Taking exceptions seriously

Essentialism, constructionism, and the proliferation of particularities

Authored by: Mimi Marinucci

The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Feminism

Print publication date:  May  2019
Online publication date:  May  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138845114
eBook ISBN: 9781315728346
Adobe ISBN:


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Essentialism is a concept that can be applied to just about any category to indicate that the various members of that category all share specific properties that unite them with one another, while simultaneously differentiating them from everything else. Additionally, essentialism suggests that the basis for determining which things belong to which categories is something that people discover rather than something they create. According to this account, the boundaries between and among categories do not themselves change, even if social and scientific beliefs about those boundaries is subject to revision. In other words, while we might be ignorant of, or mistaken about, what the categories are, essentialism is nevertheless committed to the belief that there are some things that are intrinsically and fundamentally the same, and some things that are intrinsically and fundamentally different. According to essentialism, the world divides naturally into distinct categories, or natural kinds, which exist independently of our ability to recognize these natural divisions. Indeed, the idea that science aims to “carve nature at its joints,” which dates at least as far back as Plato (Phaedrus, 265d–266a), is representative of the long-held and widespread belief that the world divides innately into natural groupings, and that these natural groupings would exist even if they remained unknown to us. According to this belief, individuals are members of the same species, for example, because they bear a relationship to one another that purports to identify something fundamental about the structure of the natural world.

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