Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Knowing Essentials

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Knowing Essentials

Article excerpt

We often use phrases like, "knowing the essence of a thing" or "getting to the essence of a thing," but such expressions may be misleading and may provoke unfortunate epistemological problems. They suggest that we somehow extract an essence from the thing and make it, like a new thing, the target of our knowledge. They suggest a kind of vision, acquisition, or possession of the essence itself. If we have such a picture in mind when we speak of knowing an essence, many problems ensue that make us skeptical about ever having such knowledge. We begin to ask how we manage to extract this essence, what sort of intuition or vision is involved, whether the grasp of the essence is sudden or gradual, how the essence exists and how it is related to the things that have it. The problem with the picture is that the essence seems to be taken as a rather substantial object in its own right, a new object toward which we turn, something that we can pull out from other objects, from the individuals that contain the essence. The picture makes us formulate the philosophical problem of essences in the wrong way.

To avoid these difficulties, it would be helpful to do two things: first, to speak of "knowing essentials" instead of knowing an essence, and, second, to study the phenomenon of knowing essentials in a more concrete and less formal way.


Let us begin with an example. Something is going wrong with my car. It seems occasionally to go soft when I try to accelerate; it seems not to engage smoothly when I try to go forward. I know nothing about automotive engineering, so I try putting some additive into the gas tank (I had just heard an advertisement for that product), I check the tire pressure, I lift the hood and look around at the motor. I finally bring the car to a mechanic, who checks the transmission oil, finds bits of shiny metal in it, and tells me that the transmission is worn out and needs to be replaced. He knows the essentials of the situation, I do not; instead of knowing essentials, I am immersed in accidentals, even though I do not recognize them as such. What is "in itself " in this situation appears to the mechanic but not to me. Let us look more carefully at this example.

The first thing to notice is that the crucial distinction is not between knowing the essentials and being totally ignorant of the thing in question; the crucial distinction is between knowing essentials and being lost in accidentals. The alternative to knowing essentials is not sheer ignorance, but a special kind of familiarity with the object in question: a familiarity in which we can recognize the object but come short of grasping it in regard to what it is in itself. Thus, it would not be appropriate to say that Julius Caesar failed to know the essentials of the automobile; he did not know the automobile at all, and neither its essentials nor its accidentals appeared to him. The distinction did not arise in his regard. Only if one is acquainted with something can one be lost in its accidentals and fail to get to the essentials. The distinction between the essential and the accidental, and between their respective manifestations, is made only within a setting or a genus with which we are acquainted.

Also, we should not think that there are essentials only for discrete substances, such as trees, horses, and human beings. There are also essentials for things like dangerous situations (in which the courageous person is best able to appraise them), bodily health, political campaigns (President Bush seemed to miss the essentials of the 1992 American presidential campaign), academic lectures, gasoline stations, firearms, lyrical poetry, drama, and the writing of history. Furthermore, we cannot provide the essentials of something simply by formulating a catalogue of features belonging to the thing; the essentials are not mere items to be listed. Sometimes they cannot even be fully expressed in words, not even by someone who is capable of distinguishing between the essential and the accidental in practice. …

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