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Excerpt From:  “The Politics of Difference v. the Ethics of Essentializing:  Looking Backward and Looking Forward at Humanities Discourse About Human Nature,” AHHE (Arts and Humanities In Higher Education) I.2 (Fall 2002): 125-44.


This is not to say that the critics of essentialism have got everything wrong. When feminists like Judith Butler and Diana Fuss take patriarchy to task for essentializing such cultural constructions as femininity and femaleness, or when Edward Said takes western society to task for essentializing “orientalism,” they and others are quite right to point out that what are being falsely essentialized are really nothing more than historical and cultural contingencies. However, critics of essentialism too seldom consider that the problem with essentialism is not essentializing as such but essentializing the wrong things. Of course “the nurturing female,” for example, is a cultural and historical construction, not a female essence, and essentialists who have thought differently have, indeed, as their critics say, indulged in false philosophizing as a ruse for maintaining their political power. But this criticism of essentialism’s misapplications, as helpful as it has been, threatens to fall into the same error it criticizes. That is, anti-essentialists who think they have discovered the embrace of “difference” as a principle of justice and openness in itself not only lean strongly toward a new kind of essentialism, revealed in the frequent and uncritical ease with which feminists glibly essentialize men and the ease with which Said essentializes westerners as misapproporiaters of orientialism, but they also misapply their emphasis on historical contingencies by assuming that the sheer existence of contingencies proves something important. Historical contingencies prove nothing of importance in themselves. Historical contingencies, whether oppressive or inclusive, only become one or the other by virtue of the theories, morality, and politics that shape the values of the perceiver. And these theories will inevitably entail definitions—definitions of goodness, badness, honor, courage, kindness, virtue, or whatever—and definitions, by their nature, always essentialize.