Friday, April 15, 2005
Something for the Toolbox
According to Cavell, J.L. Austin thought that one of the problems with philosophy was a lack of variety of examples, in particular when considering questions of knowledge, whether or not we can know something. One of Austin’s innovations, then, was inventing new cases: hence the asking whether or not that’s a goldfinch in the bottom of the garden.
In current criticism, there’s one example that gets used a fair bit, a petite blague that demonstrates the irrationality of supposed rational categorizations. I’m thinking of Borges’ Chinese Encyclopedia. Here it is, courtesy of Tom Van Vleck, who also lists some who have cited it:
In “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” Borges describes ‘a certain Chinese Encyclopedia,’ the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which it is written that animals are divided into:
1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.
Now I’m not saying that the example has gotten tedious yet. It still tickles me pink. But should it ever wear out its welcome, may I suggest an alternative, courtesy of my six year old daughter’s upcoming dance recital?
Here is the program for the extravaganza:
ARCHITECTS OF CHANGE
A Tribute to Human Spirit
(Pantages Theater May 13 & 14 2005)
Salute to Soldiers
Tragedy of 911
Queen Elizabeth II
Martin Luther King Jr
Amelia Earheart [sic]
Rosie the Riveter
Now to be accurate, this list does not so much reveal the irrationality of categorization as much as the difficulty of deriving a narrative from an encyclopedia of remarkable people (& organizations? Where did the FBI come from? Will the transition have something to do with Angelou’s case file? Surely she has one, being famous & leftish in the 60’s. But how do you follow with Walt Disney?)
But there’s another level of surrealism unavailable to you, readers spread out over the internets, who won’t be at the Pantages. Perhaps those of you with children know this already, but each of these names represents a short dance vignette performed by a separate class. So there’s also the issue of interpretation. For example, my daughter & three other girls are doing Florence Nightingale. The dance involves lots of praying hands. I know Nightingale was devout, but I didn’t think it was her defining attribute. I thought she was more kicking-bureaucratic-ass-and-taking-names type.
I’ve always thought that the Borges list was a parody of the Buddhist list of the 75 (or 100) dharmas which make up reality, which include (samples) “Seeing, volition, desire, vigor, stupidity, forgetfulness, torpor, the tongue, sound, differentiation of species, continuing/abiding, space, time, otherwiseness, and ipseity.”
<a href="http://www.acmuller.net/yogacara/outlines/100dharmas-big5.htm">100 dharmas</b>
Well, I love Borges, but his “certain Chinese Encyclopedia” does not show that categories are irrational. On the contrary, it is only because many (but in no way all) ways of categorizing things in the world are, in fact, rational that we can even understand that the cited division of animals is irrational (or at least very difficult to justify the relation of what is included within).
Many categories are certainly culturally contingent, but that doesn’t mean that they are either arbitrary or irrational. I’m not an expert in neuroscience or cognitive science but there seems to be a good deal of evidence that certain categorizations are biologically determined or cognitively determined due to the need to adapt to factors in one’s environment.
What on earth are those little tykes going to do with the “tragedy of 911”? The mind boggles. But at least it’s followed by Fred Astaire.
Re. the animal classification: Dear Mr. Borges: my dog fits into several categories (3 [technically]; 6, in some senses; 8 by default [and there’s a whole other problem]; frequently 9; 13; 14, depending on the eyesight of the viewer). Has my mini-Schnauzer just caused a singularity? What should I do? Signed, Confused.
I defy you to produce an even halfway reasonable classification such that one object doesn’t fall under multiple categories (it will be non-hierarchical, of course).
Otherwiseness and stupidity are my favorite dharmas.
There are two kinds of people in the world, the ones who think that all systems of categories are irrational, and the ones who don’t.
Maybe three categories, if two aren’t enough. Add “neither of the above.”
another parody on classification from Charles Dickens:
“He read up for the subject, at my desire, in the Encyclopedia Britannica.”
“Indeed!” said Mr. Pickwick; “I was not aware that that valuable work contained any information respecting Cinese metaphysics.”
“He read, sir” rejoined Pott..."for metaphysics under the letter M, and for China under the letter C, and combined his information sir!”
James-- Last month, Chris over at Mixing Memory put up a very nice post that speaks to your wonder over the cogsci of categorization. Find it here:
A classification system is only ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’ if viewed from outisde. We are all inside some world view and everything looks rational with respect to its assumptions. Read the Borges story: he says “... obviously there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. The reason is very simple: we do not know what the universe is.” Arbitrary is not irrational. As William Bronk says, “How should we speak of the real world if this world were real?”
My formulation is crude. I meant to characterize the use of the Borges bit rather than the bit itself, but even then I was talking more about a strawman than any actual critic. What I really meant was to set up a joke. (Though I do take the Borges to be a joke also. Which is not to say it can’t have serious implications, but I think the comic element does make a difference in whatever conclusions one may draw from it.)
This classification system might be of special interest to our friends at 400 Windmills. From a letter from Heinrich von Kleist to his fiancée, September 14, 1800:
Nowhere do we more readily receive an idea of the cultural level of a city and its prevailing tastes than in its reading libraries.
Listen to what I encountered there, and I need say no more about the intellectual level of Würzburg.
“We would like to have a couple of good things to read.”
“The collection is at your disposal.”
“Something of Wieland?”
“I rather doubt it.”
“Or Schiller, or Goethe?”
“They would be hard to find.”
“You mean, you do not have them here in your library?”
“They are not allowed.”
“What sort of books are all these on the shelves, then?”
“Chivalric romances. On the right, chivalric romances with ghosts; on the left, chivalric romances without ghosts, as you prefer.”
“Ah! I see.”
A bigger problem here, that no one seems to have addressed yet, is how the dancers will move smoothly from an exploration of Abraham Lincoln’s biography to Jacques Cousteau’s undersea explorations.
Just grand: a lovely mess from all of you--and definitely of interest to 400 Windmills folk: I hope the ref. is all right: http://www.400windmills.com/2005/04/cervantes_in_a_.html Thanks--especially Lawrence (as ever--and may the recital go well!) and Ray!