Anti Essentialism Theory Of Art Essay

Not to be confused with the Art Blakey album Theory of Art.

Not to be confused with Art theory.

At the broadest level, a theory of art aims to shed light on some aspect of the project of defining art or to theorize about the structure of our concept of ‘art’ without providing classical definitions, namely definitions formulated in terms of “necessary and sufficient” conditions.

Aesthetic response[edit]

Aesthetic response or functional theories of art are in many ways the most intuitive theories of art. At its base, the term "aesthetic" refers to a type of phenomenal experience and aesthetic definitions identify artworks with artifacts intended to produce aesthetic experiences. Nature can be beautiful and it can produce aesthetic experiences, but nature does not possess the function of producing those experiences. For such a function, an intention is necessary, and thus agency – the artist.

Monroe Beardsley is commonly associated with aesthetic definitions of art. In Beardsley’s words, something is art just in case it is “either an arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character or (incidentally) an arrangement belonging to a class or type of arrangements that is typically intended to have this capacity” (The aesthetic point of view: selected essays, 1982, 299). Painters arrange “conditions” in the paint/canvas medium, and dancers arrange the “conditions” of their bodily medium, for example. According to Beardsley’s first disjunct, art has an intended aesthetic function, but not all artworks succeed in producing aesthetic experiences. The second disjunct allows for artworks that were intended to have this capacity, but failed at it (bad art).

Marcel Duchamp'sFountain is the paradigmatic counterexample to aesthetic definitions of art. Such works are said to be counterexamples because they are artworks that don't possess an intended aesthetic function. Beardsley replies that either such works are not art or they are “comments on art” (1983): “To classify them [Fountain and the like] as artworks just because they make comments on art would be to classify a lot of dull and sometimes unintelligible magazine articles and newspaper reviews as artworks” (p.25). This response has been widely considered inadequate (REF). It is either question-begging or it relies on an arbitrary distinction between artworks and commentaries on artworks. A great many art theorists today consider aesthetic definitions of art to be extensionally inadequate, primarily because of artworks in the style of Duchamp[citation needed].


Main article: Formalism (philosophy) § The arts

The formalist theory of art asserts that we should focus only on the formal properties of art--the "form" not the "content". Those formal properties might include, for the visual arts, color, shape, and line, and, for the musical arts, rhythm and harmony. Formalists do not deny that works of art might have content, representation, or narrative-rather, they deny that those things are relevant in our appreciation or understanding of art.


The institutional theory of art is a theory about the nature of art that holds that an object can only be(come) art in the context of the institution known as "the artworld".

Addressing the issue of what makes, for example, Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" art, or why a pile of Brillo cartons in a supermarket is not art, whereas Andy Warhol's famous Brillo Boxes (a pile of Brillo carton replicas) is, the art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto wrote in his 1964 essay "The Artworld":

To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.[1]

According to Robert J. Yanal, Danto's essay, in which he coined the term artworld, outlined the first institutional theory of art.

Versions of the institutional theory were formulated more explicitly by George Dickie in his article "Defining Art" (American Philosophical Quarterly, 1969) and his books Aesthetics: An Introduction (1971) and Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (1974). An early version of Dickie's institutional theory can be summed up in the following definition of work of art from Aesthetics: An Introduction:

A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) on which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation.[2]

Dickie has reformulated his theory in several books and articles. Other philosophers of art have criticized his definitions as being circular.[3]


Historical theories of art hold that for something to be art, it must bear some relation to existing works of art. The correct extension of ‘art’ at time t (the present) includes all the works at time t-1 and additionally any works created in the elapsed time. For these additional works to be art, they must be similar or relate to those previously established artworks. Such a definition begs the question of where this inherited status originated. That is why historical definitions of art must also include a disjunct for first art: something is art if it possesses a historical relation to previous artworks, or is first art.

The philosopher primarily associated with the historical definition of art is Jerrold Levinson (1979). For Levinson, "a work of art is a thing intended for regard-as-a-work-of-art: regard in any of the ways works of art existing prior to it have been correctly regarded" (1979, p. 234). Levinson further clarifies that by "intends for" he means: “[M]akes, appropriates or conceives for the purpose of'" (1979, p. 236). Some of these manners for regard (at around the present time) are: to be regarded with full attention, to be regarded contemplatively, to be regarded with special notice to appearance, to be regarded with "emotional openness" (1979, p. 237). If an object isn't intended for regard in any of the established ways, then it isn't art.


