Teleological Essentialism

David Rose, Shaun Nichols

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


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. In our view, if placeholders are elaborated, they are elaborated by Aristotelian essences, a telos. Utilizing the same kind 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12725
JournalCognitive science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019


  • Aristotelian essence
  • Placeholder essentialism
  • Scientific essentialism
  • Teleology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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