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RS 149 - Susan Gelman on "How essentialism shapes our thinking"

Release date: December 13, 2015

Susan GelmanIn this episode, psychologist Susan Gelman describes her work on the psychological trait of essentialism: the innate human urge to categorize reality and to assume that those categories reflect meaningful, invisible differences. Julia and Susan discuss why the discovery of essentialism in children was such a surprise to scientists, how the language we use affects the way we view reality, and whether essentialism is to blame for bad philosophy.

Susan's Pick: "The Bad Seed" by William March

Susan's Book: "Essential Child"

Podcast edited by Brent Silk



Full Transcripts 


Reader Comments (11)

Simon Baron Cohen seems to believe that not only are there differences between the sexes, but those differences may be the foundation of autism.

It seems like science is saying that categorizing the sexes may still be productive.
December 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJerry
Brother is a professor of statistics and political science, sister is a psychologist who works with children. Just chance or upbringing?
December 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
I only just discovered this podcast and I have to say, it's amazing! I definitely know what I'll be listening to on my commutes for the next few months while I make my way through the archive.

I know this is only kind of tangential to what you guys discussed in the episode (and I mostly agree with what Julia said regarding philosophical arguments that try to pin down the nature of a thing), but I kind of wanted to mount a brief defense of the Sorites paradox. I'm not too familiar with the history of it, but I can tell you that -currently at least- it's not usually invoked with the intent of trying to figure out whether you can or can't pin down the extension/intension of a vague predicate such as 'is a heap', so much as pointing out the problems you run across while trying to use classical predicate logic to reason about such predicates (i.e. the syllogistic form of the argument appears to be sound yet has a patently false conclusion). Thus, it's useful in pointing out the possible limitations of classical logic and its semantics, and suggests some reasons why one might be tempted to adopt other logics (supervaluationist logic, fuzzy logic, etc.).

(Also, as a side note, there's a good number of autistic people, particularly among those who do advocacy work, who actively eschew person-first language -such as 'person with autism'- as they feel it undermines the role autism plays in the way they relate to and function in the world.)
December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAline
I love this podcast, but I think Julia is missing the point of thought experiments like the Sorites paradox and thought experiments about knowledge. The point of those those thought experiments, IMHO, is not that that philosophers think there should be a precise definition or a right answer, but rather they are merely pointing out what Julia has already grasped, that human language is messy.
December 28, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous
Hi Julia,

I hate to insert myself in any sibling rivalry, and I'm sure your brother is very nice and an accomplished person in his own right, however, if one <a href="">Googles just the word "Galef" it's clear which of you has more notoriety.</a>

January 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom Brown
I think Julia's criticism of essentialism in philosophy is fair and unfair at the same time. It captures a significant flaw in analytic philosophy but the philosophy that "won the day" in the second half of the 20th century was a reaction to the essentialism of meaning, reference etc that infected both logical positivism, metaphysical realism, ordinary language philosophy and other disciplines (not just philosophy). Chomsky's review of Verbal Behavior in 1959 was mirrored by Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations in 1953 and Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism in 1951 directly or indirectly questioning different types of essentialism in behaviorism, ordinary language philosophy, and logical empiricism respectfully. The first work of analytic philosophy that I read was Hilary Putnam's 1990 Representation and Reality which made similar criticisms to what Julia was referring to that he had been making since the 1970s. While some of that went off track in realism and anti-realism debates of the 1980s the outcome was more or less what we take to be enlightened common sense today

Of course some philosophy went along like none of that happened well into the 1990s. The Jon example is out of discussions of justified true belief from a 1963 paper by Edmund Gettier that tends to be recapitulated in undergraduate philosophy classes (reviving old dogmas about meaning reference and truth) despite many philosophers thinking the thought experiments in that discussion were misguided (read Dan Dennett's Intuition Pumps book for more on the ways that thought experiments can be misleading)

(see the Britannica article online for more on Putnam's philosophy. I think Julia would very much disagree with him on fact/value which I assume from the emotivist and eliminativist positions she has espoused on the show but it's a more subtle alternative to fact and value than e.g. Sam Harris who seems to have not read Putnam's criticisms of the "scientific" approach taken by Pragmatists like C.S. Pierce which he criticizes through influences of Wittgenstein, Kant, Aristotle, etc)
January 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterquidnunc
RE Gelman on Summers; A Hypocritical Mirror Image