Some art theorists have proposed that the attempt to define art must be abandoned and have instead urged an anti-essentialist theory of art. In ‘The Role of Theory in Aesthetics’ (1956), Morris Weitz famously argues that individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions will never be forthcoming for the concept ‘art’ because it is an “open concept”. Weitz describes open concepts as those whose “conditions of application are emendable and corrigible” (1956, p. 31). In the case of borderline cases of art and prima facie counterexamples, open concepts “call for some sort of decision on our part to extend the use of the concept to cover this, or to close the concept and invent a new one to deal with the new case and its new property” (p. 31 ital. in original). The question of whether a new artifact is art or not, “is not factual, but rather a decision problem, where the verdict turns on whether or not we enlarge our set of conditions for applying the concept” (p. 32). For Weitz, it is “the very expansive, adventurous character of art, its ever-present changes and novel creations,” which makes the concept impossible to capture in a classical definition (as some static univocal essence).

While anti-essentialism was never formally defeated, it was challenged and the debate over anti-essentialist theories was subsequently swept away by seemingly better essentialist definitions. Commenting after Weitz, Berys Gaut revived anti-essentialism in the philosophy of art with his paper ‘“Art” as a Cluster Concept’ (2000). Cluster concepts are composed of criteria that contribute to art status but are not individually necessary for art status. There is one exception: Artworks are created by agents, and so being an artifact is a necessary property for being an artwork. Gaut (2005) offers a set of ten criteria that contribute to art status:

(i) possessing positive aesthetic qualities (I employ the notion of positive aesthetic qualities here in a narrow sense, comprising beauty and its subspecies);
(ii) being expressive of emotion;
(iii) being intellectually challenging;
(iv) being formally complex and coherent;
(v) having a capacity to convey complex meanings;
(vi) exhibiting an individual point of view;
(vii) being an exercise of creative imagination;
(viii) being an artifact or performance that is the product of a high degree of skill;
(ix) belonging to an established artistic form; and
(x) being the product of an intention to make a work of art. (274)

Satisfying all ten criteria would be sufficient for art, as might any subset formed by nine criteria (this is a consequence of the fact that none of the ten properties is necessary). For example, consider two of Gaut’s criteria: “possessing aesthetic merit” and “being expressive of emotion” (200, p. 28). Neither of these criteria is necessary for art status, but both are parts of subsets of these ten criteria that are sufficient for art status. Gaut’s definition also allows for many subsets with less than nine criteria to be sufficient for art status, which leads to a highly pluralistic theory of art.

The theory of art is also impacted by a philosophical turn in thinking, not only exemplified by the aesthetics of Kant but is tied more closely to ontology and metaphysics in terms of the reflections of Heidegger on the essence of modern technology and the implications it has on all beings that are reduced to what he calls 'standing reserve', and it is from this perspective on the question of being that he explored art beyond the history, theory, and criticism of artistic production as embodied for instance in his influential opus: The Origin of the Work of Art[4]. This has had also an impact on architectural thinking in its philosophical roots.[5]

Aesthetic creation[edit]

Zangwill[6] describes the aesthetic creation theory of art as a theory of “how art comes to be produced” (p. 167) and an “artist-based” theory. Zangwill distinguishes three phases in the production of a work of art:

[F]irst, there is the insight that by creating certain nonaesthetic properties, certain aesthetic properties will be realized; second, there is the intention to realize the aesthetic properties in the nonaesthetic properties, as envisaged in the insight; and, third, there is the more or less successful action of realizing the aesthetic properties in the nonaesthetic properties, an envisaged in the insight and intention. (45)

In the creation of an artwork, the insight plays a causal role in bringing about actions sufficient for realizing particular aesthetic properties. Zangwill does not describe this relation in detail, but only says it is “because of” this insight that the aesthetic properties are created.

Aesthetic properties are instantiated by nonaesthetic properties that “include physical properties, such as shape and size, and secondary qualities, such as colours or sounds.”(37) Zangwill says that aesthetic properties supervene on the nonaesthetic properties: it is because of the particular nonaesthetic properties it has that the work possesses certain aesthetic properties (and not the other way around).

What is "art"?[edit]

How best to define the term "art" is a subject of constant contention; many books and journal articles have been published arguing over even the basics of what we mean by the term "art".[7]Theodor Adorno claimed in his Aesthetic Theory 1969 "It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident."[8] Artists, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists and programmers all use the notion of art in their respective fields, and give it operational definitions that vary considerably. Furthermore, it is clear that even the basic meaning of the term "art" has changed several times over the centuries, and has continued to evolve during the 20th century as well.

