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In philosophy, essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an entity 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 entity or substance has contingency, without which the substance can still retain its identity. The concept originates with Aristotle, who used the Greek expression to ti ên einai (τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, literally meaning "the what it was to be" and corresponding to the scholastic term quiddity) or sometimes the shorter phrase to ti esti (τὸ τί ἐστι, literally meaning "the what it is" and corresponding to the scholastic term haecceity) for the same idea. This phrase presented such difficulties for its Latin translators that they coined the word essentia (English "essence") to represent the whole expression. For Aristotle and his scholastic followers, the notion of essence is closely linked to that of definition (ὁρισμός horismos).
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.
In his dialogues Plato suggests that concrete beings acquire their essence through their relations to "Forms"—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". When used in this sense, the word form is often capitalized. 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 tí of the thing, the to tí en einai. Essence corresponds to the ousia's definition; essence is a real and physical aspect of the ousia (Aristotle, Metaphysics, I).
According to nominalists (Roscelin of Compiègne, William of Ockham, 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 of Rationalism, Sartre's statement was a repudiation 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.
"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.
Karl Marx was a follower of Hegel's thought, and he, too, developed a philosophy in reaction to his master. In his early work, Marx used Aristotelian 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.
BuddhismWithin the Madhyamaka 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.Buddhapālita adds, while commenting on Nagārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā,— Bodhisattvayogacaryācatuḥśatakaṭikā 256.1.7
What is the reality of things just as it is? It is the absence of essence. Unskilled persons whose eye of intelligence is obscured by the darkness of delusion conceive of an essence of things and then generate attachment and hostility with regard to them.—Buddhapālita-mula-madhyamaka-vrtti, P5242, 73.5.6-74.1.2
For the Madhyamaka Buddhists, 'Emptiness' (also known as Anatta or Anatman) is the strong assertion that all phenomena are empty of any essence, and that anti-essentialism lies at the root of Buddhist praxis and it is the innate belief in essence that is considered to be an afflictive obscuration which serves as the root of all suffering. However, the Madhyamaka also rejects the tenets of Idealism, Materialism or Nihilism; instead, the ideas of truth or existence, along with any assertions that depend upon them are limited to their function within the contexts and conventions that assert them, possibly somewhat akin to Relativism or Pragmatism. For the Madhyamaka, 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 "god of love," 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 nihilist's 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).
Notes and references
- Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1029b
- Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1030a
- S. Marc Cohen, "Aristotle's Metaphysics", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 20 April 2008.
- "Chapter 28: Form" of The Great Ideas: A Synopticon of Great Books of the Western World (Vol. II). Encyclopaedia Britannica (1952), p. 526-542. This source states that Form or Idea get capitalized according to this convention when they refer "to that which is separate from the characteristics of material things and from the ideas in our mind."
- The Story of Philosophy, Bryan Magee, Dorling Kindersley Lond. 1998, ISBN 0-7513-0590-1
- Translations from "The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment", Vol. 3 by Tsong-Kha-Pa, Snow Lion Publications ISBN 1-55939-166-9
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- Maurice De Wulf: "Nominalism, Realism, Conceptualism.", in: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.
- Essential vs. Accidental Properties entry by Teresa Robertson & Philip Atkins in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy