Sunday 12 January 2014

Richard Dawkins on Retiring Essentialism

As someone who exists in the real world, I'm always interested in the annual "big question" event organised by, the online home for clever folk who keep it real by talking about the real. This year, the question posed by this forum of what the Graun likes to call the "world's most brilliant minds" was "which scientific idea would you retire, and why?" Interesting. You can read Ian McEwan's polemic against arrogance, Azra Raza on the use of mouse models in science, and Stewart Brand on the linear no-threshold radiation dose hypothesis. By all means, take a look. It's interesting. But also in there is your friend and mine, Richard Dawkins. The scientific idea he'd like to see confined to the wheely bin of ideas is ... essentialism.

One might quibble whether it is correct to describe essentialism as a scientific idea, but then again it's something you can still find kicking its way through popular cultural artefacts and continues informing ostensible scientific study. Dawkins takes essentialism to task as a fundamental category error, of confusing the concept that describes and object with the object itself. Hence in his example, all rabbits have a certain "rabbitness" inscribed into their furry, hoppy natures. Each individual rabbit embodies the essence of rabbit as described by the concept 'rabbit'. In such conceptual terms it is at best supremely difficult and distorting, and at worse completely useless to think about the evolution of species in this way. When did rabbits become rabbits? At what point in the fossil record did evolution convey on them the essentialness of rabbitry? As Dawkins rightly notes, the question is as dumb as it is pointless.

Of course, in sociology and politics we've had our own battles with essentialism. In social science and philosophy, with the odd exception, essentialism has long been routed from theoretical discourse. The coincident impacts of feminism, anti-racism/post-colonialism, queer theory, Althusserian Marxism condensed with the rise of postmodernism and the deconstructive impulse of post-structuralist philosophy has dropkicked Plato's legacy out of the ring. For the first time since August Comte penned his Course in Positivist Philosophy there is an unspoken consensus in social theory at large. There are still fierce disputes between rival perspectives that will never go away, but there is a core acceptance in post-postmodern social science around a very broad definition of history founded on the materiality of social dynamics/processes. Unconsciously Marxist is stretching it a bit, but the acceptance of the contradictory interconnectedness of things has sneaked into the default common sense. The economist Joan Robinson once observed you couldn't read Capital without Hegel's nose popping out. Likewise, you open a work of social theory today and you'll find a few unremarked upon wisps of Marx's beard.

Dawkins has from time-to-time embroiled himself in controversy over careless remarks. One might almost call it trolling. For example, this spot of controversy came about after tweeting comments that are a little bit essentialist and shade into the Islamophoic. And, of course, you don't need me to remind you that there are plenty about who read the behaviour of Muslims off from the more problematic passages of the Qu'ran. Always it's particularly pernicious understandings of the category 'Islam' each and every Muslim is held to be an appendage of. Alongside his unguarded stereotyping, I noted here yonks ago his atheism, and that promulgated by the so-called "new atheism" is, philosophically speaking, idealist. This is what was said then:
On the one level Dawkins accepts Wittgenstein’s famous dictum that “the world is all that is the case” but for him this remains a contemplative position. This might be enough to see him through his studies of genetics but an abstract nod to a godless world is unsuited for understanding the sensuous and active world in which we live. We cannot grasp the pull of religious ideas without simultaneously being aware of the real, historical existence of the people who adhere to them. It is not enough to suggest religion speaks to universal human concerns. That cannot begin to explain why, for example, the Palestinian militant is more likely to adopt fundamentalist Islam than the Orthodox Judaism of the Israeli settler. But also mundane everyday life is, for the overwhelming majority, profoundly alienating. Those who sell their labour power for a wage or a salary give themselves over to a power outside themselves for a set period of time, which shoe-horns them into a circumscribed role, directs their pace of work and then denies them access to the full fruits of their labour. When society is subordinated to the demands of a blind alien power, when people are atomised, individuated and powerless, the belief we are but feathers buffeted by a divine wind can make more sense than salvation lying in our own self-activity as beings capable of consciously making history.
In other words, the critique of religion - if one is interested in such things - has to be approached as a social phenomena, as what good old Durkheim called a social fact. Unfortunately though Dawkins' contemplative position sets up an opposition, a rigid distinction between believers of whatever creed, and the godless. Being unbelieving is a matter of personal growth, of intellectual and mental maturity, of possessing reasonable and rational-critical faculties. One might observe that this idealist position lapses into essentialist thinking. It's not that all religious people are unintelligent, but clearly on some level they're all stupid, or so the assumption goes.

Regardless of what one thinks of Dawkins, whether one hangs on his every dot and comma or takes a more critical stance, his choice to dump essentialism is an interesting one as binning it means breaking with a component of his own philosophical atheism. Hopefully some fresh, more interesting thinking through of religion and atheism is just around the corner.


Ken said...

Yes, all the answers are interesting in their own ways.

Dawkins has been making the same point about essentialism for a long time. (I forget which of his many books it's in.) I think it was first made by Meyr and popularized by George Gaylord Simpson. I got the point about population versus essence when I was studying zoology way back in the mid-70s.

So this not a new theorectial departure for Dawkins, I'm afraid. Incidentally, I notice in the earlier post you link to that you advance a philosophical critique of The God Delusion without having read the book.

Yakoub said...

Dawkins criticising essentialism? That's a laugh. By the way, the idea of religion as a single social category is seriously under threat in religious studies.

- Fitzgerald, T. [Ed.] (2007) 'Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations' (Equinox)
- Masuzawa, T. (2005) 'The Invention of World Religions' (The University of Chicago Press)
- McCutcheon, R. T. (1997) 'Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse of Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia' (Oxford University Press)

Speedy said...

This issue often comes up in discussions about multiculturalism when one side says - well what is British culture anyway, fish and chips, pubs, etc, come on, it doesn't exist! Ironically however this tends to be the side that pushes multiculturalism, despite what the word actually says.

So if there is no British, Indian, Bangladeshi culture - why can we say that one person is Bangladeshi and another not?

Presumably, the language, the traditions, the food, the religion, etc.

Of course there may be south or north Bengalis, some in India, etc. But there is still a culture? It is still a thing?

Immament criticism was developed as an academic exercise to challenge "commons sense" notions about how things (like assumptions about culture) work by isolating the subject in a kind of intellectual laboratory?

However, by definition, by isolating it in this sterile environment it is not a relevant real world comparison because although you can say "look how Western society has influenced Bangladeshi pop music, so how can you say their pop is Bangladeshi" when taken "out of the laboratory" you can see a clear contrast between, say, Chinese and Bangladeshi pop music in comparison with each other, even though there may be grey areas (instruments, for example).

As you infer, this way of thinking (Immament criticism) has gained popular purchase, and, given how many policy makers and commentators were trained has probably gone on to affect the world we live in (the immigration debate for example - how can cultural impact matter if there is "no" culture?).

Yet to do so is essentially to abuse an academic tool - dismissing essentialism may work as a form of artificial analysis (indeed, in science, in the laboratory), but if you are hungry you don't want to eat a cat thinking just because it has four legs and fur it is a rabbit.