The main recent sense of the word "art" is roughly as an abbreviation for creative art or "fine art." Here we mean that skill is being used to express the artist's creativity, or to engage the audience's aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the "finer" things. Often, if the skill is being used in a functional object, people will consider it a craft instead of art, a suggestion which is highly disputed by many Contemporary Craft thinkers. Likewise, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way it may be considered design instead of art, or contrariwise these may be defended as art forms, perhaps called applied art. Some thinkers, for instance, have argued that the difference between fine art and applied art has more to do with the actual function of the object than any clear definitional difference.[9] Art usually implies no function other than to convey or communicate an idea.[citation needed]

Even as late as 1912 it was normal in the West to assume that all art aims at beauty, and thus that anything that was not trying to be beautiful could not count as art. The cubists, dadaists, Stravinsky, and many later art movements struggled against this conception that beauty was central to the definition of art, with such success that, according to Danto, "Beauty had disappeared not only from the advanced art of the 1960's but from the advanced philosophy of art of that decade as well."[8] Perhaps some notion like "expression" (in Croce's theories) or "counter-environment" (in McLuhan's theory) can replace the previous role of beauty. Brian Massumi brought back "beauty" into consideration together with "expression".[10] Another view, as important to the philosophy of art as "beauty," is that of the "sublime," elaborated upon in the twentieth century by the postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. A further approach, elaborated by André Malraux in works such as The Voices of Silence, is that art is fundamentally a response to a metaphysical question ('Art', he writes, 'is an 'anti-destiny'). Malraux argues that, while art has sometimes been oriented towards beauty and the sublime (principally in post-Renaissance European art) these qualities, as the wider history of art demonstrates, are by no means essential to it.[11]

Perhaps (as in Kennick's theory) no definition of art is possible anymore. Perhaps art should be thought of as a cluster of related concepts in a Wittgensteinian fashion (as in Weitz or Beuys). Another approach is to say that "art" is basically a sociological category, that whatever art schools and museums and artists define as art is considered art regardless of formal definitions. This "institutional definition of art" (see also Institutional Critique) has been championed by George Dickie. Most people did not consider the depiction of a store-bought urinal or Brillo Box to be art until Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol (respectively) placed them in the context of art (i.e., the art gallery), which then provided the association of these objects with the associations that define art.

Proceduralists often suggest that it is the process by which a work of art is created or viewed that makes it art, not any inherent feature of an object, or how well received it is by the institutions of the art world after its introduction to society at large. If a poet writes down several lines, intending them as a poem, the very procedure by which it is written makes it a poem. Whereas if a journalist writes exactly the same set of words, intending them as shorthand notes to help him write a longer article later, these would not be a poem. Leo Tolstoy, on the other hand, claims in his What is art? (1897) that what decides whether or not something is art is how it is experienced by its audience, not by the intention of its creator. Functionalists like Monroe Beardsley argue that whether or not a piece counts as art depends on what function it plays in a particular context; the same Greek vase may play a non-artistic function in one context (carrying wine), and an artistic function in another context (helping us to appreciate the beauty of the human figure). '

Marxist attempts to define art focus on its place in the mode of production, such as in Walter Benjamin's essay The Author as Producer,[12] and/or its political role in class struggle.[13] Revising some concepts of the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Gary Tedman defines art in terms of social reproduction of the relations of production on the aesthetic level.[14]

See also: Classificatory disputes about art

What should art be like?[edit]

Many goals have been argued for art, and aestheticians often argue that some goal or another is superior in some way. Clement Greenberg, for instance, argued in 1960 that each artistic medium should seek that which makes it unique among the possible mediums and then purify itself of anything other than expression of its own uniqueness as a form.[15] The DadaistTristan Tzara on the other hand saw the function of art in 1918 as the destruction of a mad social order. "We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits."[16] Formal goals, creative goals, self-expression, political goals, spiritual goals, philosophical goals, and even more perceptual or aesthetic goals have all been popular pictures of what art should be like.

