The concepts of particular and universal are theoretical concepts introduced to perform an explanatory role. They are not found fully formed in our ordinary conceptual scheme. They should therefore be evaluated in terms of their theoretical utility, which may trump any feeling of metaphysical repugnance they evoke. It is notable that they pull in different directions–one towards the concrete, the other towards the abstract. This is why many philosophers have felt the need to choose between them rather than embrace them both. It is as if reality can’t make up its mind about what it prefers to be. Plato cleaved the world in two the better to explain its unity.
Universals in Thought
We introduce the concept of the particular because we observe distinctness in the world. We introduce the concept of the universal because we observe similarity in the world. I see the cat as distinct from the computer and I conclude that particulars exist; if I didn’t I wouldn’t have much use for the concept of a particular. But I also see that several particulars are similar to each other and I conclude that there are respects of similarity, which I call universals; if I didn’t I wouldn’t have much use for the concept of a universal (suppose I live in a world without similarity). Thus the particular-universal distinction finds a foothold in our description of the perceptible world, from which it might fruitfully migrate: we use it in our general conception of the nature of objects. We might say that it explains what we observe: we see distinctness because particulars exist, and we see similarities becauseuniversals exist. We describe the world as consisting of particular objects with shared properties (attributes, features, qualities, characteristics, forms). Evidently this is a sensible way to proceed, even if we subsequently disagree about what particulars and universals are (are particulars sets of universals or are universals sets of particulars?). But it is also true that we describe thoughts using the same distinction: they have a role in psychology as well as in ontology. For thoughts are about particulars and also about universals: the same duality pervades the mental world as the non-mental world. Why do we talk and think this way about thoughts? Why, in particular, do we think that thoughts have something in common analogous to universals—with the very same entity cropping up in different thoughts? It isn’t that thoughts instantiate universals as objects do (they are not red, square, etc.), so the rationale cannot be the same in both cases; we certainly don’t see that distinct thoughts share the same universal. So what is it that explains our readiness to postulate identity of universals across distinct thoughts? Hugely many different individual thoughts can concern the same universal—or so we suppose—so why do we insist that it is the same entity that crops up in each case? And why must this entity approximate to Plato’s conception of a universal? Why are universals considered an indispensable part of psychology?
First, let us note the troubles of theories that try to do without them. Suppose we limit ourselves to particulars of various sorts—mental, linguistic, or even immaterial. Then we run up against the problem that we can’t capture the identity of the thought from one instance to another: I can’t think the same thing of two objects when I think that both are red, say. For the particulars in question will vary from instance to instance, according to time or person. If we try to circumvent this problem by appealing to types of particular, then we are back with universals. The general concept can’t be equated with a series of particular happenings; we need something in common between all the cases. We need, that is, the universal RED. Sameness of ascribed property means sameness of property ascribed. We need something abstract and general to capture the commonality across thoughts. Nor will it help to bring in dispositions, since these vary over time depending on external circumstances and the thinker’s internal psychology. My disposition to use “red” in a certain way at time t need not be preserved to a later time at which I use the same word, despite the fact that I ascribe the same property at the later time. Dispositions to behave in certain ways don’t track meaning or attribute denoted, so they can’t play the role of universals as traditionally understood. We need the robust identity provided by a traditional universal to explain how the same thing can be thought about different things, or about the same thing at different times. But why exactly do we need the same universal at any occurrence of the thought, so long as some universal is present? It can’t be a dated particular or a changing disposition, but why do we insist on invoking the very same universal whenever language appears to suggest it? Why must “red”, say, always be assigned the same universal? Couldn’t this be some sort of oversight or result of laziness? Why don’t we follow the example of “bank” and assign different universals in different contexts? True, that would be contrary to common sense, but it would be nice to know if the usual practice has anything further to recommend it. Why are we so wedded to the idea of universal invariance as between different thoughts and sentences? Why not a more anarchic approach?
