Teleological Essentialism

Cognitive Science 43 (4):e12725 (2019)
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Placeholder essentialism is the view that there is a causal essence that holds category members together, though we may not know what the essence is. Sometimes the placeholder can be filled in by scientific essences, such as when we acquire scientific knowledge that the atomic weight of gold is 79. We challenge the view that placeholders are elaborated by scientific essences. On our view, if placeholders are elaborated, they are elaborated Aristotelian essences, a telos. Utilizing the same kinds of experiments used by traditional essentialists—involving superficial change (study 1), transformation of insides (study 2), acquired traits (study 3) and inferences about offspring (study 4)—we find support for the view that essences are elaborated by a telos. And we find evidence (study 5) that teleological essences may generate category judgments.

Author Profiles

Shaun Nichols
Cornell University
David Rose
Stanford University


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