The value of art[edit]

Tolstoy defined art as the following: "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them." However, this definition is merely a starting point for his theory of art's value. To some extent, the value of art, for Tolstoy, is one with the value of empathy. However, sometimes empathy is not of value. In chapter fifteen of What Is Art?, Tolstoy says that some feelings are good, but others are bad, and so art is only valuable when it generates empathy or shared feeling for good feelings. For example, Tolstoy asserts that empathy for decadent members of the ruling class makes society worse, rather than better. In chapter sixteen, he asserts that the best art is "universal art" that expresses simple and accessible positive feeling.[17]

An argument for the value of art, used in the fictional work The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, proceeds that, if some external force presenting imminent destruction of Earth asked humanity what its value was—what should humanity's response be? The argument continues that the only justification humanity could give for its continued existence would be the past creation and continued creation of things like a Shakespeare play, a Rembrandt painting or a Bach concerto. The suggestion is that these are the things of value which define humanity.[18] Whatever one might think of this claim — and it does seem to undervalue the many other achievements of which human beings have shown themselves capable, both individually and collectively — it is true that art appears to possess a special capacity to endure ("live on") beyond the moment of its birth, in many cases for centuries or millennia. This capacity of art to endure over time — what precisely it is and how it operates — has been widely neglected in modern aesthetics.[19]


  1. ^Danto, Arthur (October 1964). "The Artworld". Journal of Philosophy. 61 (19): 571–584. doi:10.2307/2022937. 
  2. ^Dickie, George (1971). Aesthetics, An Introduction. Pegasus. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-672-63500-7. 
  3. ^For example, Carroll, Noël (1994). "Identifying Art". In Robert J. Yanal. Institutions of Art: Reconsiderations of George Dickie's Philosophy. Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-271-01078-6. 
  4. ^Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1980)
  5. ^Nader El-Bizri, 'On Dwelling: Heideggerian Allusions to Architectural Phenomenology', Studia UBB. Philosophia, Vol. 60, No. 1 (2015): 5-30
  6. ^Nick Zangwill, Aesthetic Creation, OUP 2007.
  7. ^Stephen Davies, Definitions of Art, Cornell University Press, 1991.
  8. ^ abArthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty, Open Court Publishing, 2003, p. 17.
  9. ^David Novitz, The Boundaries of Art, Temple University Press, 1992.
  10. ^Brian Massumi, "Deleuze, Guattari and the Philosophy of Expression," CRCL, 24:3, 1997.
  11. ^Derek Allan. Art and the Human Adventure. André Malraux's Theory of Art. (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009)
  12. ^Benjamin, Walter, Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock, Verso Books, 2003, ISBN 978-1-85984-418-2.
  13. ^Hadjinicolaou, Nicos, Art History and Class Struggle, Pluto Press; 1978. ISBN 978-0-904383-27-0
  14. ^Tedman, Gary, Aesthetics & Alienation, Zero Books; 2012.
  15. ^Clement Greenberg, "On Modernist Painting".
  16. ^Tristan Tzara, "Sept Manifestes Dada."
  17. ^Theodore Gracyk, "Outline of Tolstoy's What Is Art?", course web page.
  18. ^Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
  19. ^Derek Allan, Art and TimeArchived 18 March 2013 at the Wayback Machine. Cambridge Scholars, 2013.

Essentialist Anti-Essentialism, with Considerations from Other Sides of Modernity


This article offers a critique of the notion that essence must entail essentialism. The author argues that this presumption depends on an appeal to a metaphysics in which things stand outside of relations with the rest of reality. Offering a relational metaphysics and a phenomenological model of ontological suspension, the author argues that a form of essence without essentialism could be deployed in the human sciences to analyze, among other things, tendencies to treat certain human communities as problems in themselves.


Cet article est une critique du postulat selon lequel de l'essence découlerait nécessairement l'essentialisme, conformément à une conception de la métaphysique où les choses n'entrent pas en relation avec la réalité. Fort d'une métaphysique relationnelle et d'une phénoménologie libérée de l'ontologie, l'auteur démontre que les sciences humaines peuvent s'enrichir d'une essence sans essentialisme. Entre autres choses, cette forme d'essence permettrait de comprendre ce qui les conduit à considérer certaines communautés humaines comme des problèmes intrinsèques.