The answer is that logical reasoning requires it. Consider the classic example: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal. We have all been taught that for an argument to be valid there must be no equivocation in the premises and the conclusion. Thus the name “Socrates” must have the same meaning in the conclusion as it has in the second premise, i.e. it must designate the same particular. But the same is true of the predicates, and this requires that “mortal” must have the same meaning in the conclusion that it has in the first premise. That in turn requires that the same universal be assigned to it not some distinct universal (e.g. being vegetarian). So validity depends on constancy of universals through premises and conclusion. We can bring this out be rephrasing the argument using nominative forms: Anything that has humanity has mortality; Socrates has humanity; therefore Socrates has mortality. What we call a universal is just whatever is needed to render this argument valid, which it clearly is: it must not vary between premises and conclusion, as associated particulars and dispositions will. Thoughts occur in trains of logical reasoning and we need entities that will respect the prohibition on equivocation. Thus universals come into the psychological picture; they don’t just belong to the non-psychological world. They have a kind of double life, being related both to similarity among particulars and to validity of argument: we need them in both domains. Again, what they are exactly remains to be determined, but we can’t do without them in some form if we want to make sense of object similarity and argument validity. Postulating them is not some sort of gratuitous mysticism or ontological indulgence; it is warranted by facts that need explaining—the existence of similarity and logical validity. There cannot be logic without something like Plato’s universals, i.e. something constant across particular sentences or thoughts. This means that general concepts cannot be characterized without reference to universals. When we employ concepts we re-apply the same universal over time, which is what happens in a sequence of thoughts that form a logical argument. Token thoughts therefore share universals as particulars share universals—the former by means of intentionality, the latter by means of instantiation.
 The word “universal” is not ideal, entrenched as it is, since so-called universals are not universal—not all things have them. Not all things are red or square or even or good, only some are; so what are called universals are really partials, parochials. But there is no natural term that conveys the idea accurately: the closest I can find would be “shareables”, but that is not a felicitous expression. So we may as well stick to “universals” noting that the things in question are precisely not universally distributed. Notice too that the term “particular” is also not particularly descriptive and must be used in a technical sense: how “particular” is a grain of sand? These are both technical terms (not that there is anything wrong with that).
Big Mystery: Space and Time
What is the most fundamental mystery in the universe? Mind and matter is big, but space and time might be bigger. Each individually is a mystery, as has long been recognized, but there is also the mystery of their connection. How are space and time connected? Are they connected? It might be held that they are separate realities, merely existing alongside each other (“alongside” in what sense?), different in nature, only contingently connected. You could have one without the other: in some possible worlds there is space without time and in others time without space. Why should space require time in order to exist, or time require space? Aren’t they like chalk and cheese or electricity and gravity—distinct existences (to use Hume’s phrase)? Space has three dimensions (possibly more), time has just one; space is extended, time is not; space is static, time flows. When God created space he hadn’t even thought about creating time, and he could have created time without creating space. So it seems: we have such “intuitions of contingency” (compare mind and body). I open my eyes and see space, but I don’t see time (perhaps I feel it in myself); I experience the passage of time (memory, expectation), but I don’t experience the passage of space; I can get lost in space, but can I get lost in time? We apprehend space and time quite differently, and this seems grounded in metaphysical differences: so isn’t there a fundamental dualism here? Not a dualism of the material and the immaterial, but a dualism of the spatial and the temporal: the essence of space is extension (trivially), while the essence of time is continuation (the onward march). We are dealing with two sorts of “substance”: spatial substance and temporal substance (we could also say “stuff” or “quiddity”). It would be crazy to try to reduce one to the other: to claim that space reduces to time or time reduces to space. Such a view would be flagrantly eliminative, false to the facts. So space-time dualism seems the indicated position: non-identity, non-supervenience, non-reducibility. We should be “Cartesians” about space and time.
