Winter 2019 HC 431H: Essentialism in Cognition and Culture

Winter Term, 2018-2019

Professor: Dare Baldwin

4.00 credits

CRN 23384: Tuesday & Thursday, 14:00 – 15:20 @ GSH 103

"[Essence is] the very being of anything, whereby it is what it is. And thus the real internal, but generally... unknown constitution of things, whereon their discoverable qualities depend, may be called their essence." – John Locke (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689, Book III, Chapter iii, Section 15)

The topic of essentialism is central to several disciplines as well as to everyday cognition and social functioning. Philosophers have long debated whether category membership is defined by a non obvious, immutable core or essence that constitutes the underlying nature of the category. However, the view that biological and social categories actually are grounded in essences has been challenged on a number of fronts by geneticists and physical anthropologists, as well as by philosophers of biology. For example, racial differences are often assumed to be grounded in some essential manner in the human genome. However, findings from the Human Genome Project are generally agreed to contradict this view: within-race DNA differences in fact tend to exceed between-race differences. 

Cognitive scientists have examined a different, yet equally important, set of issues surrounding the topic of essentialism: they are concerned with whether an implicit belief in essences (psychological essentialism) tends to characterize people’s thinking about categories. If so, such a default (and largely unconscious) bias in human thought could  systematically influence cognitive and social functioning in myriad and potentially significant ways. Along these lines, developmental psychologists have explored whether essentialist beliefs underlie young children’s thinking about concepts or whether early concepts are instead formed merely on the basis of outer, perceptual features. Social psychologists have studied essentialist beliefs about racial, gender, and sexual-preference categories as contributors to stereotyping and prejudice. Social and clinical psychologists have also addressed whether essentialist notions underlie judgments about personality, mental health, and continuity in personal identity across time (e.g., whether, and in what sense, an individual at very different points in the lifespan can be said to be the “same” person). Finally, cultural anthropologists have investigated the extent to which psychological essentialism is a universal characteristic of human reasoning. Does it, for example, characterize the thinking of individuals from non-western as well as western cultures?

This course will examine a broad range of such issues, encouraging students to observe ways in which fundamental cognitive propensities such as psychological essentialism can shape human activities in domains as diverse as scientific discovery, jury decision-making, educational curricula, and children’s willingness to persist in the face of initial failure. Taught from the perspective of a psychologist, the course will bring recent scientific evidence to bear on a topic that is both at the nexus of interdisciplinary dialogue and has bearing on socio-political issues of great and continuing cultural significance.