TWO NOTIONS OF ESSENCE
WHEN A COLLEAGUE INVITED me to teach the material in this chapter to his class of undergraduate philosophy majors, I began by asking them to write brief answers to two questions: First, are there any properties that define membership in the kind woman or the kind man? Second, would you be the same individual if you were gendered differently? The first question received a range of answers, from those who confidently singled out a physical or psychological property common to all women or to all men to those who hesitated, perhaps having been instructed on the moral and political failings of “essentialist” or “identity” thinking in another philosophy class. The second question prompted a lively discussion about gender, transgendered individuals, the relation between gender and self-understanding, and the ways in which our daily lives and activities are gendered. Speculations about universally shared properties, and doubts about whether there are any led the conversation in one direction. Reflections about the ways in which our lives and social roles (student, professor, mother, child) are inflected by our gender took the conversation in another. In this chapter I argue that my students were wrestling with two different notions of essence that address two different philosophical questions.1
1. My claim that gender is essential to social individuals has three terms needing explanation. In this chapter I describe the notion of essence that I will be using, but in the course of doing so I will necessarily use the other two terms, which I describe sequentially in chapters 2 (gender) and 3 (social individual). I hope that the sequential process of setting out the terms of my argument is not too confusing to the reader.