Essentialism

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Essentialism is the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function. [1] In early Western thought, Plato's idealism held that all things have such an "essence"—an "idea" or "form". In Categories, Aristotle similarly proposed that all objects have a substance that, as George Lakoff put it, "make the thing what it is, and without which it would be not that kind of thing". [2] The contrary view—non-essentialism—denies the need to posit such an "essence'".

In ontology and the philosophy of mind, a non-physical entity is a spirit or being that exists outside physical reality. Their existence divides the philosophical school of physicalism from the schools of idealism and dualism; with the latter schools holding that they can exist and the former holding that they cannot. If one posits that non-physical entities can exist, there exist further debates as to their inherent natures and their position relative to physical entities.

In philosophy, identity, from Latin: identitas ("sameness"), is the relation each thing bears only to itself. The notion of identity gives rise to many philosophical problems, including the identity of indiscernibles, and questions about change and personal identity over time.

Platonic idealism usually refers to Plato's theory of forms or doctrine of ideas.

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Essentialism has been controversial from its beginning. Plato, in the Parmenides Dialogue , depicts Socrates questioning the notion, suggesting that if we accept the idea that every beautiful thing or just action partakes of an essence to be beautiful or just, we must also accept the "existence of separate essences for hair, mud, and dirt" . [3] In biology and other natural sciences, essentialism provided the rationale for taxonomy at least until the time of Charles Darwin; [4] the role and importance of essentialism in biology is still a matter of debate. [5] In gender studies, the essentialist idea that men and women are fundamentally different continues to be a matter of contention. [6] [7]

Parmenides is one of the dialogues of Plato. It is widely considered to be one of the more, if not the most, challenging and enigmatic of Plato's dialogues. The Parmenides purports to be an account of a meeting between the two great philosophers of the Eleatic school, Parmenides and Zeno of Elea, and a young Socrates. The occasion of the meeting was the reading by Zeno of his treatise defending Parmenidean monism against those partisans of plurality who asserted that Parmenides' supposition that there is a one gives rise to intolerable absurdities and contradictions.

Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification. The word is also used as a count noun: a taxonomy, or taxonomic scheme, is a particular classification. The word finds its roots in the Greek language τάξις, taxis and νόμος, nomos. Originally, taxonomy referred only to the classification of organisms or a particular classification of organisms. In a wider, more general sense, it may refer to a classification of things or concepts, as well as to the principles underlying such a classification. Taxonomy is different from meronomy, which is dealing with the classification of parts of a whole.

Charles Darwin British naturalist, author of "On the Origin of Species, by Means of Natural Selection"

Charles Robert Darwin, was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. His proposition that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors is now widely accepted, and considered a foundational concept in science. In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.

In philosophy

An essence characterizes a substance or a form, in the sense of the forms and ideas in Platonic idealism. It is permanent, unalterable, and eternal, and is present in every possible world. Classical humanism has an essentialist conception of the human, in its endorsement of the notion of an eternal and unchangeable human nature. This has been criticized by Kierkegaard, Marx, Heidegger, Sartre, and many other existential and materialist thinkers.

In philosophy, essence is the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. Essence is contrasted with accident: a property that the entity or substance has contingently, without which the substance can still retain its identity. The concept originates rigorously with Aristotle, who used the Greek expression to ti ên einai or sometimes the shorter phrase to ti esti for the same idea. This phrase presented such difficulties for its Latin translators that they coined the word essentia to represent the whole expression. For Aristotle and his scholastic followers, the notion of essence is closely linked to that of definition.

Substance theory, or substance–attribute theory, is an ontological theory about objecthood positing that a substance is distinct from its properties. A thing-in-itself is a property-bearer that must be distinguished from the properties it bears.

A theory of substantial forms asserts that forms organize matter and make it intelligible. Substantial forms are the source of properties, order, unity, identity, and information about objects.

