The Varieties of Essentialism

The term “essence” gets brought up quite frequently in metaphysics. Whether or not things have essences is a question that plays a role in many debates about the nature of the world. In this post, I’ll briefly sketch a taxonomy to help make sense of the varieties of essentialism.While taxonomy for the sake of it seems pretty pointless, being able to survey the conceptual landscape in which various philosophical debates take place does seem pretty useful. So, with that in mind, let’s continue to the taxonomy.

There are two distinct kinds of essentialism that are discussed in metaphysics: Kind-Essentialism and Individual-Essentialism.

Kind-Essentialism (KE) can be understood as a view about kind-membership. Kinds are categories that extend over various things that share certain properties in common. A kind-essence would be a property that determines kind-membership (Witt 5). An example of KE in metaphysics is the idea of natural kinds. Natural kinds can be thought of as categories under which fundamental structures in the natural world fall [1]. An example of a natural kind is water, whose molecular structure is H2O. Being composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom is what determines if something is water. In other words, the kind-essence of water is being composed of H2O.

The notion of a natural kind is relevant to discussions about scientific realism and whether or not the categories we employ to explain the natural world reflect some underlying, independent reality. KE also features in debates about gender and political action, among other things. For example, some have argued that there must be an essence of womanhood or else women would not be able to engage in political action. The thought is that all women must share something in common by virtue of which they are a unified group with political interests [2].

Individual-Essentialism (IE) is a thesis about what makes a particular individual that individual. An individual-essence is a property that either answers fundamental, “what is it?” questions, or an individual has by necessity (Witt 5). IE breaks down into two subcategories that answer fundamentally different questions about individuals. The first subcategory is called Identity-Essentialism (IE2). Questions of which conditions are necessary and sufficient for some concrete particular to be that particular and not some other fall within the scope of this kind of essentialism. For example, what makes a particular house that house could be the building materials out of which it is constituted. If it had been built from different materials, then it would’ve been a different house. So, the identity-essence of that house is the building materials out of which it originated (Witt 6).

IE2 plays a role in Kripke’s discussion of names. The individual-essence of Socrates was the biological material out of which he was constituted, and the name “Socrates” refers to the individual constituted by that material, according to Kripke [3]. His theory is in contrast to descriptivist theories that eschew questions of the individual-essence of a concrete particular [4].

The second subcategory, called “Uniessentialism,” (UE) answers the question of what unifies and organizes something such that there is a new individual over and above the parts [5]. In other words, what makes a whole more than the sum of its parts. One example is the “uniessence” of a house, which can be seen as distinct from a pile of building materials by the way its parts are organized and structured to provide shelter for people (Witt 6). The uniessence of some individual is its organizing, unifying principle. That unifying principle for a house is its shelter providing function. UE is different than IE2 by virtue of the fact that the building materials constituting any particular house are irrelevant to the unifying feature of the house, which is its function as a shelter for people. Another way to see how they are distinct is by noting that Identity-Essentialism presupposes an individual that exists and asks what that individual must have by necessity, whereas UE asks what an individual must have to exist over and above its parts.

A harder question is what makes UE distinct from KE. It seems as though the shelter providing function of a house is also what determines whether or not something qualifies for membership in the house-kind. One way to figure out if these two theses are identical is to see if they ask the same questions. An example from Charlotte Witt is a biological organism (Witt 12). Two distinct questions can be asked about biological organisms that are respectively answered by UE and KE. The first question is what unifies an organism such that it is not merely a sum of individual parts. The functional organization of the parts can be provided as an answer to the first question, and that’s exactly what UE provides. The second question is whether or not we should group organisms into species, and if that classificatory scheme reflects some actual structure of the world (Witt 12). An answer to the second question would not be provided by an account of what unifies a particular organism such that it is more than a mere sum of its parts. So, the two theses answer distinct questions about the same thing. UE cannot provide sufficient answers to questions about organisms that KE can, and vice versa.

To sum up, we have three sorts of essentialism that answer distinct questions about the nature of things in the world. Kind-Essentialism has to do with grouping things into kinds that have properties they share in common. Individual-Essentialism breaks down into Identity-Essentialism and Uniessentialism. Identity-Essentialism asks questions about what makes a particular individual that individual. Uniessentialism, on the other hand, seeks a unifying principle that makes an individual more than the mere sum of its parts. With this taxonomy in mind, it should become easier to assess various forms of essentialism. Understanding which questions are being answered by different forms of essentialism will help one evaluate theses in which the term plays a role.


[1]. Having causal powers or the ability to enter into causal relations are typical conditions for natural kind membership, although they may not be sufficient. Nautral kinds may also be thought of as universals that are exemplified by certain fundamental structures that enable particulars to enter into causal relations or have causal powers.

[2]. This argument won’t be thoroughly assessed in this post, but suffice it to say that there can be a family resemblance among women rather than a shared essence, and smaller subgroups of women such as trans women and women of color (not mutually exclusive categories) can engage in political action based on the various injustices they face as subordinated groups. Political action, then, does not require some essence of womanhood, but instead can be rooted in a desire to end various injustices against particular subordinated groups. There may not be any property that all women have in common, but that does not prevent unified political action by various groups of women.

[3]. The reference is fixed by some act of “baptising” the individual with the name, usually by the parents.

[4]. Descriptivists believe that a name refers to an individual by virtue of that individual fitting a definite description. So, “Socrates” refers to, for example, “the protagonist of The Crito,” according to a descriptive theory of names. The protagonist found in The Crito could be constituted by different biological material than Socrates was, and therefore the name “Socrates” would refer to some other individual.

[5]. “Uniessentialism” is Charlott Witt’s neologism for what she sees as a separate category of essentialism that is overlooked or conflated with other kinds of essentialism.

Works Cited:

Witt, Charlotte. The Metaphysics of Gender. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.