Essence: Wikis


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In philosophy, essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. Essence is contrasted with accident: a property that the object or substance has contingently, without which the substance can still retain its identity. The concept originates with Aristotle, who used the Greek expression to ti ên einai, literally 'the what it was to be', or sometimes the shorter phrase to ti esti, literally 'the what it is,' for the same idea. This phrase presented such difficulties for his Latin translators that they coined the word essentia to represent the whole expression. For Aristotle and his scholastic followers the notion of essence is closely linked to that of definition (horismos) [1]

In the history of western thought, essence has often served as a vehicle for doctrines that tend to individuate different forms of existence as well as different identity conditions for objects and properties; in this eminently logical meaning, the concept has given a strong theoretical and common-sense basis to the whole family of logical theories based on the "possible worlds" analogy set up by Leibniz and developed in the intensional logic from Carnap to Kripke, which was later challenged by "extensionalist" philosophers such as Quine.

The English word "essence" comes from the Latin essentia, which was coined (from the Latin esse, "to be") by ancient Roman scholars in order to translate the Ancient Greek phrase to ti ēn einai (literally, "what it is for a thing to be"), coined by Aristotle to denote a thing's essence.


Ontological status

In his dialogues Plato suggests that concrete beings acquire their essence through their relations to "forms" (ειδε: eide) - abstract universals logically or ontologically separate from the objects of sense perception. These forms are often put forth as the models or paradigms of which sensible things are "copies". Sensible bodies are in constant flux and imperfect and hence, by Plato's reckoning, less real than the forms which are eternal, unchanging and complete. Typical examples of forms given by Plato are largeness, smallness, equality, unity, goodness, beauty and justice.

Aristotle moves the forms of Plato to the nucleus of the individual thing, which is called ousía or substance. Essence is the of the thing, the to tí en einai. Essence corresponds to the ousia's definition; essence is a real and physical aspect of the ousía. (Aristotle, "Metaphisic", I)

According to nominalists (Roscelin of Compiègne, William of Ockham, John Duns Scoto, William of Champeaux, Bernard of Chartres), universals aren't concrete entities, just voice's sounds; there are only individuals: "nam cum habeat eorum sententia nihil esse praeter individuum(...)" (Roscelin, De gener. et spec., 524). Universals are words that can to call several individuals; for example the word "homo". Therefore a universal is reduced to a sound's emission. (Roscelin, "De generibus et speciebus")

According to Edmund Husserl essence is ideal. However, ideal means that essence is the intentional object of the conscience. Essence is interpreted as sense. (E. Husserl, "Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy", paragraphs 3 and 4).


Existentialism was coined by Jean-Paul Sartre's statement that for human beings "existence precedes essence." In as much as "essence" is a cornerstone of all metaphysical philosophy and the grounding of Rationalism, Sartre's statement was a refutation of the philosophical system that had come before him (and, in particular, that of Husserl, Hegel, and Heidegger). Instead of "is-ness" generating "actuality," he argued that existence and actuality come first, and the essence is derived afterward. For Kierkegaard, it is the individual person who is the supreme moral entity, and the personal, subjective aspects of human life that are the most important; also, for Kierkegaard all of this had religious implications.[2]

In metaphysics

"Essence," in metaphysics, is often synonymous with the soul, and some existentialists argue that individuals gain their souls and spirits after they exist, that they develop their souls and spirits during their lifetimes. For Kierkegaard, however, the emphasis was upon essence as "nature." For him, there is no such thing as "human nature" that determines how a human will behave or what a human will be. First, he or she exists, and then comes attribute. Jean-Paul Sartre's more materialist and skeptical existentialism furthered this existentialist tenet by flatly refuting any metaphysical essence, any soul, and arguing instead that there is merely existence, with attributes as essence.

Thus, in existentialist discourse, essence can refer to physical aspect or attribute, to the ongoing being of a person (the character or internally determined goals), or to the infinite inbound within the human (which can be lost, can atrophy, or can be developed into an equal part with the finite), depending upon the type of existentialist discourse.

Marxism's essentialism

Karl Marx was, along with Kierkegaard, a follower of Hegel's, and he, too, developed a philosophy in reaction to his master. In his early work, Marx used Aristotalian style teleology and derived a concept of humanity's essential nature. Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 describe a theory of alienation based on human existence being completely different from human essence. Marx said human nature was social, and that humanity had the distinct essence of free activity and conscious thought.

Some scholars, such as Philip Kain, have argued that Marx abandoned the idea of a human essence, but many other scholars point to Marx's continued discussion of these ideas despite the decline of terms such as essence and alienation in his later work.


Within the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism, Candrakirti identifies the self as:

an essence of things that does not depend on others; it is an intrinsic nature. The non-existence of that is selflessness.
-- Bodhisattvayogacaryācatuḥśatakaṭikā 256.1.7

Two dominant lines of interpretation present Buddhism respectively as 1) negating the very essence of essence, or 2) negating the reducibility of essence or the problem thereof to anything falling short of it. On account of the former "relativist" reading, the concept of Buddhist Emptiness testifies to a strong assertion that all phenomena are empty of any essence (cf. the notion of smarana and the Heart Sutra), also known as Anatta/Anatman. On account of the contemporary relativistic reading of Buddhism, Buddhism's "anti-essentialism" has already been fully demonstrated to lie at the very root of Buddhist praxis. Anti-relativists object that "the very root of Buddhism" is the very essence of a tradition that points back to its very essence by negating (neti neti) any phenomenon falling short of it. Again, modern relativistic readings of Buddhism tend to present the tradition as essentially defined by the essential belief that the belief in essence is an afflictive obscuration which serves as the root of all suffering. Contemporary scholarship in line with intellectual trends such as historicism, pragmatism, globalism, etc., remains committed to reading Buddhism as rejecting the tenets of Idealism and Materialism alike, while reducing the ideas of truth and existence, along with any assertions that depend upon them, to their function within the contexts and conventions that assert them. The contextualist reading in question owes its dawn to the popularity of Relativism or Pragmatism particularly in contemporary Anglo-American academia. For the relativist interpreter of Buddhism, replacement paradoxes such as Ship of Theseus are answered by stating that the Ship of Thesesus remains so (within the conventions that assert it) until it ceases to function as the Ship of Theseus.

Among the many canonical Buddhist sources articulating a philosophical "Examination of Essence," stands Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Chapter I examines the Conditions of Existence, while Chapter XV examines Essence in itself, difference, the eternalist's view and nihilists view of essence and non-essence.


In understanding any individual personality, a distinction is made between one's Swadharma (essence) and Swabhava(mental habits and conditionings of ego personality). Svabhava is the nature of a person, which is a result of his or her samskaras (impressions created in the mind due to one's interaction with the external world). These samskaras create habits and mental models and those become our nature. While there is another kind of svabhava that is a pure internal quality - smarana - we are here focusing only on the svabhava that was created due to samskaras (because to discover the pure, internal svabhava and smarana, one should become aware of one's samskaras and take control over them). Dharma is derived from the root Dhr - to hold. It is that which holds an entity together. That is, Dharma is that which gives integrity to an entity and holds the core quality and identity (essence), form and function of that entity. Dharma is also defined as righteousness and duty. To do one's dharma is to be righteous, to do one's dharma is to do one's duty (express one's essence). [1]

Notes and References

  1. ^ S. Marc Cohen, "Aristotle's Metaphysics", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 20 April 2008.
  2. ^ The Story of Philosophy, Bryan Magee, Dorling Kindersley Lond. 1998, ISBN 0-7513-0590-1

See also

Related Concepts

Self Actualization by Maslow

External links

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