In Plato's philosophy (in particular, the Timaeus and the Philebus ), things were said to come into being by the action of a demiurge who works to form chaos into ordered entities. Many definitions of essence hark back to the ancient Greek hylomorphic understanding of the formation of the things. According to that account, the structure and real existence of any thing can be understood by analogy to an artefact produced by a craftsperson. The craftsperson requires hyle (timber or wood) and a model, plan or idea in her own mind, according to which the wood is worked to give it the indicated contour or form (morphe). Aristotle was the first to use the terms hyle and morphe. According to his explanation, all entities have two aspects: "matter" and "form". It is the particular form imposed that gives some matter its identity—its quiddity or "whatness" (i.e., its "what it is").

Timaeus is one of Plato's dialogues, mostly in the form of a long monologue given by the title character Timaeus of Locri, written c. 360 BC. The work puts forward speculation on the nature of the physical world and human beings and is followed by the dialogue Critias.

The Philebus, is a Socratic dialogue written in the 4th century BC by Plato. Besides Socrates the other interlocutors are Philebus and Protarchus. Philebus, who advocates the life of physical pleasure (hedonism), hardly participates, and his position is instead defended by Protarchus, who learnt argumentation from Sophists. Socrates proposes there are higher pleasures as well as lower ones, and asks if the best life isn't one that optimally mixes both.

In the Platonic, Neopythagorean, Middle Platonic, and Neoplatonic schools of philosophy, the demiurge is an artisan-like figure responsible for fashioning and maintaining the physical universe. The Gnostics adopted the term "demiurge". Although a fashioner, the demiurge is not necessarily the same as the creator figure in the monotheistic sense, because the demiurge itself and the material from which the demiurge fashions the universe are both considered to be consequences of something else. Depending on the system, they may be considered to be either uncreated and eternal or the product of some other entity.

Plato was one of the first essentialists, postulating the concept of ideal forms—an abstract entity of which individual objects are mere facsimiles. To give an example: the ideal form of a circle is a perfect circle, something that is physically impossible to make manifest; yet the circles we draw and observe clearly have some idea in common—the ideal form. Plato proposed that these ideas are eternal and vastly superior to their manifestations, and that we understand these manifestations in the material world by comparing and relating them to their respective ideal form. Plato's forms are regarded as patriarchs to essentialist dogma simply because they are a case of what is intrinsic and a-contextual of objects—the abstract properties that makes them what they are. (For more on forms, read Plato's parable of the cave.)

Karl Popper splits the ambiguous term realism into essentialism and realism. He uses essentialism whenever he means the opposite of nominalism, and realism only as opposed to idealism. Popper himself is a realist as opposed to an idealist, but a methodological nominalist as opposed to an essentialist. For example, statements like "a puppy is a young dog" should be read from right to left, as an answer to "What shall we call a young dog"; never from left to right as an answer to "What is a puppy?" [8]

Karl Popper Austrian-British philosopher of science

Sir Karl Raimund Popper was an Austrian-born British philosopher and professor.

In metaphysics, realism about a given object is the view that this object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme. In philosophical terms, these objects are ontologically independent of someone's conceptual scheme, perceptions, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc.

Nominalism is a philosophical view which comes at least in two varieties. In one of them it is the rejection of abstract objects, in the other it is the rejection of universals.

Metaphysical essentialism

Essentialism, in its broadest sense, is any philosophy that acknowledges the primacy of essence. Unlike existentialism, which posits "being" as the fundamental reality, the essentialist ontology must be approached from a metaphysical perspective. Empirical knowledge is developed from experience of a relational universe whose components and attributes are defined and measured in terms of intellectually constructed laws. Thus, for the scientist, reality is explored as an evolutionary system of diverse entities, the order of which is determined by the principle of causality.