But this position faces nagging questions (just like mind-body Cartesian dualism). Are space without time and time without space really conceivable? Might there not be “illusions of contingency” here? Is it an accident that both are infinite (infinitely extended and infinitely divisible)? And don’t the two “interact” in certain ways? Material objects exist in both space and time, having both location and history. They could hardly exist in one but not the other: there couldn’t be objects in space that have no history (what kinds of objects would these be?) or objects in time that have no location (where would such objects be?). Material objects straddle space and time, having a foot in both camps. Isn’t causation essentially spatiotemporal? Causation requires contiguity in space and time (or spatial separation in the case of action-at-a-distance). And motion is defined in terms of space and time: how much space is traversed in how much time. These are points of “interaction” between space and time, analogous to perception and action in the case of mind and body. Space and time seem designed for material objects, their sine qua non; so it isn’t as if they never recognize each other’s existence. They cooperate in various ways—as when an organism is born in a certain place and then lives a life over a certain period of time. We also measure space and time using the same kinds of measuring device, viz. physical objects (rods, clocks). Don’t physicists speak of “space-time” and treat both as basically physical? Space is treated as constituted by relations between material objects, and time is regarded as equivalent to periodic processes such as rotations, orbits, and oscillations. This may be found unduly verificationist, but doesn’t it indicate a degree of affinity, commonality? The idea of space without time or time without space will strike physicists as pure mythology, not consistent with Relativity Theory (their touchstone of truth). All in all it appears that space and time can’t be quite as separate as our imaginations may suggest; and yet reducing one to the other seems preposterous. A double-aspect theory suggests itself, obscure as that may be (space and time as two sides of the same coin). The situation resembles the usual dialectic surrounding mind and body, with the same array of (unattractive) options.
We seem headed toward a mysterian position: space and time are intimately connected, necessarily so, but the connection is opaque to us, really opaque. The spatiotemporal “link” is not given to us; there is an “explanatory gap”; and we suffer from “cognitive closure” about the space-time nexus. This may arise from deep ignorance about what space and time are: we just don’t have penetrating knowledge about the nature of these things. Our conception of space is just a patchwork of superficial sensory representations combined with some mathematical artifice; our conception of time is conditioned by the practical concerns of life plus some rudimentary methods of calculation (calculus, for instance). It’s all maps and clocks, basically. We just don’t know much about the real objective deep nature of space and time, so we flounder in our understanding of how the two relate. Some may resort to the analogue of panpsychism: maybe there are little bits of time in all parts of space, or specks of space locked inside all instants. Others may boldly go eliminative (that seems to happen a lot with time). Dualism seems like the commonsense position, but commonsense is often limited when it comes to big cosmological questions (animal minds like ours are not cut out for cosmology given that food and shelter are our paramount concerns). Thus it may be that the nature of space and time lies largely concealed from us, generating misleading intuitions of contingency and impressions of ontological distinctness. Could there be some deeper reality of which space and time are merely aspects? Is this reality knowable by us? In the case of the mind-body relation we do have some relevant knowledge: we know that the brain is vital, that minds evolve and change with bodies, that there are causal relations between the two (often quite specific and intricate). But we have difficulty making sense of this knowledge, creating a viable theoretical edifice out of it. In the case of the space-time relation, however, we don’t even have even this primitive level of knowledge: all we know is that space and time come together in material objects (“the bus was going 30 miles an hour”). We don’t have systematic correlations between space and time, or causal relations, or an analogue of the brain (which at least gives us somewhere to look). We just have broad theoretical reasons for thinking that space and time must have some sort of underlying connection–it can’t be just an accident that they exist together. This is why I say that the mystery of space and time may be bigger than the mystery of mind and body: space and time are bigger in themselves, of course, and we draw an even bigger blank when contemplating their ultimate relationship. They must be connected, yet they seem radically unconnected. Thus we feel queasy when asked to consider their metaphysical separation (as in those alleged possible worlds that have one but not the other), but we are compelled to admit that we have no account of their necessary connection. Perhaps we are convinced that both are necessarily connected to matter (no space without material objects and no time without concrete events), but we hesitate over the question of radical ontological separation. For in virtue of what are the two necessarily connected, and how can they be so connected if they are what they seem? Time is one thing, space is another—how do the two manage to meet in the middle? Did God just slap them together or did he engineer an intelligible interlocking machine? Is the cosmos ultimately made of SPIME? Space stretches out and time ticks by—what have these facts go to do with each other? What is the meaning of their coexistence? Why must a universe be made like that? These are Big Mysteries, even bigger than the “world-knot” of the mind-body problem; we could call them the “cosmic-maze”. We are locked in the maze of space and time trying to find our way out, as we have both a mind and a body and struggle to untangle the conceptual knot they present. We can’t solve the maze and we can’t untie the knot—hence the mystery. But in both cases we can be sure there is a solution out there, even if we can’t produce it ourselves. Space and time fit snugly together somehow, as mind and body also do. We just have a boatload of trouble (possibly terminal) figuring out how the connection works. When I think of space my mind naturally turns to time, and when I think of time my mind naturally turns to space; and I have faith that space and time echo my thoughts in their own way. It’s just that I’m not privy to the way they join together. I have a vague feeling that time infuses space, peps it up, like alcohol in wine; and a feeling that space gives substance to time, beefs it up, like yeast in bread. But I have to confess that I have no idea what I am talking about when I say such things. I just feel that the two belong together in creating a fuller, more complete, world—that they are sadly lacking without each other. Each fills out what would otherwise be intolerably etiolated, hardly meriting the name “reality” at all. But maybe that’s because I would not exist but for their mysterious union: for I know myself to be a creature of both space and time. (Here philosophy makes contact with poetry, to which it is actually quite close, despite the appearances presented by your average philosophy department). If space and time were not connected, the universe would be genuinely meaningless—just static emptiness and transitory futility. Space would have no history and time no point (is there anything more desolate than the idea of time without even space to play with?). Space and time need to mesh if anything is to mean anything.
