ToPHSS Lecture: The Essentialist Fallacy: Critical Theory and Naturalism
There is a strong tendency in critical theory to criticize naturalist takes on human features for describing them as biologically determined and thereby fixed. It is a central part of the ideological dimension of the nature-nurture debate that describing a feature as a result of nurture or social construction is associated with the features being changeable, and describing features as changeable is associated with progressive positions about what we are and what we could be. In this talk I argue that it is just as wrong to think of biological features as fixed or unchangeable as it is to think of social features as changeable and under our control. I call the identification of biological traits with essential and unchangeable properties the essentialist fallacy. The essentialist fallacy can also occur in reverse form, where social properties are identified with contingent and malleable properties. I argue that the essentialist fallacy owes its seductive power to a long history in critical theory that aims to unveil what seems to us like a natural eternal order as a contingent product of social history that we can change. I suggest that while critical engagement with the ideological implications of scientific or naturalist takes on human features is highly relevant, the (often implicit) assumption should be dropped that there would be any interesting ideological implication in describing a feature as biologically or socially determined per se.
ToPHSS Lectures are part of the project “Topics in the Philosophy of the Human and Social Sciences”, funded by the Humanities Initiative. The project aims to cross boundaries between disciplines of the humanities and social sciences concerned with ‘the human’, that is with human beings, humanity, society, culture, history, and more. It focuses on methodological and ontological issues, in particular on those concerned with contested categories of the humanities and social sciences, and of those primarily on the categories of human, individual and person. This term the first focus is on the contested divide between nature and culture.