Plato believed that the universe was perfect and that its observed imperfections came from man's limited perception of it. For Plato, there were two realities: the "essential" or ideal and the "perceived". Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) applied the term essence to that which things in a category have in common and without which they cannot be members of that category (for example, rationality is the essence of man; without rationality a creature cannot be a man). In his critique of Aristotle's philosophy, Bertrand Russell said that his concept of essence transferred to metaphysics what was only a verbal convenience and that it confused the properties of language with the properties of the world. In fact, a thing's "essence" consisted in those defining properties without which we could not use the name for it. [9] Although the concept of essence was "hopelessly muddled" it became part of every philosophy until modern times. [9]

The Egyptian-born philosopher Plotinus (204–270 CE) brought idealism to the Roman Empire as Neoplatonism, and with it the concept that not only do all existents emanate from a "primary essence" but that the mind plays an active role in shaping or ordering the objects of perception, rather than passively receiving empirical data.

Despite the metaphysical basis for the term, academics in science, aesthetics, heuristics, psychology, and gender-based sociological studies have advanced their causes under the banner of essentialism. Possibly the clearest definition for this philosophy was offered by gay/lesbian rights advocate Diana Fuss, who wrote: "Essentialism is most commonly understood as a belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the 'whatness' of a given entity." [10] Metaphysical essentialism stands diametrically opposed to existential realism in that finite existence is only differentiated appearance, whereas "ultimate reality" is held to be absolute essence.

Among contemporary essentialists, what all existing things have in common is the power to exist, which defines their "uncreated" Essence. [11]

In mathematics

In 2010, an article by Gerald B. Folland in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society stated, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that almost all mathematicians are Platonists, at least when they are actually doing mathematics …" This refers to their implicit embrace of essentialism, which he finds revealed in mathematicians peculiar use of language. Whereas physicists define Lie algebra as a rule they can apply to facts, mathematicians define it as an essence of a structure, independent of any circumstance. [12]

In psychology

Paul Bloom attempts to explain why people will pay more in an auction for the clothing of celebrities if the clothing is unwashed. He believes the answer to this and many other questions is that people cannot help but think of objects as containing a sort of "essence" that can be influenced. Toronto Maple Leafs bild.JPG
Paul Bloom attempts to explain why people will pay more in an auction for the clothing of celebrities if the clothing is unwashed. He believes the answer to this and many other questions is that people cannot help but think of objects as containing a sort of "essence" that can be influenced.

There is a difference between metaphysical essentialism (see above) and psychological essentialism, the latter referring not to an actual claim about the world but a claim about a way of representing entities in cognitions [14] (Medin, 1989). Influential in this area is Susan Gelman, who has outlined many domains in which children and adults construe classes of entities, particularly biological entities, in essentialist terms—i.e., as if they had an immutable underlying essence which can be used to predict unobserved similarities between members of that class. [15] [16] (Toosi & Ambady, 2011). This causal relationship is unidirectional; an observable feature of an entity does not define the underlying essence [17] (Dar-Nimrod & Heine, 2011).

In developmental psychology

Essentialism has emerged as an important concept in psychology, particularly developmental psychology. [15] [18] Gelman and Kremer (1991) studied the extent to which children from 4–7 years old demonstrate essentialism. Children were able to identify the cause of behaviour in living and non-living objects. Children understood that underlying essences predicted observable behaviours. Participants could correctly describe living objects' behaviour as self-perpetuated and non-living objects as a result of an adult influencing the object's actions. This is a biological way of representing essential features in cognitions. Understanding the underlying causal mechanism for behaviour suggests essentialist thinking [19] (Rangel and Keller, 2011). Younger children were unable to identify causal mechanisms of behaviour whereas older children were able to. This suggests that essentialism is rooted in cognitive development. It can be argued that there is a shift in the way that children represent entities, from not understanding the causal mechanism of the underlying essence to showing sufficient understanding [20] (Demoulin, Leyens & Yzerbyt, 2006).

