by Richard Butrick (April 2015)
It is a term of real rhetorical power. To be accused of essentialism is to be variously, an adherent of an outmoded and dangerous metaphysics, to be anti-scientific, anti-Darwinian, anti-women, racist, nationalist, anti-LGBT, and very probably some kind of political regressive. Like many other terms of that kind, it is almost entirely defined by its opponents and has little generic meaning beyond expressing the disapprobation of those opponents and relegating those who are said to hold those ideas to outer darkness.
— John S. Wilkins, Essentialism in Biology
According to a very strange article in The Nation by Juan Cole, “How Islamic is the Islamic State?”, claiming those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam are Islamic terrorists is to commit the sin of essentialism (shudder). He argues that the President is right not to fall into the trap of essentialism and besmirch Islam by allowing the juxtaposition of “Islamic” with “terrorism”:
On Sunday, former defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, interviewed on CNN’s State of the Union show, called Obama’s refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism” “silly,” saying, “I think people understand that Islam has something to do with what we’re fighting, and when you deny it, you lose a lot of support.” This debate is actually about what philosophers call “essentialism,” … Wolfowitz is arguing that Islam has an “essence” that “has something to do with what we’re fighting.”
Certainly it is true that just because a Muslim in the name of Allah commits an act of terror that it is thereby justifiable to consider such to be an act of Islamic terrorism any more than it is justifiable in the same respect to call a Christian who commits an act of terror in the name of Jesus a Christian terrorist. There must be some justification in the ideology for committing such acts of terror. But that is just what Wolfowitz is doing, “I think people understand that Islam has something to do with what we’re fighting, and when you deny it, you lose a lot of support.”
Cole goes on to argue the same line with regard to an (to my mind on target) article, “What ISIS Really Wants,“ by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, in which Wood claims, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” Here is Cole’s punch line:
This assertion is theological, not sociological. No social scientist would say, “The reality is that the Ku Klux Klan is Christian. Very Christian.” If what Wood meant to say was that ISIL is a Muslim cult rather than a Buddhist one, that assertion is uncontroversial. If he means that Islam has an essence, of which ISIL partakes or indeed that ISIL is a natural outcome of the alleged Islamic essence, then he is speaking as a medieval Platonist, not as a contemporary social scientist.
Here is Wilkins’ discussion/characterization of essentialism:
Essentialism in philosophy is the position that things, especially kinds of things, have essences, or sets of properties, that all members of the kind must have, and the combination of which only members of the kind do, in fact, have. It is usually thought to derive from classical Greek philosophy and in particular from Aristotle’s notion of “what it is to be” something. In biology, it has been claimed that pre-evolutionary views of living kinds, or as they are sometimes called, “natural kinds”, are essentialist. This static view of living things presumes that no transition is possible in time or form between kinds, and that variation is regarded as accidental or inessential noise rather than important information about taxa.
So on the one hand Cole can’t resist using “essentialism” to club those who use the characterization “Islamic terrorists” as if “Islam had an essence“ – some sort of abstract being with powers of determination dwelling within and shaping the nature of Islam.
But then Cole proceeds to argue that it is part of the essence of Islam that it is anti-terrorism:
Those, like Giuliani, who insist on speaking of “Islamic terrorism” want to shape our language so as to imply that the Islamic tradition authorizes the deployment of terrorism, which the US federal code defines as using violence or criminal activities to intimidate civilians or government for political purposes, with the implication that the perpetrators are themselves nonstate actors. But the Islamic legal tradition forbids terrorism defined in that way. Moreover, Muslim academics contend that the Koran, the Muslim scripture, sanctions only defensive war. Giuliani does not know more about the Koran than they do.
First he maintains that claiming that terrorism is Islamic is essentialism and then he claims that,
… the Islamic legal tradition forbids terrorism defined in that way. Moreover, Muslim academics contend that the Koran, the Muslim scripture, sanctions only defensive war.
If claiming that terrorism is Islamic is essentialism then why isn’t claiming that terrorism is (essentially) forbidden by Islamic doctrine engaging in essentialism? In both cases a claim is being made about the essence of Islam. In the one the claim is that it is part of the essence of Islam to sanction a given action in the other that it is part of the essence of Islam to forbid the same. Moreover, if not the second then not the first.
Mr. Cole is conflating two very different senses of the word “essence.” In the primary sense claiming what is or what is not essential to an ideology is simply making a claim about the core ideas of the ideology. In the second (derogatory sense) it is a reference to some form of essentialism or imputation of an immutable determining essence to the ideology (whatever that means). Moreover, it is obvious that it is the first sense that Giuliani and Wolfowitz have in mind and even then only to the extent there is enough there to motivate and sanction brutal supremacism. They are not even claiming that the terrorists have the “right” take on the Koran. Moreover, even Wood is only arguing that the terrorists leaders have as strong or stronger take on the Koran than do the religion of peace champions. Additionally, if it is egregious to call Islamic terrorism Islamic it must be equally egregious to call the Christian crusades Christian or the Catholic Inquisition Catholic. He can’t have it both ways. Cole is hoisted by his own canard and ”guilty” of essentialism in arguing that it is one of the core (“essential”) tenets of Islam that terror is forbidden along with wars of aggression.
Essentialism is such an amorphous concept that it is quite useless to argue about it except under a specific characterization. If it is defined as the thesis (repeat after me) “that things have immutable essences that determine the nature of their being” then, evil or not, essentialism would hardly be automatically presupposed by a thesis about what the core ideas and principles are that motivate an ideology. In this context the essentialism accusation is a red herring swimming in a sea of academic obscurantism. It has a stun-gun effect precisely because it invites the feckless attempt to refute the irrefutably vague and lure one into arguing what is beside the point.
To claim that arguing what may or not be the core ideas or principles of an ideology commits one to some obscurantic ontology that only academics can comprehend (or delude themselves thereupon) is preposterously idiotic. I’m trying to picture Giuliani or Wolfowitz pondering the immutable essences that lurk in the bowels of Islam. Or perhaps pondering this clarification of what essentialism is all about by gay/lesbian rights advocate Diana Fuss, who wrote,
Essentialism is most commonly understood as a belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given entity.
Bottom line? Wilkins is right:
Like many other terms of that kind, it is almost entirely defined by its opponents and has little generic meaning beyond expressing the disapprobation of those opponents and relegating those who are said to hold those ideas to outer darkness.
Whatever the explication, arguing that “there is enough there” in Islamic doctrines for terrorist to latch onto to justify and motivate their actions is not thereby to claim anything about the doctrines of essentialism. By contrast, it would seem the real “essentialists” are the religion-of-peaceniks who cling to the “whatness” of Islam as having nothing to do with terrorism and brutal supremacy no matter what.
Dr. Richard Butrick is an American writer who has published in Mind, Philosophy of Science, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, International Journal of Computer Mathematics among others.
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