 Mathematical existence, conceived Platonically, is absent space and time, and perhaps there is a possible world limited to such existence; but it would be a bleak and arid world, despite Plato’s fondness for it. Numbers can’t even move (or be at rest)! What there can’t be is a possible world containing only time or only space—such a world is a mere chimera, though suggested by the appearances (or some of them). Space and time necessarily come as a package deal.
The same point applies to our knowledge of propositional content: we don’t have impressions of the content of belief (even if we have impressions of the belief attitude itself). Our senses are not geared to propositions. Thus our knowledge of folk psychology is not explicable in classic empiricist style.
Empiricism and Semantic Knowledge
Empiricism tells us that all knowledge worthy of the name derives from the senses. In Hume’s formulation, every idea has its origin in an impression, such as an impression of red. This is a psychological theory to which empirical evidence is relevant (what if we came across a whole batch of ideas that exist without benefit any prior sensory impression?). It is not intended as a logical or conceptual truth: there is nothing in the concept of an idea that entails that ideas must derive from impressions. That is why Hume conducts a survey of ideas to determine whether his general principle is correct. Notoriously, he runs into apparent counterexamples: not only the missing shade of blue, but also ideas of causation, the self, space and time, persisting bodies, and number. But he never (so far as I know) faces up to the case of semantic knowledge—what he would call ideas of meaning. We clearly have such knowledge: we know what the words of our native language mean and we can learn the meanings of words used by foreigners. Meanings are objects of cognition: we can think about them, ascribe them to marks and sounds, reason concerning them, have arguments over them. We know them as well as we know colors and shapes (the empiricist’s favorite examples). I know that “snow is white” means that snow is white—does anyone contest that? But how do I have such semantic knowledge—do I have it by means of sensory impressions of meaning? I hope the answer to that is a resounding No: when I hear someone speak and know his meaning I have no sense impression of meaning (I do have impressions of the sounds he makes). If I did, I could understand people speaking a foreign language without laboriously learning it—I could just sense what they mean. It would be like seeing a new combination of colors or hearing a new series of sounds—the senses would have it covered. There is thus no such thing as an impression of meaning in the sense intended by empiricists. This is as true for one’s own meaning as much as it is for other people’s meaning: I don’t have an impression of what “red” means to me. There are no sense impressions of senses, my own or other people’s. I don’t have sensations of meaning. I know about these things, but not because I sense them with my senses. If “impression” means “sense impression”, and these are limited to what the five senses convey, then we have no impressions of meaning. No child embarking on the business of learning language is ever confronted by an impression of meaning from which he or she derives ideas of meaning. Nor has anyone ever suggested such a thing—because it is obviously mistaken. So empiricism is false for the acquisition of semantic knowledge. Meaning belongs with those other ideas that resist the empiricist dogma: causation, the self, persisting bodies, etc. But in the case of meaning it is even harder to dispute whether the ideas in question are really possessed (do we really have an idea of the self?): we indisputably do have semantic knowledge, semantic concepts, and semantic thoughts—but without antecedent semantic impressions to ground them.
