Alternate uses: see essence (disambiguation).

In philosophy, essence is the attribute (or set of attributes) that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is. The notion of essence has acquired many slightly but importantly different shades of meaning throughout the history of philosophy; most of them derive from its use in Aristotle and its evolution within the scholastic tradition.

Essence in this sense is contrasted with accident: essential properties are properties that a substance has necessarily; accidental properties are those that it has contingently, those which the substance could have existed without having. Thus, for example, the high value of gold in the jewelry market is an accident of gold: if humans did not exist, or did not make jewelry, or found gold ugly, then gold would not have a high value in the jewelry market, but it would still be gold. Being metallic, on the other hand, is an essential property of gold: any substance that were non-metallic, whatever it might be, would not be gold.

Based on such considerations, essence was a key notion of alchemy (cf. quintessence).

In the modern period, some philosophers—such as George Santayana—have kept the vocabulary of essences but have abolished the distinction between essence and accidents. For Santayana, the essence of a being is simply everything about it, independent of the question of existence. Essence is what-ness as distinct from that-ness.

Existentialism is founded on Soren Kierkegaard's statement that "existence precedes essence." Inasmuch as "essence" is a cornerstone of all metaphysical philosophy and the grounding of Rationalism, Kierkegaard's statement was a refutation of the philosophical system that had come before him (and, in particular, that of Hegel, his teacher). Instead of "is-ness" generating "actuality," he argued that existence and actuality come first, and the essence is derived afterward. "Essence," in metaphysics, is often synonymous with the soul, and some existentialists argue that individuals gain their souls and spirits after they exist, that they develop their souls and spirits during their lifetimes. For Kierkegaard, however, the emphasis was upon essence as "nature." For him, there is no such thing as "human nature" that determines how a human will behave or what a human will be. First, he or she exists, and then comes attribute. Jean-Paul Sartre's more materialist and skeptical existentialism furthered this existentialist tenant by flatly refuting any metaphysical essence, any soul, and arguing instead that there is merely existence, with attributes as essence.

Thus, in existentialist discourse, essence can refer to physical aspect or attribute, to the ongoing being of a person (the character or internally determined goals), or to the infinite inbound within the human (which can be lost, can atrophy, or can be developed into an equal part with the finite), depending upon the type of existentialist discourse.

In contrast to Idealism and Aristotle-derived philosophies that argue for an essence before all actuality or existence, materialism rejects essence altogether. Karl Marx was, along with Kierkegaard, a student of Hegel's, and he, too, developed a reactionary philosophy. In his dialectical materialism, the zeitgeist of Hegel (an overriding essence) is replaced by a purely deterministic set of material clashes. Marxist philosophy and economic analysis, therefore, is wholly anti-essentialist. There is no "trans-historical" anything, in Marxist thought. Historical moments determine utterly the self. There is no universal human nature, no essence, and no universal essence of objects, either.

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