Cynics and Essentialists


Knowing something about some of the current academic debates can help you approach the problem of finding a topic in ways that will impress your grader. These debates are nothing new. Solomon said that “all is vanity;” St. Paul affirmed that we “see through the glass darkly,” and Calvin proclaimed that the human mind “is a perpetual factory of idols.” But every generation worth its salt reinvents the wheel and calls it by a new name. Keeping up with the language of criticism, knowing which trendy words to use, is important. The successful academic lives off the fad of the land.

Any texts, whether history or literature or works of art, can be approached at face value as if they express their own meaning, or they can be approached as if they are artful manipulations that serve some ulterior end. Those who believe in the importance of the intention of the author, or the meaning of the text, or the eternal beauty of a work of art are called “essentialists.”  Like all romantics, they believe that some ultimate truth can be found, that truth and beauty really are present in the text and in our lives. Essentialists believe that there is an inherent “essential” self deep within each person and each text, a true self, waiting to be found. Rationalists, too, are basically essentialist, for they also believe that a reality exists which science and logic can reveal. The difference is that rationalists believe the head can know this truth while romantics believe that only the heart can.

Cynics, on the other hand, tend to believe that either rationalist or romantic readings of texts are much too innocent. The heart, they say, is a socially constructed behavioral response, and the head merely rationalizes what has been programmed into the heart. They claim that there is no transcendent absolute but only a world of shifting allegiances and interests. The Constitution, they say, was not a “miracle at Philadelphia,” but the worldly compromise of a group of self-interested politicians trying to figure out a way to keep their friends and fortunes on top.  Beauty, they say, is an emotional reaction in the eye of the beholder which is dependent upon the beholder’s needs and wants. “Love” is a glandular condition. The self is a socially constructed illusion, a product of the conservative forces that hold society together and shape each new person to a standard mold. These hardened spirits believe there is no spirit, no common human self, no essential truth behind the veil,  only the endless materialist bumping together of random atoms. Thus, to them everything is relative: there is no such thing as Truth, but different people of different social groups, genders, religions, and classes will see different things and call them true. Females are not essentially more emotional or mothering than males, they say. This is a myth constructed by males to keep women in their place. Any endorsement of such essential qualities, they properly point out, suggests a not-so-subtle racism or sexism. Even science, some argue, is another socially constructed myth. They quote that cynical scientist Ben Franklin: “So wonderful a thing it is to be a rational creature, for a rational creature can find a reason for anything he has a mind to do.”

Thus, while essentialists approach a text looking for some inherent truth or beauty, cynics approach the same text asking how it was constructed, by whom, why, and for whose benefit. They reject aesthetics out right, damning any discussion of “beauty” as a naïve evasion of the financial or political factors which make some things appear “beautiful” and not others. They do not even believe in their own selves, seeing all “selves” as but socially constructed personas, and so they try to unwrap their own conditioning if only to et some sense of what makes them want to. Such people, says James Baldwin, have “no touchstone for reality. For this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of … historical and public attitudes.” No wonder so many intellectuals are neurotic Woody Allens always analyzing themselves and then analyzing their analysis.

Take either approach, but be prepared to defend yourself from the other side. To come up with a topic, carefully read the text and consider the assignment. If you can’t find some intrinsic meaning or beauty which you want to discuss, then take a constructionist view and ask as Cicero did in the Roman Senate, “Cui Bono?” to whom the good? Who benefits? Who loses? Why is this text constructed the way it is? Why do people respond to it as they do?