You might try claiming that our knowledge of meaning is theoretical: we infer meaning from other types of impression. It is hard to see how this will go but a suggestion that has found some traction is ostension: we have impressions of pointing. The index finger extends in a perceptible dog-containing environment as “dog” is intoned, and an observer can have an impression of this performance—you see dog-oriented pointing going on and infer the meaning of “dog”. There is no need for me to critique this theory, given the obloquy it has been forced to endure, but I will say that an impression of pointing (the stiffened index finger in line with an object) is hardly sufficient to generate an idea of the meaning intended. The impression is far removed from the semantic information it is supposed to impart; you may as well say the expression on the pointer’s face is the basis of the meaning he intends. Many beings (e.g. dogs) could be witness to such a performance and yet have no knowledge of the meaning of “dog” as a result of it. As the native extends his finger while uttering “gavagai”, the field linguist is still in doubt about what that word means. But even if knowledge of meaning could be gained from such impressions, the fact remains that meanings themselves are not perceptible. The first-person knowledge the linguist has of her own meanings is not impression-based either. Moreover, there is a strong feeling that meanings could not give rise to impressions: meanings are not the kind of thing that produces impressions—like numbers (and unlike molecules). It is a necessary truth that meanings are imperceptible. In any case our actual knowledge of them is not impression-based, i.e. acquired by means of direct observation of their nature (by “acquaintance”). Rather, ideas of meaning are brought to perceived utterances, not derived from such utterances. Where these ideas do come from is not so clear: they could be innate, or they could be created by the developing child in some way. They could also be a mixture of the two, as much of our knowledge undoubtedly is. But what an idea of meaning can’t be is a “faint copy” of an antecedent impression, or be “abstracted” from an impression of meaning. There are no impressions of meaning that could form the basis of our knowledge of meaning in the manner envisaged by the empiricists. Meanings themselves are right there before us, so to speak, but they don’t show up in consciousness as Humean impressions.
Accordingly, knowledge of analytic truth can’t be impression-based: you don’t have an impression of the meaning of “bachelor” and an impression of the meaning of “unmarried male” and notice that these impressions are identical. Yet you have genuine knowledge here, just not empirical knowledge. If it were based on semantic impressions, it would be empirical: but as it isn’t, it ain’t (as Lewis Carroll once said). So knowledge of meaning is a powerful counterexample to empiricist epistemology, yet seldom if ever cited in this connection. And if the correct theory of it is that such knowledge is either innate or created (or a combination of the two), then this theory might well be the one to adopt for other types of knowledge too, such as knowledge of color and shape. Impressions of red might merely elicit our innate concept of red, rather than being the basis on which we acquire that concept ab initio. At any rate, we don’t come to know meaning by having impressions of meaning fed into our minds.
 There is also a genetic question: if the original state of existence is nature-free, how does it ever acquire a nature? Where do the properties come from? If two bare existences interact with each other, what makes them become clothed? Natures can’t come from Nothingness.
Existentialism and Essentialism
The existentialist credo is: Existence precedes essence. This stands opposed to the dictum: Essence precedes existence. It’s Sartre versus the Scholastics, supposedly. Sartre’s existentialism, deriving from Kierkegaard and Heidegger, is said to invert traditional metaphysics, which takes the nature of a thing to be prior to its existence—or at any rate to be coeval with it. There can’t be existence without a corresponding constitutive nature—a set of defining properties. The existentialists apply the contrary doctrine to human psychology: the mind is initially a vacuity that is subsequently filled by radically free acts of will. Sartre’s says it is Nothingness: an empty potentiality, a mere receptacle, with no internal content or structure. This result is said to derive from the structure of intentionality, which is conceived as pure directedness to an object. In particular, the mind contains neither a moral sense nor a personality that determines what the agent will do—not until such things are freely chosen. A thesis about human psychology is thus held to derive from a metaphysical principle—the principle that in the case of the human mind existence (being) precedes essence (nature). Whether animal minds also conform to this principle we are not told (how could they not given the biological continuity?); at any rate, the human animal has no definition or nature qua psychological subject—except the absence of a definition or nature. We are “condemned to freedom”, as Sartre says, because our existence is metaphysically prior to our essence—we exist as pure possibility.