Texte intégral


The impact of poststructuralism 1 in recent work in the human sciences has been such that the term essentialism has the status of an elliptical reductio ad absurdum: its identification entails the assertion of a position incompatible with the enterprise at hand. As leading to the classic law of non-contradiction, the formulation of “not both p and not-p,” the presupposition of anti-essentialism means essentialism, without context or clarification, must be rejected. As an ism, it also falls prey to the accusations of reductionism. In effect, to essentialize in ways that manifest the fall into an ism means that something is excluded by the limitation of one thing to another. In some cases, however, the claim is not so much that one thing could only be understood in terms of another but that some thing could only be what it is in spite of efforts to relate it to another. This kind of essentialism, where a thing could only be what it is, raises a plethora of metaphysical and epistemological questions. Metaphysically, there is a problem raised by trying to understand it, for as the epistemological consideration is produced, there is the matter of how such an effort could be possible without either differentiation of a thing from itself or, worse, an imposition onto the thing itself. The search for this reflexive being, the thing in itself, is full of paradox, for even the assertion of it in such a movement begins with its displacement, of something other than the thing with which to determine it.

These problems emerge, however, through an ambiguity in the notion of a thing- in-itself. Is it an effort to establish what a thing is outside of the relation established by our efforts to grasp it? If so, the problem becomes the contradictory relational effort to be non-relational.
This brings us to the problem of substance-based metaphysics versus relational metaphysics. The former, emerging from the thought of Plato and Aristotle, involves the search for the “really real,” that which, supposedly, is what it is independent of everything else. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle argued this was substance, whose form was its essence, the necessary inner reality of a thing. This view has dominated much of the history of western views of reality. To study a thing involved unveiling that which lurks within and makes it what it is. A dualism between inside and outside emerged, wherein the outside suffered demoted status with respect to reality. In addition to the question of what emerges when the outside becomes an object of investigation—What, in other words, is its essence?—Wouldn’t that which in its essence be the absence of essence be a contradiction of terms?—there is the added complication of the scope or kinds of reality to which the inner-essence model applied. For example, what would be the inner essence of social reality? Would not any human being asking such a question already be doing so from the inside? If so, there is the additional problem of an ever-changing essence where, as W.E.B. Du Bois has shown in “Sociology Hesitant,” meaning, purpose, and choice affect the expectations of permanence or timelessness from the line of ancient thought to which Plato and Aristotle belonged. 2 As classicists would attest, this line emerges from the effort to overcome the ancient problem of permanence and flux as bases of reality. The two classic stands of Parmenides (permanence) and Heraclitus (flux) are given new challenges as epistemology emerged as the fundamental starting point. Overcoming human subjectivity in the search for objectivity brought the flux inward with the presupposition of permanence, or at least a greater capacity for permanence, belonging to the purview of the external world.
The problems of substance-based metaphysics received powerful criticisms in Ernst Cassirer’s prescient Substance and Function, a work which brought to the fore metaphysical implications of Kant’s famous Copernican turn of shifting questions of what there is to the conditions for the possibility of knowing anything at all. 3 This shift brought the relation of the inner to the outer to the fore through the question of their meaning and conceptualization. As meaning always involves something pointing beyond itself either to rules of meaning or a thing to which it refers, the notion of an inner essence independent of everything becomes, ironically, unsustainable. Essence had to be sought elsewhere, in functions, in rules, in what is added to things to make them meaningful and coherent. Cassirer eventually took the path of form, sign, and symbol to articulate these relations, which he later realized were structures revealing his affinity to structuralism. 4

The appeal to essence, and, indeed, related conceptual tools such as eidos, totality, type, or quotient, needn’t collapse into the foreclosed ascription of essentialism. As essentialism is an ontological claim, a claim about the being of a thing, a different conclusion would emerge where such a claim has been put to the side, parenthesized, or suspended. The phenomenological tradition, an approach that has been accused of essentialist thinking, is such an approach. Its initiating step is to put to the side assertions of being, what practitioners call “the natural attitude,” and reflect, sometimes meditate, inward on the phenomenal features of what remains, in an ever-critical and mutilayered process of evaluation. “Essence,” from this perspective, offers no appeal to an isolated substance; it appeals, instead, to a relationship in which meaning is made manifest. This relational consideration, often not taken into account by critics of phenomenology, is crucial also to another aspect of its practice, namely, the appeal to consciousness, a notion rejected by some critics as subjectivist and by others as essentialism through the backdoor of psychologism. In terms of the latter, a philosophy of consciousness is entrapped in the mire of anthropology or, worse, anthropocentrism. 5

