Get to Know a Researcher - Philosophy's Mike Raven


Philosopher Mike Raven has won this year’s Humanities Faculty Fellowship, which recognizes strong scholars who are on the cusp of finishing a major project. Raven, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and metaphysics specialist, will explore the question, “Is there a viable notion of social essence?” Here, Raven explains why social essence is a controversial but worthwhile field of study.

You write that, since antiquity, “essences” traditionally played an important but controversial role in society. Philosophers, scientists and social theorists used the idea to explain and give meaning to the social world, including things, groups, objects and institutions. Can you give me some specific examples of what you mean by essences?

Although philosophizing about essence gets abstract, it starts with ordinary cases. Imagine a bust of Aristotle. It was formed in a studio but is now in a museum. Where it is has changed. But this makes no difference to what it is. By contrast, if the bust is smashed to bits, then it is no more. What makes the bust what it is? Not its location. Instead, the bust’s distinctive head-and-upper-torso shape is essential to what it is. In general, we may wonder of other things not just where or how they are, but what they are in the first place. What makes the metal discs in my pocket money? What makes the St. Lawrence River a national border? What makes some people a nation? For many purposes, it’s enough to answer with specific features of the metal, the river, or the people. Sometimes, however, our purposes are more abstract. We may want answers to general questions, like “What is money?” or “What is a border?” or “What is a nation?” To a philosopher, a “What is it?” question is a question of essence. These questions have long intrigued philosophers. Their answers define subjects of inquiry, whether artistic, humanistic, mathematical, philosophical, or scientific. That’s also why essences are so vexing. If we already knew in advance what it is a subject was about, then there’d be little point in further inquiry.

Why is the idea of social essences controversial? And what has contributed to renewed interest in the field?

The ancients problematized essences the moment they first asked about them. The debate for or against essence has raged on ever since. Today, essence seems most problematic in application to social items. These include institutions (nations, clubs), groups (races, genders), objects (talismans, borders), and more. Suppose we ask what is a gender or a border? Answers often were (and sometimes still are) entangled with presuppositions about essences. Philosophers, humanists, and social scientists have unmasked many of these as problematic. The case of gender provides an egregious illustration. It was often presupposed that genders had biological essences. The consensus now is that this is unscientific, philosophically unsubstantiated, and socially unjust. This and other cases pushed many theorists to reject social essences.

Philosophers are well aware of these problems. But they are also renewing their interest in essence. This confuses many non-philosophers and some philosophers too. But there is a rationale for the renewed interest. It stems from innovations by pioneers like Saul Kripke, Ruth Barcan Marcus, and Kit Fine. They developed rigorous and precise frameworks of essence. Within them, the problematic presuppositions become idle wheels. It’s like how modern physics made the aether obsolete. The problematic presuppositions are not part of the new frameworks of essence. They are dispensable. So we’re free to reject them without rejecting essence itself. That removes the main obstacle to essence cohering with science and social progress. The frameworks also don’t force essence to be “rigid”, “universal”, or “objective” in ways resistant to social dynamics and mechanisms. This empowers social ontologists and feminist metaphysicians. They can, and do, explore essentialist approaches to social categories, intersectionality, and more. Unfortunately, this philosophical work is not well known outside philosophy. (I saw many speakers at a recent social ontology conference disparage social essences while debating answers to “What is it?” questions about social kinds.) This feeds the (somewhat warranted) caricature of philosophers as socially aloof or ignorant. But there are ample opportunities for reciprocal learning between philosophy and other disciplines.

What do you think philosophy can do to bridge the divergent, often opposing ideas around social essences?

The issues are too challenging to arrogantly expect easy answers. One should have the utmost humility and respect for the complexities. Nonetheless, I am cautiously optimistic that philosophy can make modest contributions.

One contribution is to strengthen our resolve in pursuing these issues. There’s much to criticize about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s infamous “I know it when I see it” claim about obscenity. But in this context, it is especially lamentable for dodging the question “What is obscenity?”. As hard as that question may be, we shouldn’t lose our nerve and rest content with half measures. It might seem we can’t do better, if essence is tangled up with the problematic presuppositions. But dispensing with them frees us to pursue the hard questions more safely.

Another contribution is to clarify what the issues are and how to make progress on them. To illustrate, consider the systematic oppression of women. Some feminist philosophers argue that we cannot even articulate what gender oppression is without answering “What is it to be a woman?” We must avoid the paradoxical result that in rejecting bad essentialist views we make the oppression we oppose ineffable. We’d gain clarity by answering what it is that gender oppression targets. Humanists and social scientists revealed the dangers of reckless essentializing, especially about gender. Dispensing with the problematic presuppositions helps safeguard essentialist theorizing. But philosophers shouldn’t theorize alone. Theorists from many disciplines have and are continuing to uncover nuances, complications, and problems in questions like “What is it to be a woman?”. We can pool our resources. Then we can respectfully and responsibly theorize about what gender is. That promises to clarify gender oppression and, hopefully, how to counteract it. And I suspect analogous points apply to other issues as well.

What drew you to your work on social essences?

My interest in social essences originated in interests in the social and the essential individually. I was frustrated by my failure to see how they could be coherently combined. On the one hand, the problematic presuppositions about essence were troubling obstacles. On the other hand, rashly rejecting essence risked hindering efforts to understand what it is that social theorizing is about. Then I had a “Eureka!” moment at a talk by Dr. Asya Passinsky (Darthmouth) whose work focuses on the social and the essential. Her excellent work helped me understand how the two could be coherently combined. And then it was off to the races.

How does your Faculty Fellowship support the research you’re doing into this area?

I was honored and delighted to receive the Humanities Faculty Fellowship. The most tangible benefit is the course release. This will help me organize the workshop “Re-evaluating Social Essences” to be held on campus August 28-30, 2020. There’s also another benefit that, while intangible, is no less appreciated. Philosophy notoriously progresses at a tortoise’s pace: slow but steady. It’s dizzying trying not to get lost in a field so humbled by big questions and yet enamored with details. So it’s reassuring to have this wonderful recognition from the Faculty of Humanities. Thank you.

The Faculty Fellowship Lecture and Spring Gathering will take place on Wed., March 25, 4:30 pm-5:30 pm, in the SUB Upper Lounge. All welcome.