My counter argument to essentialism

I’ve been a believer in essentialism since before I knew the word.

And I suppose I should define essentialism before I rattle on about it. Essentialism is the idea that the thing that makes a thing a thing – as opposed to a different thing – should be valued and anything that can be excluded probably should be.

Consider a knife. Two things make up a knife, a handle and a blade. If you have a blade and no handle it’s still a knife. If you have a handle and no blade – you do not have a knife. The blade is the essential bit and the handle only works if it’s working in support of that bit. In the realm of knives blade work is a priority and ornate handles are just a bit of a wank.

The first essentialist thing I remember doing is drinking black coffee. I started drinking coffee in high school because it’s good for cold sores (bonus medical tip) and of course I was putting a lot of sugar it like kids do. But, partly spurred on my dad’s concern about sugar for coffee being a luxury we’d lose because of peak oil, I thought if coffee is the point why dress it up with sugar, why try to make it something it’s not? I took coffee like medicine, for the ends not the pleasure. Then of course grew to enjoy it after because the brain sure does love caffeine.

I’ve aimed to build my life around what is essential. I’ve kept my life sparse. I see people buying gadgets for gadgets sake, getting something to play with for a very brief time and afterwords only enjoying in the context of showing other people. I can do this entirely for free by coming up with new ideas between visits and it doesn’t become a hassle when I move.

The downside of essentialism is that I also run toward being a complete nihilist and it’s as easy as a passing thought for me to feel that nothing can be essential. It’s all handle and no knife in woefully indifferent universe. There is no purpose to life, just an ever-morphing list of things we find gratifying. My all-or-nothing way of thinking that puts me on the brink of suicide a few times a year is, if not caused by then certainly not helped by, obsessing over what’s exclusively important in life(?).

Plato articulated the idea of essentialism and it was tied to the idea of the perfect. The pure essence of a thing. What my thinking was missing is that a perfect knife is not a handle-less one, coffee needs a cup, and everything takes patience.

I think about pancakes. I love pancakes and I can make them from scratch, no recipe. And I was thinking about essentialism one day while enjoying some pancakes and I thought I couldn’t put some flour, eggs, butter, and baking powder on a plate and call it a pancake. The elements of the pancake have to mix until they are indistinguishable and then they have to cook. It’s the process that makes the pancake and you can’t strip anything away.

Everything we do in life is going to add up to being imperfect, everything is going to need support that doesn’t seem inherently vital, but be patient in case you strip away something that just needed time to cook.


Singer/songwriter, jerk.

Posted in Pragmatism
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