Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Essence refers to the possibility of fixed and timeless existence.

explanatory context

The idea of timeless essence derives from Aristotle who maintained that the essence of a thing was what it had to have in order to be the thing that it was.


This essence, according to Aristotle, could be expressed in the definition of the thing.


Empiricists (in the 17th century) argued that a definition, however full, simply reflected how the term was to be applied rather than captured the essence of the thing. Locke distinguished real essence, that which characterised the thing and was unknown, from nominal essence, which was the known properties attributed to the thing and through which the correct application of the term is possible.


Essence is an important idea in some approaches to phenomenology where it is argued that knowing involves a grasping of the essential nature of the world of objects and social interactions.

analytical review

Under the heading The Meaning of Hegel's Logic: III: The Meaning of “Essence ”, the Marxists Internet Archive (undated) states:

At first, it appears that Hegel is using the word "essence" quite differently from the way it is used conventionally or in philosophy. In mediaeval philosophy and in the philosophy of Kant "Essence" refers to some elusive, unattainable, inner content of a thing which is hidden from perception. In ordinary language, we talk of the "essence of the matter", by which is meant it's "meaning" or significance, the most important or defining aspect of thing, besides which other aspects are just accidental or "unessential". As it turns out, Hegel is indeed talking of the same thing, but his approach is distinctively "Hegelian"..


New World Encyclopedia contributors (2015):

In philosophy, essence is the attribute (or set of attributes) that makes a thing be what it fundamentally is. It is often called the “nature” of a thing such that it possesses certain necessary, metaphysical characteristics or properties in contrast with merely accidental or contingent ones. It is often considered a specific power, function, or internal relation (or set of relations) which again makes the thing be the kind of thing that it is. The notion of essence has acquired many slightly but importantly different shades of meaning throughout the history of philosophy, though most of them derive in some manner from its initial use by Aristotle.

associated issues


related areas

See also




Researching the Real World Section


Marxists Internet Archive, undated, The Meaning of Hegel's Logic: III: The Meaning of “Essence ”, available at, accessed 25 February 2013, still available 9 June 2019.

New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2013, 'Essence', New World Encyclopedia, last updated 3 October 2013, available at:, accessed 23 May 2017, still available 3 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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