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Essentialism and Classification

The world that we occupy today continues to be shaped by the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Despite being teacher and student, both philosophers had significantly different perspectives on the way that we humans perceive the world. However, they have both had an enduring impact on the world of philosophy and on the way that we human beings continue to make sense of the world.

Plato developed the concept of ideal forms. These ideal forms represent the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something that determines its character: a property of something without which it would simply not exist; a thing’s essence. Significantly, for Plato, these forms were not subject to alteration; they were already given, already established perfect manifestations of all things hidden somewhere in the dark recesses of the mind. In order to know something or do something, one has to have a conception of its ideal form, its ultimate state of perfection, its essence: “Plato believed that the essence of a thing is the form in which it participates” (Korsgaard, 1996, p. 2). In other words, it is the ideal form that constitutes perfection. This applies equally to organic things, nonorganic things, and metaphysical things like a poem. Human beings, for example, tend to be inclined, depending on circumstances and motivational factors, to strive toward perfection. We continue to be, alas, perennially disappointed in this endeavor. However, this continual striving toward perfection constituted the ethical question that was, for Plato, of primary importance: “how should one live?” or “what constitutes a good life?” At the summit of this order is the form of the good to which all human beings must strive toward (June, 2011, p. 91). For Plato, these ideal forms can never actually be achieved or sensorially experienced by human beings. They can only be known, and human beings know these ideal forms intrinsically: they are genetic forms of knowledge that have been predetermined for us (Korsgaard, 1996; June, 2011). By way of illustration, consider a potter or a carpenter turning a bowl. They want to produce a bowl that is perfectly cylindrical in form, but clearly, no human being is capable of creating the ideal form of a perfect circle, so the bowl produced will constitute a copy of the ideal cylindrical form, an ideal circle. The closer the potter or carpenter is able to get to creating a perfect circular form, the closer to perfection he or she is able to get. This Platonic form of the good is a process or an activity that has orientated human beings toward leading their lives such that their endeavors would ultimately manifest in arete—that is, to strive toward excellence, toward being good at what they are, to become virtuous. However, virtue expressed in terms of arete can only ever be judged in terms of its relation to the general ideal form of the good, just as the potter’s cylindrical form can only ever be judged in terms of how close it resembles an ideal circle; we are never likely to achieve it, but it serves as a guiding principle. Examinations follow this line of reasoning to some extent: the closer to (re) presenting the preestablished ideal form, the higher the grade achieved; the further away, the lower the grade achieved. Examinations, particularly technology education examinations, leave no room for alternative perspectives.

Plato’s ontological arrangement in the form of the good is, however, trenchantly rejected by his student Aristotle, who asserts “the fundamental existence of sensible particulars against that of general entities. The species and genera that classify individuals exist, but they are only secondary in the ontological scheme” (Lawson-Tancred, 1995, pp. 406-407). In other words, Aristotle rejects the idea that particular definitions must ultimately originate from or be determined by some general, superior, and hierarchical ideal form: “If one asks what something is, which is to ask for its definition, then the only sort of informative answer that can be given [for Aristotle] is one that refers to its species. And if one asks what that is, then one must refer to the subgenus in which it is most immediately included, and so on up to the highest genus to which it can belong, which is that general category of substance” (Lawson-Tancred, 1995, p. 407).

Aristotle’s categories, then, are phenomenal and realized, not in the Platonic ideal sense, but as something substantial. The Aristotelian categories, writ large, are genus, species, and individual. This system of classification has formed the bedrock for the way we have come to identify and understand the world to this day. Significantly, it is not confined to biological systems, but it informs a system of classification that covers the entire spectrum of categorization that prevails in all disciplines, including those associated with technoscientific studies and technology education. Typical forms of assessment in technology education include questions that relate to categories: name different types of wood (hardwood, softwood, and human-made boards), for example.

“Aristotle’s Categories is a singularly important work of philosophy . . . [that has] engaged the attention of such diverse philosophers as Plotinus, Porphyry, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Brentano and Heidegger (to mention just a few), who have variously embraced, defended, modified or rejected its central contentions. All, in their different ways, have thought it necessary to come to terms with features of Aristotle’s categorical scheme” (Studtmann, 2007). Aristotle, in his treatise, attempts to enumerate the most general kinds of categories (genera), subdivide them into workable entities (species), and then finally reduce them to their essential qualities (individuals). These categories enable us to differentiate between objects given in the world and so make sense of the world. A cat is not a dog, nor is a tree a mountain, for example. A cat has an essential quality that is categorically different from the essential qualities representing a dog.

Both Plato and Aristotle rely on essential qualities in order for their theses to make sense. As such, their worlds can only ever be perceived of from an anthropocentric perspective. It is human beings, as subjects, who discover and (re)present the world from their own perspective along the lines explicated by Plato and Aristotle.

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