On essentialism

In a letter in the July issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Paul Bloom and Susan Gelman recount the selection procedures used to identify the 14th Dalai Lama. The then 2-year old boy was presented with objects that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama together with inauthentic items that were either very similar or identical to the authentic ones. When the boy succesfully and with no hesitation chose the authentic ones, he was chosen to be the 14th Dalai Lama. Bloom and Gelman present this story as cross-cultural evidence of the existence of essentialist beliefs: for the Tibetan bureaucrats that devised the selection procedure, the objects that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama had come to possess an invisible essence that could only be discerned by the special powers of the 14th Dalai Lama. I wonder, however, whether this story really illustrates the belief in the existence of invisible essences in the objects presented to the little boy, or whether it illustrates the belief in the essential identity of the person of the Dalai Lama in his 1st, 2nd, 3rd… 13th and 14th manifestation.



  • comment-avatar
    Helen De Cruz 25 September 2008 (13:11)

    That is a good alternative explanation. But still there must be some kind of causal connection linking the objects to the Dalai Lama. How could the child pick out the right objects, if not through a purported ’essence’ in the objects?

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    Rita Astuti 25 September 2008 (16:11)

    If people imagine that the 14 individuals who have been Dalai Lama are indeed the same person, then there is no need to impute any special essence to the objects. The small child looking at the authentic object would simply recognize it/remembers it as the object that he already knows from his previous experience – as Dalai Lama number 13, or 12, or 11, etc. Similar techniques are commonly used to test spirit mediums – if the medium is genuinly possessed by the spirit s/he claims to ”be”, then the medium should be able to recognize e.g. items of clothing that belonged to the person whose spirit is now possessing him/her. The claim of essential identity here, as in the case above, is about the person – the spirit that is possessing the medium or, in the case of the Dalai Lama, the same tulku.

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    Olivier Morin 25 September 2008 (16:13)

    Against this (Rita’s) argument, Bloom and Gelman argue that ”the use of exact copies meant that the boy could not succeed through past life memory”. If the copies were indeed ”exact” (?), then we are not dealing with a case of personal objects recognition as Rita views it, because the two objects he had to choose from were (supposedly) similar in every perceptual respect.

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    Nadya Vasilyeva 23 October 2008 (00:21)

    Olivier makes a good point – it looks like for such selection procedure to work, we need to assume both that the objects possess some unique identity (essence) AND that it’s a part of Dalai Lama’s unique identity (transferred across reincarnations) to be able to detect such object essences (because a regular person should not be able to distinguish between their personal possessions and absolutely identical objects).