I don’t intend to discuss the details of the existentialist account of human reality; I want to note its affinity with other doctrines of similar metaphysical stamp. I am concerned with the underlying metaphysics of existence and essence (which is not to be understood modally but as meaning something like “constitutive nature”): for there is a striking analogy to other doctrines seemingly at some remove from the concerns of the existentialists. First, empiricism: the theory that the mind is initially a tabula rasa, a blank, slate, or an empty cabinet. There is no innate knowledge, nothing cognitively given at the outset. The existence of the knowing mind precedes its having any substantive nature, save that of its constitutive blankness (even a sheet of blank paper has some nature—just nothing worth reading). The mind acquires knowledge by interacting with the world, both personal and impersonal—just as Sartre thinks that we acquire a moral sense and a personality by interacting with the world outside the mind, particularly other people (also initially empty receptacles condemned to freedom). The mind is free to acquire whatever comes its way without any prior determination from inside, whether cognitive or moral. The nativist, by contrast, views the mind as initially richly structured, full of content, but limited in its possibilities—rather like the body. Similarly the essentialist about the self thinks that human personality and moral sense are fixed by factors outside of our control—genes or upbringing or God’s benevolent design. Action is the result of these not their cause, as innate knowledge is held to enable the later acquisition of knowledge (in conjunction with input from outside). The dialectical picture is the same in both cases: either the mind is empty potentiality or it comes already equipped with a nontrivial nature, understood as a type of knowledge or a type of character. Traditionally, God is supposed to be the author of the innate essence of the human soul: it is he that gives us a moral sense, a particular psychological makeup, and a set of innate ideas. So mental essentialism goes with theism in traditional thinking: how else is human nature determined? As against this conception, the existentialist has no need of God to explain the installation of a mental essence, since there is no such thing. The atheist therefore has no theoretical need of God to confer an essence on the human soul; and indeed to suppose there is such a thing is to court theism as a theory of how such an essence comes to exist. We don’t need God to explain how the human mind has this or that in it at birth since it has nothing in it: blank slates need no contribution from God. In an atheistic world a lack of design and determination is only to be expected—or so it is supposed. Thus existentialism and empiricism make natural partners, as do essentialism and nativism. And just as empiricism liberates us from a scholastic and theistic past, so existentialism is supposed to liberate us from an outdated metaphysics and reliance on God as an explanatory crutch. Sartre could have cited Locke as his enlightened forerunner—his epistemological existentialist (epistemic existence precedes epistemic essence).
But that is not the end of the analogies: we also have the bare particular, the featureless substance, and the indeterminate substrate—matter without form. That is, we have the metaphysical doctrine that corporeal existence precedes physical essence. Here the picture is that the physical world is based on a kind of undifferentiated mass or stuff that is shaped into actual objects of determinate kinds by imposed forces. Call this stuff “matter” with no commitments about how it is articulated: then matter in this sense is the counterpart to the blank slate of Locke and the empty consciousness of Sartre. It is what physical reality is before form gets to work on it (maybe what preceded the big bang). It is bare matter, matter without determinate properties: pure potentiality not definite actuality. Some people (e.g. Heisenberg) describe the quantum world this way, suggesting that we must liberate ourselves from the old picture of a fixed determinate reality. Maybe so-called matter is really energy, conceived as an amorphous field of potential action—not particles occupying specific locations and moving in determinate ways. In any case, it is supposed that we have an idea of a non-individuated physical reality that precedes formation into natural kinds and determinate objects (“All is formless gunk”, as a pre-Socratic might say). This is physical existentialism (did quantum physics influence Sartre?). Once such a view has been taken on board, we can envisage a grand metaphysics of generalized existentialism: all of existence precedes essence—everything is initially a malleable Nothingness, pure potentiality. All reality is in the first instance a blank slate: it needs input from outside in order to possess a nature (free action, sensory stimuli, or quantum measurement). Without these external influences it would remain at the level of empty potentiality, a void, a vacuum, an absence. That is the new metaphysics that is to replace the old mythology of a cleanly defined, divinely ordained, cut-and-dried world of delineated objects—the world of primordial essences. Not orderly civilized essence but raw wild existence rules the world. No God in his right mind would create a world of the latter kind, but that’s okay because God is dead—or so the existentialist believes. The global existentialist views the world as consisting fundamentally of two kinds of formless material, mental and physical; such form as it may possess is the outcome of extraneous forces. Intrinsically, reality is made of Nothingness.
