More on antiessentialism
on that crowd-pleasing topic, “essentialism.” Many claim that Islam and the West can’t be in conflict
because there is no “Islam”—just many Islams. If you say something bad about feminism the complaint will be called unfounded
because after all there are many feminisms. And if you present some grand theory of liberalism from John Locke to John Rawls
you’ll be told that there are multiple liberalisms with nothing substantive in common. After all, they will say, John Locke
liked property and John Rawls likes socialism, so what can the one have to do with the other?
All those responses have something to be said for them, but they miss the point.
The great conquering religions and
ideologies are not simply shifting collections of materials thrown together and called by one name because of various historical
accidents. The reason their adherents are able to recognize each other, draw together, struggle, endure and prevail is that
behind each of them there is some fundamental turn of thought with implications for the whole of life. In the case of Islam it
is the transcendence and uniqueness of God and the finality of the message delivered by Mohamet. In the case of feminism it is
the radical evil of defining women by reference to men. And in the case of liberalism it is the injustice of imposing substantive
goals some might reject as the purpose of social order. In each case the fundamental commitment rests on something yet more
fundamental that is deeply engrained in the society as a whole. In the case of liberalism and feminism, for example, it is the
critical, skeptical and antitranscendental tendency of modern thought from at least the 17th century on.
Such fundamental commitments manifest themselves in various ways, so there are indeed various Islams, feminisms and
liberalisms. But they have logical implications too, which make it legitimate and sometimes useful to reason about the nature
and implications of Islam, feminism and liberalism as such. Fundamental commitments make it possible to speak of
the innate tendencies of each and to speculate meaningfully about the direction each will take under given circumstances, for
example to predict that in times of failure and stress Islam will tend toward fundamentalist reform, that in an age of many
cross-currents liberalism will tend toward a sort of soft totalitarian nihilism, and that in a world of easy transport and
instant communication the two will easily come into deadly conflict.
Posted by Jim Kalb at October 18, 2002 01:02 PM | Send
Antiessentialism seems like a consequence of nominalism confronted by common sense, or perhaps it is just the tendency toward nominalism in human categories. The general tendency is to subject the truth to the human will rather than having the truth define the immovable unwilled field over which the will operates. Liberal freedom of this sort is illusory because it leaves no existing social world, which itself inherently pushes back against our will, in which to run free.
As an illustration of anti-essentialism in action (or, rather, selective anti-essentialism, since the anti-essentialists do not deny such essences as Western greed, white racism, male oppression of women, and so on), here is an exchange I had with a correspondent from Australia:
In light of what you said about the upcoming war and your comment that you’re more afraid of the U.S. government than you are of Hussein, I was wondering what you think about the terrorist mass murder of at least 182 people, mostly young Australians, in Bali.
Why do you think this happened? And what do you think ought to be done about it?
The correspondent replied:
Dear Mr Auster,
Like all Australians and indeed all decent people in the world I was shocked and horrified by the bombing in Bali and I grieve with all the families affected. I live near a small town (pop. 2500) and know just how devastating the loss of even one young person in a car accident is. To think that some smallish towns lost four or five young people is heart-breaking.
Why did it happen? The immediate answer is “terrorists” but the truth is nobody knows who did it or why. It’s interesting to speculate why nobody claims responsibility for terrorist acts any more. It sort of defeats the purpose, don’t you think?
What ought to be done? The obvious answer is to find the murderers and bring them to justice.
To which I replied:
As to why it happened, you profess to have no idea, which suggests that you have no notion that are there organized groups in existence that INTEND to do acts like this and INTEND to do more of them. Apparently you regard this mass murder as a random act, no more significant than a mugging in a park.
As for your suggestion to “bring the murderers to justice,” what if the murderers are part of a world-wide organization consisting of 50,000 trained terrorists operating in scores of countries whose intention it is to kill as many people as possible through the largest bombs possible and so wreak havoc on Western and non-Islamist countries and bring them to their knees? Do you think that treating this as a criminal matter, simply arresting and trying individual perpetrators, will be a sufficient response?
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Notice my correspondent’s anti-essentialist assumptions. She has “no idea” of why it happened, and the act was just the act of “criminals” who should be brought to justice. In other words, there is no ENTITY out there that deliberately caused this and is showing its desire to hurt Australians. If there are no entities, but only random phenomena, one is not required to come to any conclusions about what has happened or what to do about it.
As Samuel Johnson said, to think reasonably is to think morally. Anti-essentialism makes it impossible to do either.
However, it occurs to me that anti-essentialism is not, at least in many cases, the real problem. Anti-essentialism is a device, similar to ad hominem arguments and other rhetorical weapons, that people employ in order to deny the reality of some fact or the legitimacy of some point of view that they don’t like and don’t want to have to deal with rationally. The instrumental basis of anti-essentialism is suggested by the fact that it is always used selectively.