There are four key criteria which constitute essentialist thinking. The first facet is the aforementioned individual causal mechanisms (del Rio & Strasser, 2011). The second is innate potential: the assumption that an object will fulfill its predetermined course of development [21] (Kanovsky, 2007). According to this criterion, essences predict developments in entities that will occur throughout its lifespan. The third is immutability [22] (Holtz & Wagner, 2009). Despite altering the superficial appearance of an object it does not remove its essence. Observable changes in features of an entity are not salient enough to alter its essential characteristics. The fourth is inductive potential [23] (Birnbaum, Deeb, Segall, Ben-Aliyahu & Diesendruck, 2010). This suggests that entities may share common features but are essentially different. However similar two beings may be, their characteristics will be at most analogous, differing most importantly in essences.

The implications of psychological essentialism are numerous. Prejudiced individuals have been found to endorse exceptionally essential ways of thinking, suggesting that essentialism may perpetuate exclusion among social groups [24] (Morton, Hornsey & Postmes, 2009). For example, essentialism of nationality has been linked to anti-immigration attitudes [25] (Rad & Ginges, 2018). In multiple studies in India and the United States, Rad & Ginges (2018) showed that in lay view, a person's nationality is considerably fixed at birth, even if that person is adopted and raised by a family of another nationality at day one and never told about their origin. This may be due to an over-extension of an essential-biological mode of thinking stemming from cognitive development. [26] Paul Bloom of Yale University has stated that "one of the most exciting ideas in cognitive science is the theory that people have a default assumption that things, people and events have invisible essences that make them what they are. Experimental psychologists have argued that essentialism underlies our understanding of the physical and social worlds, and developmental and cross-cultural psychologists have proposed that it is instinctive and universal. We are natural-born essentialists." [27] Scholars suggest that the categorical nature of essentialist thinking predicts the use of stereotypes and can be targeted in the application of stereotype prevention [28] (Bastian & Haslam, 2006).

In ethics

Classical essentialists claim that some things are wrong in an absolute sense. For example murder breaks a universal, objective and natural moral law and not merely an advantageous, socially or ethically constructed one.

Many modern essentialists claim that right and wrong are moral boundaries that are individually constructed; in other words, things that are ethically right or wrong are actions that the individual deems to be beneficial or harmful, respectively.

In biology

One possibility is that before evolution was developed as a scientific theory, there existed an essentialist view of biology that posited all species to be unchanging throughout time. The historian Mary P. Winsor has argued that biologists such as Louis Agassiz in the 19th century believed that taxa such as species and genus were fixed, reflecting the mind of the creator. [29] Some religious opponents of evolution continue to maintain this view of biology.

Recent work by historians of systematic biology has, however, cast doubt upon this view of pre-Darwinian thinkers. Winsor, Ron Amundson and Staffan Müller-Wille have each argued that in fact the usual suspects (such as Linnaeus and the Ideal Morphologists) were very far from being essentialists, and it appears that the so-called "essentialism story" (or "myth") in biology is a result of conflating the views expressed by philosophers from Aristotle onwards through to John Stuart Mill and William Whewell in the immediately pre-Darwinian period, using biological examples, with the use of terms in biology like species. [30] [31] [32]

Gender essentialism

In feminist theory and gender studies, gender essentialism is the attribution of a fixed essences to men and women. Women's essence is assumed to be universal and is generally identified with those characteristics viewed as being specifically feminine. [33] These ideas of femininity are usually biologized and are often preoccupied with psychological characteristics, such as nurturance, empathy, support, and non-competitiveness, etc. Feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz states in her 1995 publication Space, time and perversion: essays on the politics of bodies that essentialism "entails the belief that those characteristics defined as women's essence are shared in common by all women at all times. It implies a limit of the variations and possibilities of change—it is not possible for a subject to act in a manner contrary to her essence. Her essence underlies all the apparent variations differentiating women from each other. Essentialism thus refers to the existence of fixed characteristic, given attributes, and ahistorical functions that limit the possibilities of change and thus of social reorganization." [33]

