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The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought

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Essentialism is the idea that certain categories, such as "dog," "man," or "intelligence," have an underlying reality or true nature that gives objects their identity. Where does this idea come from? In this book, Susan Gelman argues that essentialism is an early cognitive bias. Young children's concepts reflect a deep commitment to essentialism, and this commitment leads children to look beyond the obvious in many converging ways: when learning words, generalizing knowledge to new category members, reasoning about the insides of things, contemplating the role of nature versus nurture, and constructing causal explanations. Gelman argues against the standard view of children as concrete or focused on the obvious, instead claiming that children have an early, powerful tendency to search for hidden, non-obvious features of things. She also attacks claims that children build up their knowledge of the world based on simple, associative learning strategies, arguing that children's
concepts are embedded in rich folk theories. Parents don't explicitly teach children to essentialize; instead, during the preschool years, children spontaneously construct concepts and beliefs that reflect an essentialist bias.

Essentialist accounts have been offered, in one form or another, for thousands of years, extending back at least to Aristotle and Plato. Yet this book is the first to address the issues surrounding essentialism from a psychological perspective. Gelman synthesizes over 15 years of empirical research on essentialism into a unified framework and explores the broader lessons that the research imparts concerning, among other things, human concepts, children's thinking, and the ways in which language influences thought. This volume will appeal to developmental, cognitive, and social psychologists, as well as to scholars in cognitive science and philosophy.

392 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2003

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Susan A. Gelman

9 books1 follower

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Displaying 1 - 3 of 3 reviews
Profile Image for Rebecca.
449 reviews10 followers
March 19, 2019
Very clear and surprisingly useful (even in 2019) review of the empirical literature on essentialism. Found out about a lot of cool things, like nominal realism and the fact that shared properties will not induce category generalization. Last chapter got pretty speculative - would be interested in thinking more about individual vs kind essentialism.
Profile Image for Jessica Zu.
1,088 reviews125 followers
August 4, 2011
This is truly a wonderful book for those of us who wanders why racism and sexism are so persistent in our society throughout history. Understanding essentialism is the starting point for a way out of these social injustices which all of us participate and propagate in different ways.
The good news from Susan Gelman's research is that we are NOT hard-wired to essentialize gender, race and a whole lot of other things. Rather, our mind's essential bents are more likely the unintended effects of our other traits which give us evolutionary advantages. Knowing that, we could then start working on how to minimized such unintended biases and start working on how to educate ourselves and our children about those unintended biases. Hopefully, this will lead to a better humanity and a better world. Better in the sense that more social justices, more understanding and more tolerance. This is also a wonderful book for those feminist who are tired of psychoanalysis. Developmental psychology should be the must read for feminists' understanding and theorizing of gender, subjectivity and identity.
Profile Image for Karla.
1,665 reviews15 followers
February 21, 2019
Astonishing author
Well written
Essentialism explained as well as the categorical approach
Identified blooms approach as lacking the evidence and credibility her research has demonstrated
Describes the significance language has on child thought and articulation of conceptual knowledge
Displaying 1 - 3 of 3 reviews

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