January 24, 2012
by Julia Galef
My latest video blog is about essentialism, and why it’s damaging to your rationality — and your happiness.
Filed under Language, Psychology, Rationality, Video
A pioneering linguistic study of noun-based essentialism is Anna Wierzbicka’s “What’s in a Noun” from 1988. Dunno if Bloom knows about this (he might well). But why have we evolved so as to work this way?
It’s a special case of the highly useful, low-cost pattern recognition algorithms that humans tend to use too much.
In other words, categorization is cheap. Generalization is also cheap.
For example, if someone lies once, this increases the “subjective” probability that she will lie again. Therefore even asmuchas one lie is enough to drop her into category:liar automatically.
So that would make Hispanic people less essentialist than Anglo people because in Spanish we distinguish the relative duration of an attribute and we use accordingly two different verbs for ‘to be’ while in English you don’t have distinctions and use a single verb. But it seems to me, and in principle to you as well, that essentialism is tied to the human nature no matter the language. We are cartessians. Labels allow us to grasp nature and communicate with each other. We still give labels to the colors of the rainbow although we know that it is actually continuous spectrum. I think your point is to raise awareness of this limitation.
What I dont like of your speech is the innuendo about changing the way you perceive the world just by changing your language, it sounds too much like pseudoscientific neuro linguistic programming.
Julia, are you a vegetarian, or do you just avoid eating animal products?
I say call a spade a spade, and if the shoe fits wear it. Observe all the smokers and alcoholics who are in denial about their addiction and think they can quit any time.
Spanish is probably not really more essentialist than English, since English has means for achieving similar effects such as the plain/progressive contrast (she is nice/she is being nice). I suspect that careful language use helps a little bit, on the basis that my dad used to say “you’re not a jerk, you just act like one”, which I think was probably better than plain old “you’re a jerk” would have been, as a rebuke for jerkish offenses.
There’s also a division between ‘stable’ and ‘unstable’ adjectives, not marked explicitly by verbs, but showing up in distribution in various ways:
there were people drunk/naked/*tall/*stupid at the party
I just noticed that the title of this post is self-referential. A few minutes ago I was thinking, “Hey, wait! I’m making the same mistake by categorizing people as categorizing!” and now I realize the passive acknowledgement of this in the title.
This post seems to be about a social aspect of essentialism that is quite easy to get on board with. Couldn’t say whether this labeling is damaging to one’s rationality as I’ve gotta admit I have no clue what ‘rationality’ means, have not read one definition that makes intuitive sense.
But essentialism in the human/social realm can always be twisted as follows – just take away all attributes associated with certain but not all people. What have you have left? Whatever it is, it is not very well-defined, even at a ‘physical’ level. So what is the essential thing? It is the attribute. If we are saying that it is wrong to ascribe attributes to people in a way that changes their essence, one can then counter with the existential argument – that there is no essence to speak of, but sure, if something has to have an essence, then why not the attribute, and pin it where one can.
But yeah, hate when people turn “You exhibit idiotic tendencies” into “You’re an idiot”, But what about turning “You work at Burger King” into “You’re a burger-flipper”. Doesn’t that seem a bit more OK to do, if equally demeaning? This may well be a function of our inability to define innate essence in people.
And even if people had no attributes worth discussing, there would always be the borders issue where and when a person begins and ends…
Equally so, people who believe in rationality or any definitionally-challenged, big-tent thing like an organized religion will always start worrying about the things they can define and discuss: good behavior, coexistence etc.
My mama said, “Stupid is as stupid does.”
But not everyone who performs surgery is a surgeon. Those who are trained and licensed are surgeons, and the rest may be breaking the law.
Trained and licensed by ??? You sir, exhibit credentialist tendencies.
The essence of the human being is its volition to think or evade that effort, to change subjects, to call what it sees as it is or to distort what it sees in thought, that volition that only later turns to volitive action. To think, to make concepts, is your first good move.
Dear friends, when you know that, there is no danger in knowing the essence of people, because you know that the essence of volition is the possibility of change.
As a gift for you defense of reason, I suggest the reading of 2 books on Objectivist Epistemology
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ayn Rand
The Logical Leap – Induction in Physics, David Harriman
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: Expanded Second Edition
The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics: David Harriman, Leonard Peikoff: 9780451230058: Amazon.com: Books
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