This blog is called “Essentialist”. What does that mean, exactly?

Imagine, for a moment, that everything in the world was full of “juice”. And, if you squeezed things just right, you could get that juice out, and the juice would let you understand what that thing really is. You’d see that a rose is “rose-like” because it’s filled with “rose juice”; a bocce ball player is filled with “bocce ball player juice”; and so on.

This is a rough summary of Essentialism, and it is a terrible idea (in the way that many of the things Plato said turned out to be mostly terrible by our standards; which is not to say he shouldn’t have said them, of course, you have to start somewhere).

This idea of “essence juice” is very obviously not literally true, in that if you dissect a rose you’ll find no literal rose juice (unless you’re in Bosnia, I guess), and the bocce ball player would very much not enjoy being juiced. Furthermore you’d have all kinds of problems explaining how the complexities of bocce ball could be reliably encoded in liquid form, or how that juice could coexist with his other juices (like “retired state employee” juice and “Boston native” juice). Nobody thinks it’s literally true.

But it’s also not figuratively true, in the sense that it’s not a good explanation for anything. If you’re trying to explain why some stuff (a collection of atoms, bits, waves, etc.) displays stable behavior, you have to explain exactly how those behaviors are produced; you can’t just punt the ball to a magical figurative essence that does all the work. Roses are red because chemicals in their petals have a shape that refracts light in a particular spectral band, not because there’s “redness” in them, in juice form or otherwise.

Essence Is Pattern

So, if Essentialism is such a terrible idea, why is it the namesake of this blog?

Because there’s a much more interesting framing: essence is pattern. When you’ve got things (atoms, bits, waves, words, etc.) that evince a structure you can perceive, and that repeats in predictable ways, then you’re looking at essence.

Our experience of the world is downright cluttered with this kind of pattern. We abstract patterns from our lives, and build up complex mental structures out of them. Our minds are webs of categories and associations (verbal, visual, auditory, and kinetic), carefully curated over a lifetime of pie-tasing and toe-stubbing. And our collective knowledge, our science and arts and letters, all spring from mashing these personal patterns up against the patterns in other people’s heads and seeing what happens. At some level, every academic discipline in the world, from astrophysics to zoology, is just “making sense of the world by studying patterns”.

In this blog, my express purpose is not just to study the patterns of concrete things, but to look directly at pattern itself. This is the domain of mathematics, of course. I’m not a mathematician, I’m a math-curious computer scientist, so while I suspect I’m unlikely to create any new breakthroughs, I’m hoping I can at least stumble onto my own understanding of what smarter folks have said about patterns.