What Ever Happened to Anti-Essentialism?

  • Graham McFee Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Brighton, UK and Professor, Department of Philosophy, California State University Fullerton, USA.
Keywords: Anti-essentialism, Kennick, Weitz, Waismann


What Ever Happened to Anti-Essentialism?

How should one explain the relative disappearance of a major preoccupation of English-speaking Analytical Philosophy in the late 1950s/early 1960s: an anti-essentialist response to the question, ‘What is art?’, typified in papers by Kennick and Weitz? Minimally, anti-essentialism denies the widely-held assumption that something must be in common between all the instances where (in our case) the term “[fine] art” or the concept art is rightly ascribed, in virtue of which all are called ‘art’; a stronger version urges that, in fact, there is no essence to (our example) art.

         With counter-arguments typically not forthcoming, Carroll (2000) mentions both Danto’s institutionalism and Mandelbaum’s assault on the notion of family resemblance, to explain the slackening of concern for such neo-Wittgensteinian issues. Consideration of the actual arguments by Kennick and Weitz highlights their unjustified dependence on Waismann’s notion of open texture, where recognizing a clearer application of Wittgenstein’s ideas retains that central, if minimal, anti-essentialist thrust for Kennick and Weitz, thereby returning this issue to the forefront of aesthetic theorizing.


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