A difficult consideration to explain, however, is the distinction between psychological consciousness and its phenomenological counterpart, which, at the end of the day, is not properly such at all. In Formal and Transcendental Logic and Cartesian Meditations, Edmund Husserl offered a transcendental phenomenological critique of all imaginable processes of justification and self-evaluation, including phenomenology. 6 The thought experiment he asked us all to consider is what would we be left with if we made all forms of reasoning, including conditions for such, subject to critique, which, here, means non-presumed legitimacy? We are left with, he concluded, simply our relationship to any subject matter or object of thought. That relationship, he argued, reveals a form, and that is of directionality or intentionality, which he calls transcendental consciousness or the transcendental ego. If we don’t find his argument convincing, Husserl simply asks us to try to demonstrate otherwise? The radicality of his proposal places him in the company of many other radical thinkers (with many of whom he lacked political affinity), such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon. 7
Du Bois articulated the problem of studying “problem people” and the challenges that posed to social thought at the end of the 19th century. 8 People become problems in the eyes of a researcher where the latter fails to make the distinction between a theory that addresses the problems a people face and the challenges that pose for her or his method (and methodology). 9 The tendency of many social researchers is to seek presumed methodological integrity by blaming the people for their failure to fit neatly into its dictates. Why not, Du Bois asked, interrogate the method and the discipline?

Instead of asking what’s wrong with the people, explore what’s wrong with one’s method. A half-century later, Fanon radicalized this question by identifying epistemic colonization at methodological levels. If colonization was both a means and an end, why should we presume that its methods were immune from its practice? 10 Fanon’s approach, similar to Husserl’s, was not to assume or presume his method but press on with the paradox of the method of no presumed method.    The radicality of this approach led to a rejection of disciplinary boundaries of self-contained methods over the human subject. For Fanon, as for Du Bois, the human being exceeds methodological subjugation but could nevertheless be studied through processes of methodological illumination. The task, in other words, is to enable more of the human beings in question to appear.
This approach required what Paget Henry, in his reading of Du Bois, calls potentiated double consciousness. 11 Unpotentiated double consciousness simply involves seeing groups from a colonized perspective. From such a project, people of African descent are only black, negroes, niggers, savages. Realization of the conditions that make such views possible, that there are contradictions in a system that produces people under such categories, leads to a critique of its conditions in which the system’s legitimacy is called into question. The result is a subversion of universality and particularity. That the avowed universal is only part of a story—that the people designated under such categories actually transcend them with their humanity—makes it particular and relativizes it. The argument, however, goes further. That dominant category had presumed universality leads to the false thesis of its intrinsically legitimate status, which eliminates other perspectives from which it could be judged, interpreted, and understood—in short, it is treated as a substance without need of relation. The presumed particular, however, draws its meaning from its relations. To study black, negro, niggers, and savages requires interrogating the conditions of their emergence. That they are linked to constructions of people of African descent means asking about the conditions through and by which Africa could have been interpreted in those ways. And as this process continues, one encounters the fundamental relational way by which these avowed particulars are studied, to the point of realizing their greater scope of incorporation by virtue of their always having to be understood with other terms. In effect, this makes the avowed particular broader than the claimed universal. An error, however, would be the presumption that this fecundity of scope entails being the real universal. As an interrogation of the practices by which universality and particularity were constituted, the proper response is that one is a false appeal to substance and the other is an encomium for universalizing practice. Such an activity is not identical with universality but it is an expanding commitment. This effort of increased interrelationships is, in effect, what is called for in a decolonizing epistemic practice. 12

Now, while poststructuralism has affinities with structuralism, which is a relational approach to the study of meaning and human phenomena, it parts company through a series of disavowals, most key of which are its rejections of essence, universality, and totalities. Peter Caws has shown, however, that many structuralists share these views, which calls the post in poststructuralism into question. 13 A critique of these points of difference also emerges at the epistemic level on the extent to which such disavowal could avoid the significance of a priori disavowal.    In other words, for certain modes of reasoning to be ruled out in toto requires there being no condition of its permissibility, which, paradoxically, would be a total assertion against total assertions. This problem of metadiscursive rejection, of falling apart at radical levels of self-evaluation, requires a different approach, if but for minimal expectations of consistency. (I say “minimal” since maximal would face the same problem of collapsing into a law of thought.) The conundrum of “essentialist anti-essentialism” raises considerations on how to assess such modes of metacritique. What, in other words, are we doing when we engage in such practices of asserted non-relationality? 14