How good is this metaphysics? Is it intelligible? What exactly is existence without essence? How can something exist and yet have no nature? Various metaphors and analogies have been ventured, some used already by me in an attempt at exposition: blank slate, empty cabinet, undifferentiated stuff (or lump), bare particular, vacuum, void, absence, Nothingness, emptiness, plastic, putty, mathematical point, etc. But these all fall short of aptness and clarity, mainly because they are never blank enough—they always have too much structure, too many properties. And the idea that something could exist—really exist—and yet have no nature seems to make no sense. Existence and essence go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other. Even the empty set is a set and is empty! In the case of the human mind there are clearly many natural properties that a mind possesses the moment it begins to exist, even if these are just a general ability to learn by mimicry and conditioning (and we know there is much more to it than that). Human beings have instinctual needs and desires, innate emotional responses, and inborn cognitive capacities: there is nothing blank about them. Nor is the pure potentiality view of quantum phenomena compulsory (Bohm’s hidden variables, etc.). I won’t go into the details, but there are well-known empirical and conceptual objections to the “existence precedes essence” mantra. I suspect a powerful motivator here is the feeling that essentialism requires God: how else are we to explain why the world is naturally arranged one way rather than another? But we can surely make room for an atheistic acceptance of the actualities of existence: we have evolutionary explanations of inborn human traits as well as alternative accounts of quantum phenomena. The natural and simple view is that everything that exists has a nature, more or less intricate, with which it confronts the world outside. It is true that you can say that a thing exists without incurring any commitments as to its properties, but it doesn’t follow that a thing can actually exist and have no properties: one point is linguistic, the other ontological (does the metaphysics behind existentialism rest on a use-mention mistake?). The idea that existence could characterize an object and yet the object has no further properties is surely incoherent (what kind of object would that be?). Sartre’s description of consciousness as Nothingness is clearly an exaggeration even according to him, since consciousness is held to have intentionality as its essence—a pretty substantive property. And Locke’s blank tablet is precisely a tablet with the power to receive inscriptions and preserve them. Nothing could have only the property of existence. I take it this is crushingly obvious and hardly worth stating, but the charm of the (alleged) idea of property-less existence is apparently so strong that common sense has trouble stifling it. It seems to be one of those romantic semi-ideas that irresistibly surface in the human mind despite its hazy credentials—like the idea of immaterial spirits, ghosts, and suchlike. Maybe the womb was experienced as a kind of bland nothingness—the null environment? The idea is essentially mystical, evoking images of mists and magic. That is the reason for its appeal: the charm of the supernatural in the shape of shapelessness (the “holy spirit”). In the state of Nothingness we can free ourselves of the body, perhaps even achieve immortality (how can you kill Nothing?). Whatever the source of the notion is, it hardly makes for a coherent metaphysics. Things necessarily have a nature and this nature limits (and enables) them—bodies, minds, and elementary particles. Existence can’t precede essence; it can only manifest it. If so, existentialism is false.
 Mathematical objects would be the exception, since the idea of mathematical stuff makes no sense. In the realm of numbers existence does not precede essence, even for the staunchest existentialist (though I suppose we can envisage an anti-essentialist willing to go even this far). On the contrary, it is the idea of an existence beyond essence that seems to have no application to numbers—they have no being but essence.
 This paper is a follow-up to my “Attributes of Mind”. I find it strange that people pay lip service to Brentano without making much effort to find out exactly what he held. And it is far more challenging and momentous than the usual anodyne versions of it suggest (of course the mind is about stuff!). The notion of transcendence-cum-immanence as a fundamental feature of reality is not at all a platitude. If Brentano is right, the mind is really very special. I have the feeling that he didn’t want to soil this specialness with the common muck of spatial extension.