of essentialism?

For more on illiterate criticisms like essentialism, etc, check Balagangadhara’s Reconceptualizing India Studies, published by OUP, India and this paper.