Like most terms in philosophy, ‘essentialism’ gets used in a variety of different ways in a variety of different contexts. In its most general use, though, essentialism is the view that some things have essences. What is an essence? Accounts differ, but roughly at least we can say that an essence is a set of properties that a thing must have so long as it is the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is. Not all properties that a thing has are essential, because some of them are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is; these are so-called accidental properties. Philosophers argue about whether this is the right way to understand essences and essential properties. Some, for instance, follow Aristotle in distinguishing further between necessary properties and essential properties: a property is necessary if it is one that a thing must have to be the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is, but a property is essential only if it is both necessary and fundamental, explaining why the thing has the other necessary properties it has, but not itself explained in terms of some other property. I’m not much interested here in the distinction between necessary and essential properties. What interests me is that there are plenty of philosophers who want to reject essentialism altogether. They don’t just want to say that for some categories, such as ‘human’ or ‘American’ or ‘fun,’ there is no set of properties that everything falling within that category must have and cannot lose without ceasing to belong to that category. Instead, they want to deny that there are any essential properties at all. I find this puzzling. Here’s why.
If nothing has any essential properties, then, naturally enough, there is no legitimate distinction to be made between essential and accidental properties. But if there is no legitimate distinction between essential and accidental properties, then how is change possible in anything like the way we normally understand it? Essential properties are (at least a sub-set of) properties that a thing cannot lose without ceasing to exist, whereas accidental properties are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to exist. If no such distinction is to be had, then what can we say about cases in which things seem to gain and lose properties without ceasing to exist, and how can we distinguish these cases from cases in which things cease to exist because they lose some properties? It seems that, if the distinction between essential and accidental properties is abandoned, then whenever something gains or loses any property at all, it ceases to exist and is replaced by a new entity. So when I go outside in the humid swamp that is Houston and I become hot, I cease to exist and am replaced by a new entity that is otherwise like me but hot; when I then go back inside into my gloriously air-conditioned apartment and cool down, I again cease to exist and am replaced by a new entity that is otherwise like me but cool. Such cases would differ only superficially from those that we’re more accustomed to think of as my ceasing to exist; when I go outside my apartment and am killed by a runaway ice cream truck, I cease to exist and am replaced by a new entity, just as in the other cases, but this entity shares fewer other properties with me; it is not conscious or alive, it lacks some of the bodily fluids jettisoned upon the impact of the ice cream truck, and so on. When that entity’s organs are harvested and the remainder is cremated, it too ceases to exist and is replaced by a plurality of entities, some of which share some of the properties with my formerly existing corpse, others of which do not. But these cases are pretty much just like the case where I went outside into the swamp and got hot; it’s not that one and the same, numerically identical entity gained or lost some properties in that case but ceased to exist when clobbered by the ice cream truck; in both cases one entity ceased to exist and was replaced by another entity with a different set of properties, it’s just that in one case the new entity was more similar to the old one.
This is, to say the least, a wildly counter-intuitive result. Nothing persists through change; every change involves the passing-away of one entity and the coming-to-be of a new entity. But it looks like this, or something about as wild as this, would have to follow from a rejection of essentialism. It’s not surprising that some philosophers would accept this implication; philosophers will believe almost anything. But it seems like an awfully steep price to pay for rejecting essentialism.
So my question to those who are more metaphysically talented than I am is: is something like this really an unavoidable consequence of rejecting essentialism? And if so, why reject essentialism? Is it really any more problematic than the view that nothing persists through change? It’s not hard to see why one might reject essentialist views of certain categories or concepts; perhaps there is no non-disjunctive set of properties that belong to every and all games, as in Wittgenstein’s famous example, or every and all human beings, or every and all living things, or every and all Alaskans, or whatever. But that’s a far cry from holding that there is no set of properties that a given thing must have and cannot lose while remaining the numerically same individual thing.
I am metaphysically naive, though. So perhaps you can help me out. I can see my way more or less clearly to a few alternative responses, but I think I probably have more to learn from others than they do from me on this topic.