Saturday, 14 November 2009

Essentialism, Ideal Forms, Plato, Buddhism and Generic Images.

Ocean of Nectar - cover picture of Chandrakirti,
the Buddhist philosopher who formulated
the rejection of essentialism - Tharpa

Plato and Essentialism
Essentialism is the philosophical theory that particular instances of objects derive their identity as members of a class by 'participating in', or by reference to, an Ideal Form which is their 'essence'.

The theory was first formalised by Plato, who said 'We customarily hypothesize a single form in connection with each of the many things to which we apply the same name. ... For example, there are many beds and tables. ... But there are only two forms of such furniture, one of the bed and one of the table.'

Thus there are countless tables in the world but the form of tableness is at the core; it is the essence of all of them.

Plato held that the world of forms is separate from our own world (the world of substances) and also is the true basis of reality. Removed from matter, forms are the most pure of all things. Furthermore, Plato believed that true knowledge/intelligence is the ability to grasp the world of forms with one's mind. (But see boxiness and trayfulness for a refutation of this argument)

Inherent existence of Ideal Forms
A form is aspatial (outside the world) and atemporal (outside time).

Atemporal means that it does not exist within any time period. It did not start, there is no duration in time, and it will not end. It is neither eternal in the sense of existing forever or mortal, of limited duration. It exists outside time altogether.

Forms are aspatial in that they have no spatial dimensions, and thus no orientation in space, nor do they even (like the point) have a location. They are non-physical, but they are not in the mind. Forms are extra-mental. [In Buddhist terminology we would say they are 'inherently existent'. ]

Darwinism versus essentialism
Similarly plants, animals etc were thought to derive their form by 'reference to' or 'participating in' the Ideal Form of Rose or Dog etc (see Evolution for a refutation of this)

In Buddhism, essentialism is known as 'production from inherently existing other' (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso - Ocean of Nectar p187) and was rejected by Chandrakirti in the seventh century AD.

But it took well into the twentieth century for essentialism to be banished from the West, probably due to the influence of Plato in philosophy and Creationism in religion (Ideal Forms of all the separate and distinct species were believed to have originated in the mind of God and then were implemented in the six days of creation.)

In fact, essentialism still lingers on as Creationism in some backward places :
'Even today Darwin's overthrow of essentialism has not been completely assimilated .... the Darwinian mutation, which at first seemed to be just a new way of thinking about kinds in biology, can spread to other phenomena and other disciplines, as we shall see. There are persistent problems both inside and outside biology that readily dissolve once we adopt the Darwinian perspective on what makes a thing the sort of thing it is, but the tradition-bound resistance to this idea persists.' (Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea , p 39)

Buddhism and the problem of universals
So if Buddhism rejects inherently existing ideal forms or essences, how does it deal with the problem of universals?

Well, instead of ideal forms it has the complete opposite - totally empty conceptual holes known as 'generic images'. These are double negative logical constructions. Thus the generic image of an elephant is the opposite of non-elephant. Double-negation may seem a rather strange way of identifying anything, but there is some evidence that negation may be a more efficient algorithm for identification than 'mapping-on', see Generic Images.

- Sean Robsville



Rational Buddhism

Essentialism in Physics, Chemistry and Biology

Generic Images in Buddhism

Inherent Existence in Buddhist Philosophy

Evolution is no Threat to Buddhism

Existence, Impermanence and Emptiness in Buddhism

Sunyata - the emptiness of all things

Why Beauty Matters - Spiritual Art versus the Cult of Ugliness




No comments: