There is an argument that essentialism has flourished as an evolutionary strategy because of its ability to exploit rich inductive potential. This makes perfect sense to me when you think about the valuable inferences one can make from something's sensual appearance to its likely nutritional value, for example. Getting a little more sophisticated, our ability to consistently manipulate our varied environments, an ability which continues to flourish at the pinnacle of engineering, gains enormously from the knowledge of a material's invariable set of properties without the need for continual investigation and testing. I think there comes a point, though, where the exploitation of rich inductive potential, via the reification of supposedly intrinsic relationships between properties, gives way to maladaptation and/or prejudice.
I think one of the victims of essentialisation throughout the past has been the human self. The idea that the human self has a core set of inherent properties which determine one's growth, boundaries, capabilities, and identity has been with us in various forms for some time. It seems clear that how one conceives of the human self has massive implications for behaviour and morality and so I have been considering how well the essentialised self bears up in the 21st Century. I came across an excellent article by Kenneth J. Gergen who argues that the traditional individual/community binary has given way under the pressure of a largely technological transformation of the processes of sociation and this leaves space for a new candidate for the role of moral agent. It chimes in with the way I've been thinking but is formulated in much clearer terms. The full article can be found here: http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/kgergen1/web/page.phtml?id=manu30&st=manuscripts=1
Here is an excerpt which questions the viability of the essentialised self as moral agent:
In my view the transformation of the technological ethos slowly undermines the intelligibility of the individual self as an originary source of moral action. The reasons are many and cumulative; I limit discussion here to several concatenating tendencies:
- Polyvocality. By dramatically expanding the range of information to which we are exposed, the range of persons with whom we have significant interchange, and the range of opinion available within multiple media sites, so do we become privy to multiple realities. Or more simply, the comfort of parochial univocality is disturbed....To the extent that these standpoints are intelligible, they also enter the compendium of resources available for the individual's own deliberations. In a Bakhtinian vein, the individual approaches a state of radical polyvocality. If one does acquire an increasingly diverse vocabulary of deliberation, how is a satisfactory decision to be reached? The inward examination of consciousness yields not coherence but cacophony; there is not a "still small voice of conscience" but a chorus of competing contenders.....if "inward looking" becomes increasingly less useful for matters of moral action, does the concern with "my state of mind" not lose its urgency? The more compelling option is for the individual to turn outward to social context - to detect the ambient opinion, to negotiate, compromise, and improvise. And in this move from the private interior to the social sphere, the presumption of a private self as a source of moral direction is subverted. If negotiating the complexities of multiplicity becomes normalized, so does the conception of mind as moral touchstone grow stale.
- Plasticity. As the technologies of sociation increase our immersion in information and evaluation, so do they expand the scope and complexity of our activities. We engage in a greater range of relationships distributed over numerous and variegated sites, from the face-to-face encounters in the neighborhood and workplace, to professional and recreational relationships that often span continents. Further, because of the rapid movement of information and opinion, the half life of various products and policies is shortened, and the opportunities for novel departures expanded...... It was only four decades ago when David Riesman's celebrated book, The Lonely Crowd, championed the virtues of the inner directed man, and condemned the other directed individual for lack of character - a man without a gyroscopic center of being. In the new techno-based ethos there is little need for the inner-directed, one-style-for-all individual. Such a person is narrow, parochial, inflexible. In the fast pace of the technological society, concern with the inner life is a luxury - if not a waste of time. We now celebrate protean being. In either case, the interior self recedes in significance.
- Repetition. Let us consider a more subtle mode of self-erosion, owing in this instance to the increasing inundation of images, stories, and information. Consider here those confirmatory moments of individual authorship, moments in which the sense of authentic action becomes palpably transparent. Given the Western tradition of individualism, these are typically moments in which we apprehend our actions as unique, in which we are not merely duplicating models, obeying orders, or following conventions. Rather, in the innovative act we locate a guarantee of self as originary source, a creative agent, an author of one's own morality. Yet, in a world in which the technologies facilitate an enormous sophistication in "how it goes," such moments become increasingly rare....Should one attempt to secure confirmation of agency from a public action - political remonstrance, religious expression, musical performance, and the like - the problems of authenticity are even more acute. First, the existing technologies do not allow us to escape the past. Rather, images of the past are stored, resurrected, and recreated as never before. In this sense, the leap from oral to print memory was only the beginning of a dramatic technological infusion of cultural memory. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid observations of how any notable action is historically prepared.
- Transience. To the extent that one is surrounded by a cast of others who respond to one in a similar way, a sense of unified self may result. One may come to understand, for example, that he is the first son of an esteemed high school teacher and a devoted mother, a star of the baseball team, and a devout Catholic. This sense of perdurable character also furnishes a standard against which the morality of one's acts can be judged. One can know that "this just isn't me," that "If I did that I would feel insufferable guilt." However, with the accumulating effects of the technologies of sociation, one now becomes transient, a nomad, or a "homeless mind." The continuous reminders of one's identity - of who one is and always has been - no longer prevail. The internal standard grows pallid, and in the end, one must imagine that it counts for little in the generation of moral action.
There is a more subtle effect of such techno-induced transience. It is not only a coherent community that lends itself to the sense of personal depth. It is also the availability of others who provide the time and attention necessary for a sense of an unfolding interior to emerge. The process of psychoanalysis is illustrative. As the analyst listens with hovering interest to the words of the analysand, and these words prompt questions of deeper meaning, there is created for the analysand the sense of palpable interiority, the reality of a realm beyond the superficially given, or in effect, a sense of individual depth. The process requires time and attention. And so it is in daily life; one acquires the sense of depth primarily when there is ample time for exploration, time for moving beyond instrumental calculations to matters of "deeper desire," forgotten fantasies, to "what really counts." Yet, it is precisely this kind of "time off the merry-go-round" that is increasingly difficult to locate. In the techno-dominated world, one must keep moving, the network is vast, commitments are many, expectations are endless, opportunities abound, and time is a scarce commodity.
Each of these tendencies - toward polyvocality, plasticity, repetition, and transience - function so as to undermine the longstanding presumption of a palpable self, personal consciousness as an agentive source, or interior character as a touchstone of the moral life. Yet, while lamentable in certain respects, the waning intelligibility of moral selves is much welcomed in other quarters. Both intellectually and ideologically the concept of the self as moral atom is flawed. On the conceptual level, it is not simply that the conception of moral agency recapitulates the thorny problems of epistemological dualism - subject vs. object, mind vs. body, minds knowing other minds - but the very idea of an independent decision maker is uncompelling. How, it is asked, could moral thought take place except within the categories supplied by the culture? If we subtracted the entire vocabulary of the culture from individual subjectivity, how could the individual form questions about justice, duty, rights, or moral goods? In Michael Sandel's terms, "To imagine a person incapable of constitutive attachments...is not to conceive an ideally free and rational agent, but to imagine a person wholly without character, without moral depth.
(Kenneth J. Gergen, Technology, Self, and the Moral Project)