ANTIESSENTIALISM (Greek, ’αντι- [anti]—against; Latin essentia—essence)—the opposite of essentialism, a philosophical position that eliminates from scientific knowledge or even from any cultural discourse the questions of essence that begin with the interrogative particle “what” or its logical equivalent, e.g., “what is it?”, “what is something?”, “who is somebody?” (what is truth?, what is morality?, who is man?).

Antiessentialism was anticipated beginning in ancient Greece in skepticism, agnosticism, relativism, and irrationalism, and it appeared in the 1940s and 1950s in British analytic philosophy in its so-called linguistic school. The so-called second philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein played the deciding role in the beginning of the linguistic turn. The Viennese thinker formed the basic framework of this philosophy in 1932 and 1933, and in particular in 1939 to 1947 in Cambridge. In this philosophy he rejects the essentialism (idealism) that is expressed in Parmenides’ thesis concerning the identity (or isomorphy) of language and being (Tractatus logico-philosophicus, F 1999) in favor of philosophy as an empirical description of the ways language functions in the various linguistic games that create culture, e.g., science, religion, and art. The purpose of description is to recognize the so-called grammar of a given linguistic game, its pragmatic (conventional) but singular criterion of correctness or competence in the use of language (Philosophische Untersuchungen—Philosophical Investigations, Ox 1953).

Although the presence of antiessentialism is apparent in the analytic theory of knowledge and ethics, it is especially strong in aesthetics. According to antiessentialists, questions of essence wrongly presuppose that a common nature or a common denominator of art, beauty, and aesthetic taste exists objectively as a Platonic idea in an ontologically absolute sphere and is the exemplar cause and necessary criterion for evaluating human actions and products according to their degree of participation in the idea proper to them. The history of the theory of art is a history of a search for such ideas that was as obsessive as it was fruitless; e.g., various thinkers defined art as an imitation or nature, intuition or expression, an illusion or aesthetic emotion, a disinterested complacence, a significant form, harmony, proportion, or unity in multiplicity. Meanwhile the practice of art shows that each of these examples of properties describes only a small fragment of the attainments of art. According to antiessentialists this implies that there is no common property or set of properties in art, and therefore a philosophical theory of art is logically precluded, not merely difficult to build (M. Weitz, W. B. Kennick). According to the antiessentialists, the history of thought concerning art or beauty testifies to the notorious variability of concepts and approaches, themes and subject matters, ends that are set for art, and aesthetic preferences, which—approaching the problem in meta-objective stylization—allows them to state that the word “art” and the other terms “aesthetic game” have a revisable denotation, and their concepts are open concepts, perennially flexible and debatable. Any attempt to determine their content and to limit their scope is a priori doomed to failure. The essentialist fallacy that has plagued the history of philosophy to this day arises from ignorance of the fact that the world changes and that therefore it is necessary to make a parallel modification in the concepts of cultural discourse. Essentialism comes from the a priori “deduction” of linguistic norms and concepts from an uncritically accepted vision of the world and the purpose of human life, from an extrapolation of an ethnic use of language to the whole of the human population, or from an administrative decision about language in the context of a social ideology (P. Ziff, S. Hampshire, T. J. Diffey, M. Cohen, J. Wisdom, A. Danto). The essentialist fallacy leads to normativism and reductionism, to the petrification and paralysis of culture; theories and definitions that resort to essence are fallacious in cultural discourse (G. Stein, J. Fisher, M. Battin, A. Silvers).

From the accuracy of the critique of philosophical essentialism (idealism) it does not follow that antiessentialism is correct. Antiessentialism faces the following objections: from that fact that no one to this day—and this is the truth—has built a neutral definition of art or beauty, or formed a theory to show the ultimate reasons for the existence of art, it does not follow that such a definition or theory is logically precluded. Antiessentialists do not differentiate between two different epistemological aspects of theory: the problem of definition, when we ask. e.g., “what is art?”, as distinct from the problem of explaining the fact of art, when we ask “why does art exist?” and “what is the connection of art with truth, good, and beauty?". The key theses of antiessentialism such as “art does not possess an essence” are internally contradictory and—despite the presuppositions of antiessentialism—universal; antiessentialism is often largely ignorant of the attainments of tradition and is too quick to accuse tradition of the fallacy of essentialism (idealism); the judgment that theory is useless in the practical life of culture is misleading, since a necessary condition for any discourse to be meaningful is that its theoretical presuppositions should be made plain and it should be made into a self-aware discourse; antiessentialism reduces all statements about the world and culture—including one’s own—to the level of opinion and expressions with no objects. A consequence of the logical fallacies of antiessentialism (non sequitur, ignoratio elenchi, pars pro toto, contradictio in adjecto) is that it sanctions the nihilistic “anti” ideology (postmodernism] in culture. A fallacious ontology (a theory of being) and a fallacious theory of knowledge lie at the foundations of antiessentialism. In the theory of knowledge there is an empiricist and nominalist conception of experience and as a result cultural dialogue is only a collection games and conventions marked by linguistic pragmatics; every use of language is primarily normative and only secondarily—by social convention—descriptive. This paradoxical thesis underlies the conception of so-called open concepts. In turn, as much as essentialism (idealism) presupposes a so-called ontological statism—being is Idea-Identity-Invariability—and a radical epistemological rationalism that leads in culture to apriorism (normativism, reductionism, totalitarianism), to the same extent antiessentialism grows out of ontological mobilism (variabilism): being is Motion-Indefiniteness—and from epistemological empiricism and nominalism (conceptualism) which in culture translate into relativism and liberalism (anarchism). Both schools of thought are equally fallacious. Neither one explains the world and culture, but project it, and so they are—like modernism and postmodernism—ideologies (social technologies).

Aesthetics and Language, Ox, NY 1954; B. Jessup, Analytical Philosophy and Aesthetics, British Journal of Aesthetics 3 (1962) n. 3, 223–233; J. Margolis, Philosophy Looks at the Arts, NY 1962; M. Mandelbaum, Family Resemblances and Generalizations Concerning the Arts, American Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1965) bn. 3, 219–228; P. Ziff, Philosophical Turnings, It (NY) 1966; L. van Haecht, L’esthétique analitique, Review of Philosophy 68 (1970), 11–30; B. R. Tilghman, Language and Aesthetics, Lawrence (Ks.) 1973; H. Kiereś, Anglosaska estetyka analityczna [Anglo-Saxon analytic aesthetics], in: A. B. Stępień, Propedeutyka estetyki [propaedeutics of aesthetics], Wwa 1975, Lb 1986², 143–175; W. Weitz, The Opening Mind. A Philosophical Study of Humanistic Concepts, Ch-L 1977; M. H. Snoeyenbos, On the Possibility of Theoretical Aesthetics, Metaphilosophy 9 (1978) n. 2, 108–121; H. Kiereś, Spór o sztukę [Controversy over art], Lb 1996; idem, Służyć kulturze [to serve culture], Lb 1998.

Henryk Kiereś

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