In philosophy, essence is the attribute (or set of attributes) that makes a thing be what it fundamentally is. It is often called the “nature” of a thing such that it possesses certain necessary, metaphysical characteristics or properties in contrast with merely accidental or contingent ones. It is often considered a specific power, function, or internal relation (or set of relations) which again makes the thing be the kind of thing that it is. The notion of essence has acquired many slightly but importantly different shades of meaning throughout the history of philosophy, though most of them derive in some manner from its initial use by Aristotle.
In Aristotle essence was identified with substance (ousia) or sometimes substantial form. The essence is what makes the thing be what it is. The essence of a thing or substance is able to be known and so defined accordingly. It is through the definition that we come to know essences. The most classic example is the definition of a human being as a “rational animal.” To say that the essence of Socrates is to be human is to say that Socrates possesses a certain set of properties which are necessary to a human being—namely, a rational nature and an animal nature. This most basic definition can then be expanded to include any number of various functions or powers that are specific to the essence of a human being. These would include various vegetative powers of growth and reproduction, along with the animal powers of movement, the five senses, memory, and so forth. At the same time, there are innumerable qualities, which any particular human being (such as Socrates) might possess but which are not essential to the essence of being human. For example, the brownness of his hair or the blueness of his eyes would merely be accidental or contingent features of Socrates' being.
In the scholastic tradition the term essence retained much of Aristotle’s original meaning while at the same time undergoing subtle and various nuances. First, the distinction between essence and substance became more important as essence referred more to the idea or quiddity (“whatness”) of an actual thing or substance. For the scholastics the actual substance or individual cannot be known, strictly speaking. Only its essence or idea can be known by being abstracted out of the individual existent. Here the distinction between essence and existence took on great significance. An actual existing cat (Fluffy), which sits before me, is a substance made up of both essence and existence. When I know Fluffy by defining her nature as a cat through abstract reasoning, I only know her essence in its generality as opposed to her concrete individuality.
Although in the high medieval period the essence became more associated with idea, it was still strongly believed both that the essence resided in the real or extra-mental thing and that it was able to be known. In the late medieval period and into the modern age, the conviction that human reason could attain the actual essence of a real thing was radically questioned. Although some philosophers still thought real things possessed actual natures or essences, they began to doubt whether human reason was equipped to attain these essences. For example, John Locke distinguished between “real essence” and “nominal essence.” While the real essence existed in the actual substance it was, strictly speaking, unknowable. The nominal essence, on the other hand, was the idea we attained in our mind through observation of the various sensible qualities. This nominal essence, then, was a weak substitute for the real essence.
Some other modern philosophies, such as that of George Santayana kept the vocabulary of essences but abolished the distinction between essence and accidents. For Santayana, the essence of a being is simply everything about it, independent of its existence. Essence is what-ness as distinct from that-ness. In Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre made the famous claim that "existence precedes essence." Sartre argued that existence and actuality come first, and the essence is derived afterward. This meant that there are no real natures or essences (such as human nature), but only definitions created by human beings who must first exist before they can define. Moreover, according to Sartre, these definitions of what a human being is vary from age to age and from culture to culture. Thus, for Sartre the metaphysical search for necessary and unchangeable essences is an illusory one.
In more recent philosophy, as well, the basic claims of metaphysics have been thrown into question. For instance, Quine argued that essential properties do not exist in the object as such, but rather the notion of necessity only functions in our various descriptions of certain phenomena. Likewise, phenomenologists, such as Edmund Husserl, argued that we should limit our search for essences to the various regions of experience. In other words, rather than make metaphysical assertions regarding the essence as the necessary properties of real objects, we limit ourselves to descriptions of our experience of those objects. Essence, in this case, then, is limited to the “immanent consciousness” of our experience.
In various forms of eastern thought the similar claim is made that all phenomena are empty of essence. This suggests that an anti-essentialism lies at the very root of eastern thought. For within the different schools is the common belief that essence is merely a cognitive obscuration of the ultimate One Reality. For this reason, then, these schools reject the tenets of both Idealism and Materialism; instead, it holds that all ideas of truth or existence, along with any assertions that depend upon them, are limited to their functions within the contexts and conventions of various languages and cultures.
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