Essentialism and operationalism in philosophy

I just finished a remarkable little book called How to Think Straight about Psychology. It was remarkable because it was such a good introduction to what science is; you can read my review of it here. There was one point, however, where I felt like I wanted to write a reply, to explain that what was being said did not apply to philosophy the same way. At the same time, such a reply will illuminate something in science and philosophy. This is that reply.

In chapter three, “Operationalism and Essentialism”, there’s a section entitled “Why Scientists Are not Essentialists”, and it has a subsection called “Essentialists Like to Argue About the Meaning of Words”. I liked this as soon as I saw it, because this is the feeling I get in philosophy. Essentialism is roughly the idea that there are (or that we should find) some ultimate real nature of things that really define what they are. I think it’s generally more meaningful to say what you mean (by a word, say) and then say what is to be said about that meaning and its relationship to the world. Indeed, I’ve written before about “arguing about words” in almost the same sense.

But this part was slightly surprising and didn’t fit my experiences in philosophy:

A common indication of the essentialist attitude is an obsessive concern about defining the meaning of terms and concepts before the search for knowledge about them begins. “But we must first define our terms” is a frequent essentialist slogan. “What does that theoretical concept really mean?” The idea seems to be that, before a word can be used as a concept in a theory, we must have a complete and unambiguous understanding of all the underlying language problems involved in its usage. In fact, this is exactly the opposite of the way scientists work. Before they begin to investigate the physical world, physicists do not engage in debates about how to use the word energy or whether the word particle really captures the essence of what we mean when we talk about the fundamental constituents of matter.

The meaning of a concept in science is determined after extensive investigation of the phenomena the term relates to, not before such an investigation. The refinement of conceptual terms comes from the interplay of data and theory that is inherent in the scientific process, not from debates on language usage. Essentialism leads us into endless argument about words, and many scientists believe that such language games distract us from matters of substance. For example, concerning the question “What is the true meaning of the word life?” two biologists answer “There is no true meaning. There is a usage that serves the purposes of working biologists well enough, and it is not the subject of altercation or dispute” (Medawar & Medawar, 1983, pp. 66–67). In short, the explanation of phenomena, not the analysis of language, is the goal of the scientist. The key to progress in all the sciences has been to abandon essentialism and to adopt operationism, our topic of inquiry in this chapter.

Operationalism can simply be understood as defining concepts in such a way that they are linked to observable evidence; we see what things concretely do rather than trying to figure out their true inner nature.

That’s all well and fine, but the surprising thing is that here the essentialists are the ones asking questions about definitions first. Maybe this happens in fields like psychology, or when people talk about them. But in philosophy, the way I just put it above was that essentialists like to argue about what the word really means whereas  some who think differently (like me) want to define the word first. Wait, so… which one of these two is like scientists according to the quote, and which like the essentialists? The essentialists in the quote argue about the meaning of words by wanting to know what a word is to mean right in the first place, whereas in my picture of philosophy, you have people arguing about the meanings of words on the one hand and people wanting to define a term first on the other.

It kind of goes both ways. The “essentialist philosopher” thinks that there is a single right way to use the word — words may be arbitrary, but the world just is carved up in some way that even determines our word references. Like the “scientist” above, they want to find out the real way it is before they define anything. The problem is that they’re not doing empirical science, so when they’re trying to find the one right meaning, they’re really just talking about the meaning of words instead of finding out more about the world. So in that sense they’re again like the “essentialist” in the quote.

The “non-essentialist philosopher”, on the other hand, wants to establish the meaning of words in the first place because they know philosophical debates should really (and openly) be about what makes sense, not about the meanings of words. So, you might say, if you define life like this, then this thing is life; if you define it like this, it’s not. And you can comment on how sensible some definition is or isn’t, but not pretend that it’s an argument about what the word really means, since word meanings are arbitrary.

This is actually the equivalent of operationalisation in the sense that you take some term and limit its use to something that you can handle with your method — though the methods of philosophy are different from those of empirical science. Just as empirical science can’t handle anything that’s not defined so that it connects to observations, logical argumentation can’t handle anything that’s not clearly defined.

Just because terms need to be defined clearly doesn’t mean that multiple possible definitions can’t be explored, which is again a way in which the “non-essentialist philosopher” is like the “scientist” who doesn’t define everything beforehand. Looking at different possible definitions is perfectly all right provided you acknowledge what you’re doing instead of trying to find the one essence. For example, in my Bachelor’s thesis about free will, I concluded that the idea many people have of free will — not determined but not random — is self-contradictory, but we need not think that free will is impossible in any important sense, because we can remove one part of that idea and preserve all the others, and only those others matter.


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