Occasionally I see a distinction drawn in philosophical literature. I think it is usually drawn in terms of entities. The distinction is historical versus essence-bearing. The idea is that if something has an essence, then there is a clearly demarcated core of things to know about that entity. These things are objective, transcend paradigms, or are not dependent on any specific conceptual frames or theories. I think it usually goes along with this view that knowledge about the essences yields necessary truths about the thing and, possibly, that this knowledge can be gotten a priori. I’m not sure since I don’t think I’ve seen this laid out and defended anywhere.

The contrast is entities that are historical. These things have no essences. Their properties are entirely contingent. Their properties are dependent on how they develop over time, a development which could have been otherwise. There is no necessity in their being so. Because of this, possibly, they are not as open to a priori investigation. Knowledge of their properties yields no necessary truths. Arthur Fine has one version of this view in his “Unnatural Attitudes”: “But the description of science as an historical entity was intended precisely to undercut at least one version of that idea, the idea that science has an essence. … If science is an historical entity, however, then no such grand enterprise should tempt us, for its essence or nature is just its contingent, historical existence.”

I’ve seen versions of this distinction used by many philosophers. Ones that spring to mind are Brandom, Rorty, and Fine. I feel like there should be something along these lines in Marx, Nietzsche, Hegel, Quine, Davidson, McDowell, and Kripke, but no instances are forthcoming. [Edit: McDowell, Davidson, and Hegel probably shouldn’t be in the list. Kripke is mainly there to endorse the essence side of the distinction. I ‘m not really sure if he talks about the other side.] As I said above, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an explicit laying out of this distinction and what it entails. I’m not even sure what sort of distinction it is. Is it a distinction of sorts of aims, looking for essences versus looking for historical developments? Is it a distinction among entities, the essence-haves and -have-nots?

At least at times it has a bit of an intuitive pull. There does seem to be some general distinction, however blurry, that it is rightly drawing. But, this is terribly hand-wavy. A more pointed question is: is the distinction rightly drawn in the exclusive terms I gave above? Is there a helpful sense in which we can understand historical entities as having essences of some sort (barring ‘historical’ as an essential feature,I suppose)? Are these two categories orthogonal ones? Getting clear on this would help illuminate the claims that people who use it make. For example, if they are orthogonal, then Fine would be wrong to say that viewing science as historical should tempt us away from viewing it as having an essence.