AskDefine | Define essence

Dictionary Definition



1 the choicest or most essential or most vital part of some idea or experience; "the gist of the prosecutor's argument"; "the heart and soul of the Republican Party"; "the nub of the story" [syn: kernel, substance, core, center, gist, heart, heart and soul, inwardness, marrow, meat, nub, pith, sum, nitty-gritty]
2 any substance possessing to a high degree the predominant properties of a plant or drug or other natural product from which it is extracted
3 the central meaning or theme of a speech or literary work [syn: effect, burden, core, gist]
4 a toiletry that emits and diffuses a fragrant odor [syn: perfume]

User Contributed Dictionary



From Old (and modern) French essence, from Latin essentia, from an irregular formation of esse ‘be’.


  • /ˈɛsəns/
  • /"Es@ns/


  1. The inherent nature of a thing or idea.
  2. A significant feature of something.
  3. The concentrated form of a plant or drug obtained through a distillation process.
    • essence of Jojoba
  4. Fragrance, a perfume.
  5. The true nature of anything, not accidental or illusory.


inherent nature
significant feature
true nature of something

Derived terms



Old French, from Latin essentia, from an irregular formation of esse ‘be’.


  • /esɑ̃s/


fr-noun f
  1. In the context of "philosophy|theology|lang=fr": essence
  2. petrol, gasoline
  3. essence, essential oil

Extensive Definition

In philosophy, essence is the attribute (or set of attributes) that - in an aristotelian way of reasoning - make an object or substance what it fundamentally is, and that it has necessarily (in contrast with accidental properties that the object or substance has contingently, and without which the substance could have existed).
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 by Aristotle and its evolution within the scholastic tradition. Based on such considerations, essence became a key notion of alchemy (cf. quintessence).
In the history of western thought, essence has often served as a vehicle for doctrines that tend to individuate different forms of existence as well as different identity conditions for objects and properties; in this eminently logical meaning, the concept has given a strong theoretical and common-sense basis to the whole family of logical theories based on the "possible worlds" analogy set up by Leibniz and developed in the intensional logic from Carnap to Kripke, which was later challenged by "extensionalist" philosophers such as Quine.

Origin of the Term

The English word "essence" comes from the Latin essentia, which was coined (from the Latin esse, "to be") by ancient Roman scholars in order to translate the ancient Greek phrase to ti ēn einai (literally, "what it is for a thing to be"), coined by Aristotle to denote a thing's essence.

Modern philosophy

In the modern period, some philosophers—such as George Santayana—have kept the vocabulary of essence but have abolished the distinction between essence and accident. For Santayana, the essence of a being simply is, independent from the question of existence. Essence is what-ness as distinct from that-ness. No more, No less.

Ontologic status

According to Plato, essences are eide; species and forms separate of the sense's things. These forms are models of the sense's things, and represent genuine reality; sense's world is less reality; for instance, justice in relation to just actions. These forms are pure and eternal forms.
Aristotle moves the forms of Plato to the nucleus of the individual thing, which is called ousía or substance. Essence is the tí of the thing, the to tí en einai. Essence corresponds to the ousia's definition; essence is a real and physical aspect of the ousía. (Aristotle, "Metaphisic", I)
According to nominalists (Roscelin of Compiègne, William of Ockham, John Duns Scoto, William of Champeaux, Bernard of Chartres), universals aren't concrete entities, just voice's sounds; there are only individuals: "nam cum habeat eorum sententia nihil esse praeter individuum(...)" (Roscelin, De gener. et spec., 524). Universals are words that can to call several individuals; for example the word "homo". Therefore a universal is reduced to a sound's emission. (Roscelin, "De generibus et speciebus")
According to Edmund Husserl essence is ideal. However, ideal means that essence is the intentional object of the conscience. Essence is interpreted as sense. (E. Husserl, "Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy", paragraphs 3 and 4).


