UIC Institute for the Humanities



Workshop:  "Explanation without Essence?"

September 21 and 22, 2018

Organized by Mahrad Almotahari, Philosophy

Like causation and composition, essence appears to be an explanatory notion. For example, why might it be necessary for ordinary table salt to contain chlorine but not necessary for chlorine to constitute ordinary table salt? Answer: it is part of what it is to be salt—part of its very essence—that it consist of chlorine, but not part of what it is to be chlorine to constitute salt.

Philosophers who oppose essentialist thinking have suggested that the notion of essence is theoretically obstructive, practically harmful, or both. For example, in discussions about race and gender, important contributions have been made highlighting the negative sociopolitical consequences of essentialist thinking. And these anti-essentialist critiques aren’t restricted to social phenomena. They target the application of essentialist thought to the “natural” world, as well, for they suggest that claims about essence are really a product of prejudicial thinking across the board. The world is too complex—there’s simply too much variation—for things to be neatly defined.

Philosophy has seen a renewed interest in the notion of essence, both as a target of critique and as a tool for theorizing. This workshop seeks to bring together theorists from both of these outlooks to assess the current state of debate. Is it possible to reconcile these two approaches, and if so, what are the different conceptions of essence at issue in each? If they cannot be reconciled, can we engineer a new concept that does the work we would like essence to do without incurring any of the theoretical and practical disadvantages of essentialist thinking?

Friday, September 21, 2018

2:00-3:30 PM Ron Mallon (Washington University in St Louis)

Title: Extended Human Kinds: The Case of Race
Abstract: In this talk I explore a certain sort of case for the reality of constructed human kinds in the social sciences, and how it leads us to think about the characteristics of the kinds in question. By way of a case study, I consider race.  Racial kinds figure in generalizations across the social sciences, which suggests that in some sense they are real.  But what explains this?  I consider possibilities for understanding the causal role of racial kinds, and I then go on to consider what the case of race might reveal about the possibilities of constituting human kinds. While I take races to be socially constructed kinds, I draw on theories of natural kinds and consider parallels with developments in thinking about biological kinds. 
3:30-4:00 PM Coffee Break

4:00-5:30 PM Robin Dembroff (Yale University)

Title: Beyond Binary: Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind
Abstract: We want to know what gender is. But metaphysical approaches to this question solely have focused on the binary gender kinds men and women. By overlooking those who identity outside of the binary--the group I call `genderqueer'--we are left without tools for understanding these new and quickly growing gender identifications. This metaphysical gap in turn creates a conceptual lacuna that contributes to systematic misunderstanding of genderqueer persons. In this paper, I argue that to better understand genderqueer identities, we must recognize a new type of gender kind: critical gender kinds, or kinds whose members resist dominant gender ideology. After developing a model of critical gender kinds, I suggest that genderqueer is best modeled as one such kind. In particular, I propose that its members are united by resisting `the binary assumption', or the prevalent assumption that they must comply with binary gender classification.

Saturday, September 22, 2018 

10:00-11:30 AM Bernhard Nickel (Harvard University)

Title: "A Conception of Kinds for Generics (and cp-laws?)"
Abstract:  Generic sentences in English, such as “ravens are black” or “tigers have stripes” are non-strict generalizations: some members of the kind fall outside of the scope of the generalization, such as albino ravens or tigers, respectively. This is a prima facie surprising fact, since in various forms of inquiry, we tend to adjust the extension of our kind terms so that we can formulate universal generalizations about them. This is why jadeite is distinguished from nephrite, gold from fools’ gold, and so on. In this talk, I’ll propose a theory of kinds according to which kinds in arenas of inquiry that characteristically articulate non-strict generalizations are formed not in order to support inductive inference, but to serve an explanatory need.

12:00  Lunch Break

2:00-3:30 PM Michael Hardimon (University of California, San Diego)

"The Nonexplanatoriness of Biological Race" 
Abstract: The theme of this workshop is the explanatory power of kinds that lack essences, the guiding question being: how can such kinds explain? I think it will be illuminating in this context to approach the idea of explanatoriness through it opposite, nonexplanatoriness, and to call attention to the explanatory weakness of one particular essenceless kind, namely, biological race.

The idea of biological race can be approached in different ways. I believe it is best approached through the concept I have dubbed “minimalist race”. Consequently, I’ll be concerned specifically with the explanatory weakness of biological race understood as minimalist race. My starting point is the proposition that biological race, thus understood, is a thin natural kind. The first part of this paper unpacks this claim; the second part illuminates its significance.

3:30 PM  Coffee Break

4:00- 5:30 PM Charlotte Witt, University of New Hampshire, Durham

Title: A Tale of Two Essentialisms
Abstract: In my book The Metaphysics of Gender I argue that gender is uniessential to social individuals.  There are three terms in this claim that require explanation, but here I focus on just one of them:  unessentialism.    I begin by distinguishing two essentialisms:   kind essentialism and uniessentialism.  The two essentialisms differ in terms of what each is intended to explain or to accomplish.  I think that the two essentialisms address different questions rather than supplying different answers to the same question.  Kind essentialism addresses the issue of the classification of individuals into kinds.  Uniessentialism addresses an entirely different issue, which is the metaphysical question of what grounds the unity of individuals with parts.


Fall 2018:

“Political Futures”

October 12-13 2018
Room 302, Tower, Student Center East

This conference explores the relation between conceptual or aesthetic work and future political organizations, institutions, and affiliations. Our aim is to practice the power of the engaged humanities to envision futures, while also reflexively exploring the benefits, challenges, and limits of future-projection. Questions that we want to consider include: what aesthetic and theoretical modes and discourses are adequate to the task of political imagining? How do the resources of critical theory both enable and challenge future-directed thought? Why have pessimism and anti-futurism been frequent trajectories in theories of race and sexuality? How does future thinking depend upon or depart from presentism? What are the advantages and disadvantages of “utopian” thinking? When, where, and how is utopian thinking happening? How does the question of the future reframe the theory/practice divide? To what degree do certain theoretical models enable or disable the practical work of apportioning resources, addressing inequalities, or redressing injuries? How valid are conventional distinctions between revolution and evolution/change/progress?

[See Reading List here]

October 12, 2018 from 10 AM - 5:30 PM

[See Schedule here]


October 13, 2018 from 10 AM - 3 PM

[See Schedule here]

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