11.0190 either/or, both/and

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sat, 26 Jul 1997 16:30:11 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 190.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sat, 26 Jul 1997 16:27:02 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: ambiguity

In the latest TLS, #4921 for 25 July, Jonathan Bate discusses in
"Commentary" the origins of William Empson's thinking on ambiguity, in
"Words in a quantum world: How Cambridge physics led William Empson to
refuse 'either/or'". There's much for us to contemplate here, particularly
about how computing relates to the cultural and philosophical changes that
surfaced earlier this century -- in science through the work of Einstein,
Planck, Dirac, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Eddington and others, and in the
humanities through Empson. I suppose we're always in danger of thinking that
science is primary, the humanities derivative. In the case of Empson, who
read for the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge (ranking Senior Optime) before
he went on to study English, in 1928, the one does come before the other,
apparently, but I prefer to think of both as articulating a common substrate.

"It was during the first few months after he switched from Mathematics to
English that Empson wrote the first draft of <cite>Seven Types [of
Ambiguity]</cite>." This draft, Bate says, "seems to have become Chapter Two
of the finished book", and at the end of that chapter, Empson recognises
explicitly the parallel between how he reads Shakespeare and the thinking
"in recent atomic physics". There are several other clues as well, and Bate
makes a good case from them. In essence Bate argues that Empson was the
first to replace the "either/or" perspective in literary criticism with
"both/and". About Shakespeare in particular, Empson wrote, "So it is
assumed, except when a double meaning is very conscious and almost a joke,
that Shakespeare can only have meant one thing, but that the reader must
hold in mind a variety of things he may have meant, and weigh them, in
appreciating the poetry, according to their probabilities. Here, as in
recent atomic physics there is a shift in progress, which tends to attach
the notion of a probability to the natural object rather than to the
fallability of the human mind."

Computing has, I would suppose, emerged from the same world and is indebted
to the same physical insights as was Empson. Allow me to suggest that as a
result two opposites have separated out, and that the opposition puts into
our hands a most potent means of understanding: one the one hand, the
"both/and" of the physical and imaginative worlds (if these are different);
on the other, the powerful "either/or" of computing. Computing humanists
daily use the latter to study the former, but it is in understanding the
former that computing first, it seems, became possible -- and now is
fundamentally necessary to keep in mind if computing is to have any real
meaning for us. Of course Shakespeare, Ovid and all the rest meant several
things simultaneously; trying and inevitably failing to compute them shows
us that.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk

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