A philosophical dialogue on the essence of 'essence '

DOOFUS: Socrates, Ignoramus is at it again.

SOCRATES: What did he say this time?

DOOFUS: We were by the lake, watching the ducks, and all I did was exclaim “What beautiful ducks!” But Ignoramus, seemingly incapable of appreciating the ducks for what they are, started questioning what they were.

SOCRATES: Well, let’s see. Tell me, Doofus, is the duck a duck?

DOOFUS:: I would say so.

SOCRATES: And was the duck a duck?

DOOFUS: I gather.

SOCRATES: So you agree that what the duck was, is what the duck is—namely, a duck?

DOOFUS: You say it most excellently, Socrates. Your mind is far-reaching.

SOCRATES: Then, if Ignoramus questioned what the ducks were, is this not the same as asking what the ducks are?

DOOFUS: I suppose…

IGNORAMUS: Brilliant!

SOCRATES: Ducks then…


SOCRATES: Where were we?

DOOFUS: I just wanted to say that those were very nice ducks.

IGNORAMUS: But how do you know that those are ducks?

DOOFUS: What? If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck! Surely this is evident.

IGNORAMUS: Not so fast. Maybe they just look like ducks.

SOCRATES: Tell me Doofus, can a man not learn to walk and talk like a duck?

DOOFUS: He can.

SOCRATES: Once he has learned, is he no longer a man? Is he now a duck?

DOOFUS: He is still a man, but—

IGNORAMUS: He is still a man! There, he has proved it!

DOOFUS: What on Earth did he prove?

IGNORAMUS: That if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a man.

SOCRATES: Interesting conclusion, Ignoramus. So you would say that Doofus, by the lake, was in fact appreciating the beauty of men?

IGNORAMUS: I can see no other argument.

DOOFUS: This is utter nonsense. Those were ducks!

IGNORAMUS: You refuse to reason.

SOCRATES: Well, actually, we still need to do some thinking here.

IGNORAMUS: Tell us, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Why don’t you tell us, Doofus, why the man that walks like a duck and talks like a duck is a man and not a duck?

DOOFUS: Why, because he doesn’t have feathers!

SOCRATES: Could we not cover him in feathers?

DOOFUS: Yes, but he wouldn’t have a beak. Look: I only said ‘walks like a duck and talks like a duck’ as a figure of speech. There are many things that make up a duck. A beak, three-claws on the feet, wings, feathers, a certain size, etc. A man could never have them all. Why is this not obvious?

SOCRATES: Is everything obvious true?

DOOFUS: No…I guess not.

SOCRATES: So everything obvious is not true. Do you agree?

DOOFUS: Yes, I suppose I agree.

SOCRATES: And so anything obvious is false.

IGNORAMUS: He has proved it!


SOCRATES: But if something is obviously false, then it must be true. For the truth of its falsity is obvious, and so false, and consequently true.

DOOFUS: This is very productive but I’d like to get back to the ducks.

IGNORAMUS: A one-track mind.

SOCRATES: Let us get back to the ducks, then. Suppose that I plucked all the feathers from a duck.

DOOFUS: Let us suppose that.  

SOCRATES: It has happened.

DOOFUS: Yes, I have heard.

SOCRATES: Is the featherless duck still a duck?

DOOFUS: Yes, I would say that it is.

SOCRATES: Now suppose that this featherless duck was born without one leg. Is this duck still a duck?

DOOFUS: I think so, yes.

SOCRATES: So a thing can be a duck despite not having feathers and lacking one leg.  

DOOFUS: I see.  

IGNORAMUS: Tremendous!  

SOCRATES: Now, what do you call a man with only one leg?  

IGNORAMUS: With feathers, Socrates?  

SOCRATES: Well, no.  

IGNORAMUS: A duck, then!  

DOOFUS: Try to be quiet there, Ignoramus. I guess I would also call him ‘a man’, Socrates.  

SOCRATES: And do you agree then, that outward properties are neither necessary nor sufficient to make either a man or a duck what they are?  

DOOFUS: It must be true.  

SOCRATES: Therefore, being a human or a duck must be about something deeper.  

DOOFUS: It cannot be otherwise.  

SOCRATES: But this is obvious.  

DOOFUS: True.  

SOCRATES: And so it must be false.  

IGNORAMUS: We are done!  

DOOFUS: You are driving me crazy! How is it false?  

SOCRATES: Does a man have duckness or humanity?  

DOOFUS: Why, humanity!  

SOCRATES: Yes, and so a man who dons feathers and wears a beak, even if he walk and talk like a duck, and make himself as small as a duck, is still not a duck because he lacks duckness. Is this not so?  

DOOFUS: It must be so. But duckness is precisely that deeper thing that makes something a duck. And you just told me that this way of reasoning is obvious and therefore false.  

SOCRATES: It must be, Doofus.  

DOOFUS: I cannot see why.  

SOCRATES: Duckness is the essence of duck, do you agree?  

DOOFUS: It can hardly be otherwise.  

SOCRATES: And it appears that the essence of duck is what makes something a duck.  

DOOFUS: It would appear so.  

SOCRATES: But the essence of duck is the ‘ness’ in ‘duckness’, otherwise we just got ‘duck’, correct?

DOOFUS: Very correct.  

SOCRATES: But in order to get ‘duck’, must we not remove the ‘ness’ from ‘duckness’?  

IGNORAMUS: We must!  


SOCRATES: And since ‘ness’ is the essence, we see that to get ‘duck’ we must remove the essence of duck, which is duckness. Therefore, there cannot be any duckness in a duck.  

IGNORAMUS: Eureka!  

SOCRATES: And so I am forced to conclude that if it walks and talks like a duck, it may be a duck, but then again it may not. It could be human. It could also be a rare Madagascar Lemur. In any case what matters is that it not have any duckness. If it does, it cannot be a duck.

DOOFUS: Wow! It all seemed so simple at first. So, what did I see by the lake?  

SOCRATES: Probably some hippopotami.  

DOOFUS: It must be so, Socrates. Your infinite wisdom triumphs again!



. . . by Francisco Gil-White