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I was reading a political science paper, in a foreign language so there is no point in sharing, which described realpolitik as having a philosophical substrate of essentialism. The statement was formulated in a stand-alone way, meaning without a context and without explaining why it is so. But it got my curiosity as to what the writer meant. I do not understand essentialism so I can't connect the two.

Can you think of a connection between philosophical essentialism and realpolitik and at least guess what this author meant to say by that statement?

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    Might be related to the notion of different nations/cultures having fundamentally different interests that aren't expected to converge or be reconciled, as in Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" idea. Also could be related to Carl Schmitt's view of politics as being fundamentally about dividing people into friends and enemies.
    – Hypnosifl
    Oct 6 '20 at 18:53
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You're right, it's not very clear, and "essentialism" is a pretty broad term. It is basically the idea that things have essential properties that define and determine them, in addition to "accidental" properties they could easily lose while remaining the same. It is often contrasted with "existentialism," which Sartre summed up as "existence precedes essence."

Since essentialism is often associated with varieties of "idealism," from Plato on, it is indeed confusing to describe the Thucydidean stance of realpolitik as "essentialist." To which objects does this "essentialism" apply? Perhaps power itself? In realpolitik one accepts that power is the "essence" of political relations, the irreducible substrate of the various "accidental" qualities of nations or political players.

This view emerged in reaction to liberal ideals in the 19th century. While those ideals might have discredited the acceptance of "might makes right," they did not suddenly do away with might--or at least that was the realpolitik view. So, as I say, power could be the "essentialist" substrate. Is that what the author means? I have no idea.

We can also think of peoples or nations as having "essential" characteristics, as opposed to liberal universalism. This would mean that they cannot be readily adapted to universal schemes, such as Marxism or Market Neoliberalism, or overarching concepts of globalism and universal human rights. As such, nations exist in mutually exclusive relations between self-interested entities that can only be dealt with pragmatically. Again, just another possibility. Hopefully, the full context will reveal the author's perspective and intent.

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    Why do you say essentialism is characteristic of idealism? Some strands of Buddhism are often seen as idealist but non-essentialist, for ex. And I'd say essentialism is characteristic of philosophies derived from Aristotelian ideas (at least in Western philosophy), which I wouldn't consider to be idealist. It also tends to be associated with the idea that wholes have characteristics/behaviors/telos that are irreducible to their parts--for example Marx's analysis of "value" has been called essentialist in this sense, though he's non-idealist.
    – Hypnosifl
    Oct 6 '20 at 18:33
  • These are good clarifications and corrections. I was using "essentialism" pretty loosely, so you are probably right that it "often associated with" but not necessarily "characteristic of" idealism. Edited. Seems to have many varieties, per SEP. And BTW thanks for the link. I'm very interested in Marx's concept of value and had sometimes wondered about Aristotelean origins, though I know much less about Aristotle than most people. Oct 6 '20 at 19:03

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