1. Essences exist.
Essences exist, but they are not eternal and unchanging. The surprising claim made here is that essences change historically. Since they change they seem very much unlike Plato’s Forms, and yet, like the Forms, they are the realities revealed in the deep thinking associated with the “what is X?” question.
Essences are the main objects of philosophical understanding. They are also accessed through mythical and artistic investigation. They seem to be eternal and unchanging because they are as if eternal and unchanging. They are emergent historically and ontologically from, and upon, the natural world. They are often emergent upon non-natural created worlds as well. Those non-natural worlds are themselves emergent upon the natural world. Essences, as I will argue, are not concepts, natural kinds, types, Forms or Universals. But they are what Plato was trying to get at when he described Forms (but failed because he turned them into gods). They are immanent, not transcendent.
Throughout my discussion of essences my paradigm will be the essence of art. The phrase "the essence of art" (as also the phrase "the essence of religion" and other such phrases) refers to something that can be described, albeit in different ways, and with different effects. It refers to something that cannot be described literally. Nor can it be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, although such definitions are often useful as a way of articulating an understanding of that essence. It does refer to something that can be described by way of certain seemingly necessary and sufficient conditions, and by certain metaphors and myths.
Essences themselves are metaphor-like. They are tensional, interactional, and capable of multiple interpretation in much the way metaphors are. Just as there is a dimension of nature that corresponds to literally true statements there is an aspect of reality that corresponds to true metaphors. Good and powerful definitions of essences are true metaphors.
The metaphoric-like nature of essences points to the idea that reality in its most significant aspect is a function of a dialectic of the fictional and the nonfictional, the unreal and the real, the unconcealed and the concealed.
Essences are the objects of investigations that are deep. Deep investigations are inexhaustible and comprehensive. They go beneath mere surface appearance, and they are critical of accepted foundations. They originate new fictional worlds, which are also, and at the same time, ways the world is.
Deep investigations take into account the entire range of human experience: not just the cognitive dimension, but also the sensuous, the emotional, and the imaginative. Deep investigation, then, is phenomenologically deep.
The word "essence" here, does not refer to natural phenomena, as in the essence of water. The search for essences, as understood here, is a search for something that exists within the lived worlds of conscious and reflective beings. Such entities could not exist without us.
Water may have an "essence" under a completely different sense of that term than that used here. Its essence would simply be a matter of what science is trying to define when it defines water. One cannot model an essentialist investigation of human things, such as art and religion, on an essentialist investigation of purely physical things. This is so, first, because human things are generally organic wholes, or participate in organic wholes, and second because human things are always constituted, in part, by consciousness.
4. Culturally Emergent.
Essences are culturally emergent entities, and thus are like such other culturally emergent entities as minds, institutions, concepts, meanings, persons, and cultures themselves. Essences are also biologically emergent through evolution. Cultural emergence is emergent upon biological emergence. Art, for example, may have been biologically emergent in our species 100,000 years ago. The essence of art continues to emerge, but now it is culturally emergent. The cultural emergence of art is on top of its biological emergence.
Essences emerge, and continue to emerge: they emerge both ontologically and historically. They emerge upon a substratum which itself is emergent in many ways. For example, the essence of art is emergent in part on artists and their activities, and these, in turn, are culturally emergent.
Essences are emergent upon, and therefore are aspects of, organic wholes. Moreover the parts of organic wholes upon which essences are emergent also have aspects that are emergent upon the whole, and therefore upon the whole's emergent essence. Emergence is therefore interactional. Even the material world-as-experienced is emergent in this way. For example, the experienced properties of a patch of paint pigment on a painting are emergent upon the contextual situation of the pigment within a larger whole (the painting) and upon the context of that painting within even larger wholes (e.g. the life of the artist, the historical movement, etc.). Pigment also has emergent properties with respect to the history of its use and associations.
5. Range of Essences.
We can speak of the essence of a person, an institution, a painting, or a concept, although the main concern of philosophers is over essences of things referred to by abstract general terms, such as "art" and "man." When does a word refer to an essence? When it refers to a culturally contested concept, that is, a concept the nature of which we argue over. In other words, a word refers to an essence we argue over its definition, and this argument expresses differing overall world-views.
This is one place where essences depart from what Plato called Forms. Plato considered largeness itself to be a Form. Insofar as there is no culturally important debate over the nature of largeness, Largeness is not an essence in my sense of the word. However, if there were to be a debate over largeness, as there is over life or art, then it would be an essence.
6. Instantiation Upon Particulars.
Although culturally emergent entities can have physical properties, they are unlike physical objects in that they instantiate, and are embodied in, other particulars. For example, a work of art instantiates the essence of art and is embodied in a physical object. The cultural world is emergent upon the natural world. An emergent entity is one that is embodied in that upon which it is emergent. Thus, the cultural world is also embodied in the natural world.
Particulars become essences when they exemplify that essence. This is perhaps a shocking claim. We tend to think of particulars as radically different from essences. But when a particular fully exemplifies beauty, for example, in the sense that it is a living exemplar, then it is the essence of beauty actualized and expressed.
7. Metaphysical Emergence.
Essences arise from metaphysical emergence. This is an extension of cultural emergence. Just as works of art are emergent upon persons, communities, and their interactions, so too essences are emergent upon all of these at a higher level. The essence of art, for example, is emergent upon persons, works of art, communities, and the art-relevant interactions between these as they relate to definitional debates.
Metaphysical emergence is not to be confused with metaphysical transcendence, the concept of which it replaces. The idea of metaphysical emergence is that entities previously thought to be metaphysically transcendent are actually immanent within the world of experience. However they are still ontologically distinct from those things upon which they are emergent.
The idea of foundationalism is here reversed. The metaphysical does not form the foundation of the structured edifice of knowledge or of being. Rather it is the crown of various events of emergence. However, since metaphysical entities (essences) are organically related to the entities upon which they are emergent, they can also be seen as "within" these too. The cultural world is itself made up of emergent entities directly, and upon the natural world indirectly. However, there is no one-to-one emergence on physical objects. For example, a sculpture is not one-to-one emergent upon a sculpture-shaped physical object. Artworks are emergent upon, and embodied in, the materials of the art object and their relations to artists and public, all of which are culturally emergent entities.
8. Essences, Concepts and Forms
As I said earlier, essences are neither concepts nor Forms. But it is helpful to understand them as in some respects very like each. For example, philosophers often see themselves as analyzing concepts. But on one common interpretation of concepts this would mean that they are analyzing something in their minds, or at least something shared by many minds in a culture. This is not what analyzing concepts really is since if it were it would be the same kind of work that lexicographers do. Or maybe it would be that plus what psychoanalysts do. But if you have an analysis of the essence of art, for example, you analyze art itself. At the same time, in analyzing art itself you are analyzing some phenomena arranged and shaped under the word “art” and this is very much like what we mean by analyzing the concept of art. This is why such analysis is inevitably historically situated. To analysis the essence of art is to participate in the ongoing dialectic of that essence. To create art seriously is also to do that.