What is the essence? What is Truth?
There is no such thing.
At least, after the conflagration of two world wars, it became fashionable to the point of political correctness to deny essence or Truth. This is a sacred tenet of Western thought from existentialism through post-modernism. How did this happen?
In the wake of the nineteenth century love affair with science, what we can call “scientism”, we thought that the world was composed of facts, and that any scientific fact tells us the essence of things. Ludwig Wittgenstein led the movement of Logical Positivism to champion this belief, but then, dramatically, he realized the error of his ways: using language is not equivalent to stating facts. With fearless integrity, he reformed his thinking to demonstrate that any time we use language we are playing a game by rules for its use that uniquely fit the situation. Facts, scientific or otherwise, are not where it is at. Moreover there is no essence of anything — only “family resemblances” between things.
Through a very different approach, phenomenological ontology, Martin Heidegger denounced Metaphysics, the very basic, scientifically oriented intelligence of our culture, which has come down to us since Plato. He determined that our Western way of thinking is rooted in an illusion that things and facts are of the essence. Heidegger called for a “destruction” of Metaphysics as we have known it. Thinking that Hitler might be sufficiently radical to be the agent for such fundamental change, Heidegger became prominent in the Nazi Party, until sometime around the burning of the books. After this shocking affair and the ever-mounting evidence that the Nazi project was in fact a malignant use of force, Heidegger turned away from politics to contemplation, coming to the basic view that science and technology are a kind of mentational fascism.
Sartre said that the only true being is Nothingness, which is the very nature of our existence, our consciousness. We have no essence; we only create it by what we make of our existence.
What we thought was the essence of truth about the world, to be validated through science and implemented through technology, is in fact an absurd distortion.
What to do?
Followers of these thinkers have come up with a way of destroying this illusion, formal methods for completely relativizing essence, and therefore whatsoever is. Heidegger’s “destruction” has settled down into Deconstruction, systematically analyzing and breaking down all “essences” or understanding of what-is into local and historically bound assumptions. This development underlies post-modernism. A thing, happening, or event has no intrinsic true nature. What we understood to be true about it is in actuality a habit of culture, bound by time and space — in a word, relative. Hence essence is relative. All truth is relative. We’re just making it all up, and therefore nothing has any real value. This is called Nihilism.
Champions of this relativity purport to bring us freedom. But in truth the nihilistic consequence of Deconstruction and the worldview from which it arises is that we are bereft. Something essential has been lost. Heidegger called it “the forgottenness of Being”.
Freedom is never only release from illusion, constraint, or limitation: it must be freedom to something more essential. Deconstruction and non-essentialism are important in order to understand relativity, but only if balanced with clarity about what is essential. Essences may be culture bound, but the essential is not.
There is no essence, but there is the essential. And we all know it.