One definition of “essentialism” would be that it is a kind of realism of universals with the additional claim that every particular p instantiates a certain universal E which determines its existence. That is: “p exists” can only be true as long as p exemplifies E.

But then someone like EJ Lowe claims:

Metaphysical realism is committed, in my opinion, to a robust form of essentialism, that is, to the doctrine that there are mind-independent facts about the identities of most objects.

in “Essentialism, Metaphysical Realism, and the Errors of Conceptualism”

So what is the relation between essentialism and realism?


3 Answers 3


I don't see how Lowe can be right here. All that realism, robust or otherwise, is committed to that there are things (entities, substances, qualities, states of affairs, events ...) that exist independently of the mind. Their existence is in no way dependent on how or what we perceive or conceive. That's a very basic but broadly correct characterisation of realism. It makes no difference to the matter in hand whether we interact with such things or not.

Accepting that there are such entities in no way logically involves also accepting that the relevant 'things' have essential natures such that they have constitutive or defining properties on which their other properties depend and from which they derive.

In this sense realism and essentialism are not incompatible but independent. The first can be held without the second.

I know and respect Lowe's work but to get from realism to essentialism he needs intermediate premises. It is not clear what these are or why we should accept them.


Accepting the statement from your quote, esentialism is a subspecies of realism. Realism acts on the hypothesis:

  • Outside of our thoughts a world of physical objects exists, and
  • we interact with these physical objects.

But a representative of realism like Kant emphasizes that we cannot know anything about these physical objects outside - he calls such object a "thing-in-itself". In particular Kant would reject the concept of an "essence" of such objects as a useless concept.

Contrary to Kant, a philosopher like Aristotle emphasizes the usefulness of essentialism. He names the essence of an object "causa formalis".

  • “But a representative of realism like Kant...” seems strange to me. Kant was a German idealist. Kant’s theory is Transcendental Idealism. If Kant believes one cannot know anything about the “outside” world, then Kant could not be a realist. Aug 13, 2020 at 23:36
  • Kant supports realism in the sense of the two characteristics above. - More general, Kant considers "critical or transcendental idealism" a philosophical position between empirism and idealism. His Critique of Pure Reason has a paragraph "Refutation of Idealism" (B 274f).
    – Jo Wehler
    Aug 14, 2020 at 17:49

The point EJ Lowe is making is about "metaphysical realism" - not "realism". Metaphysics is a theory about first principles. Metaphysical realism would therefore be a theory about the first principles of reality. Therefore, metaphysical realism assumes that there is something fundamental we can say about reality. Whatever those first principles are, they claim to refer to the essence of reality.

What someone means by realism depends on their worldview. For example, Jo Wehler in his answer assumes materialism, so in that case realism is about physical objects. There is some degree of essentialism in materialism because it claims that reality is comprised of things with fundamental physical properties (i.e. essences). In the answer by Geoffrey Thomas there is no well developed metaphysics assumed, it could be events or objects or something we have not yet defined. But Geoffrey is making an assumption about mind, so there is a hint of essentialism there too. We don't have a clear definition of mind, but Geoffrey assumes that it can be independent of everything else, that seems to assume some first principle about mind (i.e. at least a partial metaphysics).

An idea that might be helpful is representationalism, for example, both Geoffrey and Jo seem to be assuming representationalism - that language can represent reality. So when we say "mind independent reality" that represents something that is independent of human language.

Representationalism assumes dualism which assumes essentialism (mind being an essential or fundamental property). So a realism that assumes representationalism could be linked to essentialism. That is at least what I tried to do in the example with Geoffrey.

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