Gender essentialism is pervasive in popular culture, as illustrated by the #1 New York Times best seller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus , [34] but this essentialism is routinely critiqued in introductory women studies textbooks such as Women: Images & Realities. [7]

Starting in the 1980s, some feminist writers have put forward essentialist theories about gender and science. Evelyn Fox Keller, [35] Sandra Harding, [36] and Nancy Tuana [37] argued that the modern scientific enterprise is inherently patriarchal and incompatible with women's nature. Other feminist scholars, such as Ann Hibner Koblitz, [38] Lenore Blum, [39] Mary Gray, [40] Mary Beth Ruskai, [41] and Pnina Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram [42] have criticized those theories for ignoring the diverse nature of scientific research and the tremendous variation in women's experiences in different cultures and historical periods.

In historiography

Essentialism in history as a field of study entails discerning and listing essential cultural characteristics of a particular nation or culture, in the belief that a people or culture can be understood in this way. Sometimes such essentialism leads to claims of a praiseworthy national or cultural identity, or to its opposite, the condemnation of a culture based on presumed essential characteristics. Herodotus, for example, claims that Egyptian culture is essentially feminized and possesses a "softness" which has made Egypt easy to conquer. [43] To what extent Herodotus was an essentialist is a matter of debate; he is also credited with not essentializing the concept of the Athenian identity, [44] or differences between the Greeks and the Persians that are the subject of his Histories . [45]

Essentialism had been operative in colonialism as well as in critiques of colonialism.

Post-colonial theorists such as Edward Said insisted that essentialism was the "defining mode" of "Western" historiography and ethnography until the nineteenth century and even after, according to Touraj Atabaki, manifesting itself in the historiography of the Middle East and Central Asia as Eurocentrism, over-generalization, and reductionism. [46]

Most historians reject essentialism because it "dehistoricizes the process of social and cultural changes" and tends to see non-Western societies as historically unchanging; in India this led to the anti-essentialist (even anti-historiographical) school of Subaltern Studies. [47]

See also

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Metaphysics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

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Ontology study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations

Ontology is the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies concepts that directly relate to being, in particular becoming, existence, reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

In metaphysics, the problem of universals refers to the question of whether properties exist, and if so, what they are. Properties are qualities or relations that two or more entities have in common. The various kinds of properties, such as qualities and relations, are referred to as universals. For instance, one can imagine three cup holders on a table that have in common the quality of being circular or exemplifying circularity, or two daughters that have in common being the female offsprings of Frank. There are many such properties, such as being human, red, male or female, liquid, big or small, taller than, father of, etc. While philosophers agree that human beings talk and think about properties, they disagree on whether these universals exist in reality or merely in thought and speech.

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  4. a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, or mythology. In various seemingly unrelated cases in classic storytelling, media, etc., characters or ideas sharing similar traits recur.
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Womb envy

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Human nature is a bundle of characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, which humans are said to have naturally. The term is often regarded as capturing what it is to be human, or the essence of humanity. The term is controversial because it is disputed whether or not such an essence exists. Arguments about human nature have been a mainstay of philosophy for centuries and the concept continues to provoke lively philosophical debate. The concept also continues to play a role in science, with neuroscientists, psychologists and social scientists sometimes claiming that their results have yielded insight into human nature. Human nature is traditionally contrasted with characteristics that vary among humans, such as characteristics associated with specific cultures. Debates about human nature are related to, although not the same as, debates about the comparative importance of genes and environment in development.

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Susan Gelman American psychologist

Susan A. Gelman is currently Heinz Werner Distinguished University Professor of psychology and linguistics and the director of the Conceptual Development Laboratory at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on cognitive development, language acquisition, categorization, inductive reasoning, causal reasoning, and the relationship between language and thought. Gelman subscribes to the domain specificity view of cognition, which asserts that the mind is composed of specialized modules supervising specific functions in the human and other animals.