To some extent, we commit the error of seeking forms of purity in a commitment that is patently impure. We are here on biblical terrain: the search for godlike attributes for the world in which we theorize, one that is, in the end, irremediably human.
Efforts to expurgate the human being from human phenomena, from human relations, have what I call a theodicean grammar. 15 Theodicy is the form of justificatory practice in which a god or deity’s integrity is maintained through articulating the externality of infelicities over which such a being is presumed to have control. The classic response is either to erase the contradictions—evil only appears as such but is in fact absent—or place them on another source; free will, e.g., requires human responsibility. Problem people, however, return in this formulation. In making the contradictions external, the god, internally, becomes complete, becomes substance, and is offered as nonrelational.
Another name for this phenomenon is mauvaise-foi, bad faith. 16 It is such because it in effect is an effort to perform a variety of contradictions the consequence of which requires lying to ourselves, making ourselves believe what we don’t believe, using our freedom to deny it, asserting the very human effort at human evasion.    Here, the insights against essentialism come to the fore, in which investments against freedom and humanity require advancing closed (and foreclosed) schema. Mauvaise-foi, however, goes not only in the direction of rejecting essentialism but also against denying the varieties of identifiable ways in which phenomena, including human ones, are manifested in the world. Thus, to deny the many ways in which we are seen, those in which we are engaged, many of which are evidenced by communication and speech, is also a form of mauvaise-foi. At the heart of this critique is the identification of both essentialism and certain forms of anti-essentialism as instances of the same phenomenon. There is, as we have already seen, a form of anti-essentialist essentialism.
Mauvaise-foi also takes the form of an attack on evidence and sociality.    An aspect of evidence is what could be called evidentiality. This involves the fundamental relationality of evidence; as with the problem of substance-based metaphysics, anti- evidence involves ignoring conditions by which a phenomenon could appear or “be” in the first place.    Evidence is the appearance not only of phenomena but also the inferential or, in phenomenological language, the appresentation of missing phenomena. Evidence, in other words, brings to consciousness what must be, which requires connecting a series of missing phenomena, in effect, an ordering, or, in old-style philosophical language, logging, logos, which also points, inevitably, to a point of reference beyond the self. Evidence, thus, requires intersubjectivity, a world of others, even with regard to the self—that is, the self taking on the perspective of another and also acknowledging its capacity to be another—and is therefore symbiotically linked to concerns of social reality. Sacrifice of evidence holds within it, then, an attack on the social world. 17
The relationship between mauvaise-foi and the rejection of social reality could be understood thus.    Suppose I were to reject a world of others.    To do so would require making me the only one in the world. But if that were so, I would not be able to posit myself as singular since that concept requires being able to distinguish myself from others, the second category of which has already been ruled out of the equation. The performative contradiction emerges on what I would require to inaugurate the intellectual exercise. Now suppose the opposite, that there are only others. To rule myself out of the equation, I must make myself into a thing, a non-subject. The problem is that for me to assert there only being others, I must be there in the first place.    In either direction, I must make myself believe what I do not believe. As forms of mauvaise-foi, the opposite of each must hold, and in both instances, they point to the social world of the condition of their possibility.
Concerns of mauvaise-foi and evidence bring to the fore a vexing problem of reality, a notion toward which anti-essentialists are often ambivalent. On one hand, the concept smacks of sufficient rigidity to be an instance of essentialism.    On the other hand, a good reason to be anti-essentialist is that essentialism goes against the grain of reality. This is because, as Jaspers correctly argued, in the end, reality is that which always exceeds us. There are paradoxes in this relationship, for although reality emerges as that which is outside of us, it is also that which is produced through and by us and is also a manifestation of us.
In the modern world, struggles with and against reality often lead to crises of knowledge, many of which emerge from false dilemmas of scope. These crises of knowledge, which lead also to the same for disciplines, often take three routes—appeals to scientific naturalism, then to historicism, and a retreat to the resources of language. The story of essence, including its anti-essentialist portraits, unfolds through each of these modes of negotiating reality.