Ms. Gelman, the girl is not destined as "evidence", it's an illustration, an example, employed in the context of two strands of explanation. Nor does he subscribe to strict biological determinism ("hard essentialism") Your aversion to the idea of innate sex differences is not scientifically rational, but politically, morally, and emotionally motivated. This is highly amusing when you jump from Summers to the theory of evolution and creationists. Your feminist faith and wishes make you disclaim psychological evolution in a dazzling display of hypocrisy. Behavioral genetics and personality research show the heritability of these aspects. This means the mind is subject to natural and sexual selection just like the body (which it is part of). And then, without doubt, there are sex differences in terms of person v. thing orientation (truck versus dolls, for you), agreeableness, and aggression (more pronounced in "gender egalitarian" societies. Even the - controversial - "gender similarities hypothesis" acknowledges that, while a competing theory speaks of very large "global" sex differences.

Here's a pertinent passage from Summers text. Maybe it can briefly unsettle your self-deception that is in lieu of cognitive dissonance. With this transcript in your hand, try again, from the perspective of one interested in rationality, science, and consistently unified self. Consider the extent to which your anti-essentialism is the mirror image of essentialism.

"There may also be elements, by the way, of differing, there is some, particularly in some attributes, that bear on engineering, there is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization. I just returned from Israel, where we had the opportunity to visit a kibbutz, and to spend some time talking about the history of the kibbutz movement, and it is really very striking to hear how the movement started with an absolute commitment, of a kind one doesn't encounter in other places, that everybody was going to do the same jobs. Sometimes the women were going to fix the tractors, and the men were going to work in the nurseries, sometimes the men were going to fix the tractors and the women were going to work in the nurseries, and just under the pressure of what everyone wanted, in a hundred different kibbutzes, each one of which evolved, it all moved in the same direction. So, I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something. And I think it's just something that you probably have to recognize. There are two other hypotheses that are all over. One is socialization. Somehow little girls are all socialized towards nursing and little boys are socialized towards building bridges. No doubt there is some truth in that. I would be hesitant about assigning too much weight to that hypothesis for two reasons. First, most of what we've learned from empirical psychology in the last fifteen years has been that people naturally attribute things to socialization that are in fact not attributable to socialization. We've been astounded by the results of separated twins studies." -

For entertainment value, here's Hopkins, who's more theatrical than you are, and showcases a shared inconsistency in a different way ("I'm going to faint"):
February 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterStephan
Behavioral genetics and personality research show the heritability of these aspects. This means the mind is subject to natural and sexual selection just like the body (which it is part of). And then, without doubt, there are sex differences in terms of person v. thing orientation (truck versus dolls, for you), agreeableness, and aggression (more pronounced in "gender egalitarian" societies
March 18, 2016 | Unregistered Commenternew cinema box
It seems to me that as children grow and explore language the variation on the meaning of words is very high because they haven't experienced enough of the world yet and that world hasn't filtered out all of the not-X cases. So for example a lot of the world of a small child falls under the category of "dog" for example stick figures that have 4 legs and a tail or even horses and cats because well the working definition is 4 legs and a tail. As the child learns that there are more animals out there that also have 4 legs and a tail that aren't a dog the "dog" category becomes more refined and the variation of the meaning behind "dog" gets smaller and smaller and when the child is finally a grown adult he or she has a very rigid interpretation of what "dog" represents. Essentially the meaning of the word has been filtered and it "crystallizes".

I think sentences such as "Birds lay eggs." are artifacts of when words have high variation. When you're young and inexperienced and don't know that there are female and male birds and that only the females lay eggs that sentence is perfectly sensible. It's only when you expand your vocabulary, have the nuance to distinguish between sexes, and have some appreciation of numbers that you begin to understand the sentence is illogical but carries a lot of assumptions.
August 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge
Essentially, the essential nature of categories defines the essence of any particular object. Perhaps use set theory instead of predicate logic to define categories.

Very sad to learn only 50% of US residents believe in evolution.
December 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Really great episode. Will be listening to it again. Thanx
March 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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