The theory of Forms or theory of Ideas is a philosophical theory, concept, or world-view, attributed to Plato, that the physical world is not as real or true as timeless, absolute, unchangeable ideas. According to this theory, ideas in this sense, often capitalized and translated as "Ideas" or "Forms", are the non-physical essences of all things, of which objects and matter in the physical world are merely imitations. Plato speaks of these entities only through the characters of his dialogues who sometimes suggest that these Forms are the only objects of study that can provide knowledge. The theory itself is contested from within Plato's dialogues, and it is a general point of controversy in philosophy. Whether the theory represents Plato's own views is held in doubt by modern scholarship. However, the theory is considered a classical solution to the problem of universals.

Gender essentialism is a concept used to examine the attribution of fixed, intrinsic, innate qualities to women and men. In this theory, there are certain universal, innate, biologically- or psychologically-based features of gender that are at the root of observed differences in the behavior of men and women. In Western civilization, it is suggested in writings going back to ancient Greece. With the advent of Christianity, the earlier Greek model was expressed in theological discussions as the doctrine that there are two distinct sexes, male and female created by God, and that individuals are immutably one or the other. This view remained essentially unchanged until the middle of the 19th century, until Darwin's publications on evolution. This changed the locus of the origin of the essential differences, in Sandra Bem's words, "from God's grand creation [to] its scientific equivalent: evolution's grand creation," but the belief in an immutable origin had not changed.

References

Notes

  1. Cartwright, Richard L. (1968). "Some Remarks on Essentialism". The Journal of Philosophy. 65 (20): 615–626. doi:10.2307/2024315. JSTOR   2024315.
  2. Janicki (2003) , p. 274
  3. "Plato's Parmenides". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 30 July 2015.
  4. Ereshefsky (2007) , p. 8
  5. Hull (2007)
  6. Fausto-Sterling, Anne (1992). Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men. Basic Books. ISBN   978-0465047925.
  7. 1 2 Suzanne Kelly, Gowri Parameswaran, and Nancy Schniedewind, Women: Images & Realities: A Multicultural Anthology, 5th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2011.
  8. The Open Society and its Enemies, passim.
  9. 1 2 Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1991
  10. Fuss (2013) , p. xi
  11. Levina, Tatiana (Moscow 2013) Realism in Metaphysics: Analytic Questions and Continental Answers (p. 23)
  12. Gerald B. Folland, October 2010, Notices of the AMS, p. 1121 "Speaking with the Natives: Reflections on Mathematical Communication"
  13. Paul Bloom, July 2011 Ted talk, "The Origins of Pleasure"
  14. Medin, D. L. (1989). "Conceptes and conceptual structure". American Psychologist. 44 (12): 1469–1481. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.44.12.1469.
  15. 1 2 Gelman, S. The essential child: Origins of essentialism in everyday thought. New York: Oxford University Press.
  16. Toosi, N. R.; Ambady, N. (2011). "Ratings of essentialism for eight religious identities". International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 21 (1): 17–29. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.532441. PMC   3093246 . PMID   21572550.
  17. Dar-Nimrod, I.; Heine, S. J. (2011). "Genetic essentialism: On the deceptive determinism of DNA". Psychological Bulletin. 137 (5): 800–818. doi:10.1037/a0021860. PMC   3394457 . PMID   21142350.
  18. Gelman, S. A.; Kremer, K. E. (1991). "Understanding natural causes: Children's explanations of how objects and their properties originate". Child Development. 62 (2): 396–414. doi:10.2307/1131012. JSTOR   1131012. PMID   2055130.
  19. Rangel, U.; Keller, J. (2011). "Essentialism goes social: Belief in social determinism as a component of psychological essentialism". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100 (6): 1056–1078. doi:10.1037/a0022401. PMID   21319911.
  20. Demoulin, Stéphanie; Leyens, Jacques-Philippe; Yzerbyt, Vincent (2006). "Lay Theories of Essentialism". Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 9 (1): 25–42. doi:10.1177/1368430206059856.
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Bibliography

Further reading