Existentialism is founded on Jean-Paul Sartre's statement that for human beings "existence precedes essence." In as much as "essence" is a cornerstone of all metaphysical philosophy and the grounding of Rationalism, Sartre's statement was a refutation of the philosophical system that had come before him (and, in particular, that of Husserl, Hegel, and Heidegger). Instead of "is-ness" generating "actuality," he argued that existence and actuality come first, and the essence is derived afterward. For Kierkegaard, it is the individual person who is the supreme moral entity, and the personal, subjective aspects of human life that are the most important; also, for Kierkegaard all of this had religious implications.

In metaphysics

"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 tenet 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.

Marxism's essentialism

Karl Marx was, along with Kierkegaard, a follower of Hegel's, and he, too, developed a philosophy in reaction to his master. In his early work, Marx used Aristotalian style teleology and derived a concept of humanity's essential nature. Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 describe a theory of alienation based on human existence being completely different from human essence. Marx said human nature was social, and that humanity had the distinct essence of free activity and conscious thought. Since capitalism denies the fulfillment of these aspects of human nature, Marx argued that people were alienated.
Some scholars, such as Philip Kain, have argued that Marx abandoned the idea of a human essence, but many other scholars point to Marx's continued discussion of these ideas despite the decline of terms such as essence and alienation in his later work.


Within the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism, Candrakirti identifies the self as:
an essence of things that does not depend on others; it is an intrinsic nature. The non-existence of that is selflessness.
-- Bodhisattvayogacaryācatuḥśatakaṭikā 256.1.7
Indeed the concept of Buddhist Emptiness, is the strong assertion that all phenomena are empty of any essence - demonstrating that anti-essentialism lies at the very root of Buddhist praxis. Therefore, within this school it is the innate belief in essence that is considered to be a cognitive obscuration which serves to cause all suffering. However, the school also rejects the tenets of Idealism and Materialism; instead, the ideas of truth or existence, along with any assertions that depend upon them are limited to their function within the contexts and conventions that assert them, akin to Relativism or Pragmatism. For them, replacement paradoxes such as Ship of Theseus are answered by stating that the Ship of Thesesus remains so (within the conventions that assert it) until it ceases to function as the Ship of Theseus.
Of the many places to find the philosophical Examination of Essence, it is discussed in Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Chapter I examines the Conditions of Existence, while Chapter XV examines Essence in itself, difference, the eternalist's view and nihilists view of essence and non-essence.


In understanding any individual personality, a distinction is made between one's Swadharma (essence) and Swabhava(mental habits and conditionings of ego personality). Svabhava is the nature of a person, which is a result of his or her samskaras (impressions created in the mind due to one's interaction with the external world). These samskaras create habits and mental models and those become our nature. While there is another kind of svabhava that is a pure internal quality, we are here focusing only on the svabhava that was created due to samskaras (because to discover the pure, internal svabhava, one should become aware of one's samskaras and take control over them). Dharma is derived from the root Dhr - to hold. It is that which holds an entity together. That is, Dharma is that which gives integrity to an entity and holds the core quality and identity (essence), form and function of that entity. Dharma is also defined as righteousness and duty. To do one's dharma is to be righteous, to do one's dharma is to do one's duty (express one's essence).

Notes and References

2. El status ontológico de la esencia o del "qué" de la cosa, Obdulio Banda, IIPCIAL Fondo Editorial, Lima, 2,007, I.S.B.N. 978-9972-9982-1-8
3. Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy, Edmund Husserl, Academic Publisher, London Kluwer, 1,982.

External links

essence in Arabic: جوهر
essence in Czech: Esence
essence in German: Wesen (Philosophie)
essence in Estonian: Olemus
essence in Spanish: Esencia
essence in French: Essence (philosophie)
essence in Galician: Esencia
essence in Icelandic: Eðli
essence in Italian: Essenza (filosofia)
essence in Hungarian: Lényeg
essence in Dutch: Essentie
essence in Japanese: 本質
essence in Portuguese: Essência
essence in Romanian: Esenţă
essence in Russian: Сущность
essence in Slovak: Podstata
essence in Serbian: Бит (филозофија)
essence in Finnish: Olemus
essence in Tagalog: Esensya

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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