Essentialism is a position that holds that items have a set of characteristics which defines what they are. It implies there is an essence to items prior to their existence.
Essentialism can be seen as the opposite of self-identity.
Cathy Brennan, and other trans-exclusionary radical feminists, has argued that trans women should not be allowed into woman's bathrooms because they are men in essence. This is of course absurd, but is an example of gender essentialism.
Contemplate the following quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:
|Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' "—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look!—Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ballgames,much that is common is retained, but much is lost. —Are they all 'amusing'? Compare Chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, may other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.|
Wittgenstein demonstrates the trouble with attempting to precisely define the essence of games, which is analogous for any word for Wittgenstein. His point is that you will never find a definition that works infallibly because they lack the important context in which they are used. This is Wittgenstein's meaning as use. You can't offer a specific and concise definition because of plurality and Wittgenstein is arguing that you don't need one to use the word effectively.
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- Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 1953 32-33