Scientific naturalism, for instance, often asserts the primacy of science.    This often leads, however, to problems emerging from a failure to distinguish between reason and rationality.    The latter is guided by the logic of consistency and instrumentality. To be consistent, there cannot be, as we have seen, a subsequent point of contradiction. Consistency thus leads, when referring to itself, to the demand for maximal consistency. Adopting this model, science, then, at least with regard to its aims over nature, seeks maximal consistency or completeness.    Where science moves to the level of meta- science, it then demands the same for its own evaluation and also for that which at first may not be part of nature.    To bring such concepts and phenomena under the yoke of nature—a condition for science—requires naturalizing them.    Here, we encounter, however, the problem of science exceeding its scope. Consider reason.    The task of reason includes evaluating rationality and science—indeed, evaluating everything. Because of this, reason faces the question of the reasonability of a rational claim.    Here we encounter what, for rationality, would be a paradox: maximal consistency is at times unreasonable. In the human world, for instance, a maximally consistent person could not only be an unreasonable person but perhaps also an irrational, maybe even insane, one.
The naturalizing impulse, however, refers to an aspiration of science that in effect puts it in conflict with reason.    The latter’s capacity for contradiction and paradox—its incompleteness, which, for dialecticians would simply mean its capacity to move through its negations—makes it seemingly unstable for science, what Jaspers calls “mystification of the understanding” and Lévi-Strauss “mythopoetic.” 18 To make reason behave, so to speak, scientific rationality, at least as it has played itself out in much of modern thought, has attempted (and to some extent still attempts) the colonization of reason. One could imagine how these concerns are exacerbated in a human science such as sociology, as we saw with Du Bois’s critique. As he argued in “Sociology Hesitant,” sociology is “…the Science that seeks the limits of Chance in human conduct.” 19 The scientific demands of sociology is always in tension with the reality of the basis of its subject, the human being, whose aggregates, institutions, intersubjective meanings lead to challenges of articulating an order or form over that which is incomplete: the human world, in formal terms, is simply not a well-formed formula. Its structure, which is paradoxical because it is an informal structure, could be written thus:
Husserl voiced some of these concerns more than a century ago, although he considered them more in terms of relativism. 20 Naturalism refers to the domain of nature as complete, which is the imposition onto nature of what is neither empirical nor naturalistic. It thus faces (1) legitimacy through being relative to one domain of nature and then to another or (2) forcing other possibilities to be under its reign through ignoring the contradiction of their emergence in the first place.    In his Critique de la raison dialectique, Sartre observed a similar problem in his critique of materialism. As an idea about matter, the effort to eliminate that which transcends matter is already contradicted in the offering. 21
Such an insight is also offered on problems of historicist and linguistic efforts against idealism. They fail, in the end, at the level of their own practice.
The tendency to collapse essence talk into essentialism, which I have talked about in terms of poststructuralism but I should like to stress I do not mean as a phenomenon exclusive to it—nor do I, as well, aim here to make this point a rallying cry against poststructuralists—works across these hegemonic considerations in terms of biology and cognitive psychology, often in the form of psychophysiology, in the first, history and culture (often through considerations of anthropology and sociology) in the second, and textuality and semiology in terms of the third. There isn’t room for elaboration here. 22 Essence in each poses little difficulty where its scope and meaning are without appeal to the teleology of an “inner cause.” Where there is, however, admission of the relationship established by engaging them, and where there is understanding of their being part of a larger human nexus of negotiating the human relationship to a reality that always exceeds us (namely, the human relationship to and realization of the non-human), there is room for the kind of humility on which, ultimately the insight and impetus of anti-essentialism is ultimately based.    There is, then, an ironically productive way in which essence without essentialism could make its contribution to the perilous task of human study.


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Lewis R. Gordon is Professor of Philosophy and Africana Studies, with affiliations in Asian and Asian American Studies, Caribbean and Latino/a Studies, and Judaic Studies, at UCONN-Storrs; European Union Visiting Chair in Philosophy at Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France; and Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor of Politics and International Studies at the university currently known as Rhodes in South Africa. His recent books include Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times (Paradigm/Routledge, 2006), An Introduction to Africana Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 2008), and What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (Fordham UP; Hurst Publishers; Wits UP, 2015). His website is: and he is on twitter at:

Lewis R. Gordon est professeur de Philosophie et en « Africana Studies » à l’Université du Connecticut, aux Etats-Unis, où il est également rattaché aux départements de « Asian and Asian American Studies », « Caribbean and Latino/a Studies », et de « Judaic Studies ». Il occupe par ailleurs le poste de « European Union Visiting Chair in Philosophy » à l’Université de Toulouse-Jean Jaurès ainsi que celui de « Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor of Politics and International Studies » à l’Université de Rhodes, en Afrique du Sud. Il a notamment publié Disciplinary Decadence : Living Thought in Trying Times (Paradigm/Routledge, 2006), An Introduction to Africana Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 2008) et What Fanon Said : A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (Fordham UP; Hurst Publishers; Wits UP, 2015). Sa bibliographie complète est disponible à : (twitter :

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