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Understanding Essentialism


Photo by Jean Carlo Emer on Unsplash.jpg

Essentialism assumes that people and things have natural and essential characteristics that are inherent, innate, and unchanging. In this view, entities have a set of attributes necessary to their identity and functioning, which sets them apart from other entities. Those attributes are permanent, unalterable, eternal and of a metaphysical kind. They don't need relationships to let them foster.


Four core criteria constitute essentialist thinking

  • The first is the unique causal mechanisms from essence to fulfilment.
  • The second is the assumption that an object will fulfil its predetermined course of development.
  • The third is that it does not remove its essence despite altering an object's superficial appearance. Observable changes in features of an entity are not salient enough to alter its essential characteristics.
  • The fourth suggests that entities share common features but are fundamentally different. However similar two beings maybe, their characteristics will be analogous, differing most importantly in essence.


Essentialism vs evolution theory

One of the most important things we have learned from Darwin (but some, alas, still don’t get it), is that essentialism is simply a mistake. There is no mystery about why many resist this verdict: their method, going back to Socrates, demands exceptionless definitions and self-evident axioms, from which deductive consequences can be made to flow. - Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection – D. Dennett - 2011




Manifesting is a massive trend in the self-help sector right now. And while I completely get why the concept is attractive, I also think it is very unhelpful.

Manifesting is based on the so-called 'law of attraction'. This law states that our thoughts determine what we attract in life—bad or good things, poverty or riches, illness or health, abusive or nourishing relationships.

The best-known examples of law-of-attraction self-help are Rhonda Byrne’s 'The Secret' (2006) and Napoleon Hill’s 'Think and Grow Rich' (1937). There is a new book of that kind out now, Roxie Nafousi's 'Manifest: 7 Steps to Living Your Best Life' (2022), which became an instant international bestseller when it was published at the beginning of the year.

These books argue for what we could call a 'mind over matter' doctrine, claiming that our thoughts are omnipotent and have the power not just to determine our feelings, but to shape the external world. They hook into a much older tradition of "mind cure" writings.

My problem with manifesting is this:

  • Manifesting massively overestimates our agency and ability to control the external world, advocating what is in essence magical thinking.
  • It is based on a victim-blaming ideology - anything bad that happens to us, and, by implication, to other people, is essentially our own fault because we thought bad thoughts and attracted calamities into our lives.
  • It ignores socioeconomic realities and psychologic histories.
  • It may leave people feeling ashamed, guilty and exhausted for not achieving their dreams.
  • It keeps people from engaging in meaningful inner work - which is hard, sometimes painful, and takes effort, time and commitment.

Anna Katharina Schaffner - Linkedin 2022