11.0192 either/or

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 28 Jul 1997 20:32:24 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 192.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Jim Marchand <marchand@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu> (43)
Subject: either/or

[2] From: "Paul R. Falzer" <prf@callnet.com> (27)
Subject: Re: 11.0190 either/or, both/and

[3] From: John_Lavagnino@Brown.edu (19)
Subject: Re: 11.0190 either/or, both/and

Date: Sun, 27 Jul 97 08:23:46 CST
From: Jim Marchand <marchand@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu>
Subject: either/or

I think that the problem of either/or has to do with concept formation and
such things. I have always maintained that it was I who first said: "The
problem is not that machines will come to think like human beings, it is that
human beings will come to think like machines." Anyway a nice chiasm. The
kind of yes/no but never maybe thinking has been pressed upon us from all
sides: symbolic logic, set theory, computers. In fact, it was Claude
Shannon's realization that switching theory and symbolic logic (in the form
in which he studied it in the late thirties) were roughly isomorphic if not
strictly isomorphic that gave much of the impetus for the first digital
computers. But most of the concepts we humanists work with are not yes/no,
digital, whatever, they are ambiguous, fuzzy, stippled spectrum, more so /
less so, (non-)metrically ordered, ideal type, etc. concepts, such as
dialect, language, medieval, ode, Shakespeare. By an as-if sort of thing
which human beings do so well, we can pretend for some nefarious purposes,
such as computerizing, that they are, but they are not.

This situation has forced upon us such procrustean beds as authorship
assignment by computer, dendrology by computer, and the like. It is not at
all necessary to do this; we CAN have poly-valued computers. Cf. the
collection of papers by Jon T. Butler, _Multiple-Valued Logic in VLSI Design_
(Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Computer Society Press, 1991). Alternately, if we
act as if dialect were an aristotelian concept for some purpose, we need to
keep in mind that it is not in reality. One can act as if verb/adjective
ratio were something amenable to quantification AND as if the result told us
something about author attribution, but in the end one must realize that even
`author' is not a well-defined, not to get into set theory, and that it is
often quite hard to tell what is a verb and what is an adjective. Just try
to parse what I am writing at this moment. Remember the ambiguities of doing
sentence diagrams. Remember Chomsky!

One of the outcomes of late 18th century / early 19th century Boolean
thinking was Boolean algebra, another was the dendrology we see in
Indo-European studies, in textual criticism (Lachmann school). To do one of
these dry trees, one has to use either/or logic. It is either on one branch
or the other, it cannot be on both. In practice, we cheat a lot, but
dendrology requires the assumption of well-formed concepts without overlap
and fuzzy borders.

All of this has very little to do with Empson, the use of the number seven,
and Cambridge logic. I had to read him as an undergraduate and came away
with the feeling (I still have my term paper) that he didn't tell me much.
We ought to know that much which we humanists do is profoundly ambiguous,
fuzzy, etc. We need not be ashamed of this; it comes with the territory and
is something to be proud of.
Jim Marchand.

Date: Sun, 27 Jul 1997 14:43:20 GMT
From: "Paul R. Falzer" <prf@callnet.com>
Subject: Re: 11.0190 either/or, both/and

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Regarding your remarks about Empson's thinking on ambiguity, I am
reminded of section 352 of *Philosophical investigations*:

"Here it happens that our thinking plays us a queer trick. We want,
that is, to quote the law of excluded middle and to say: "Either such
an image is in his mind, or it is not; there is no third possibility!
The law of excluded middle says here: It must either look like
this, or like that. So it really -- and this is a truism -- says nothing
at all, but gives us a picture. And the problem ought now to be: does
reality accord with the picture or not? And this picture *seems* to
determine what we have to do, what to look for, and how -- but it does
not do so, just because we do not know how it is to be applied. Here
saying "There is no third possibility" or "But there can't be a third
possibility!" expresses our inability to turn our eyes away from
this picture: a picture which looks as if it must already contain both
the problem and its solution, while all the time we *feel* that it is
not so."

I would only add that perhaps "both/and" is not the only alternative
to "either/or," and that posing the two as complementary seems to
illustrate the difficulty of turning away from the picture. In any
case, I think that Wittgenstein's name can be added to the list of
distinguished scientists and humanists who have addressed the problem
-- though it may not be easy to classify him as one *or* the other. We
could characterize his work as "both/and," but for what purpose?

Paul R. Falzer

Date: Sat, 26 Jul 1997 12:06:52 -0400 (EDT)
From: John_Lavagnino@Brown.edu
Subject: Re: 11.0190 either/or, both/and

> "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. [...]

I have my doubts as to whether Empson really needed physics to spur
his insights into poetry; I suspect that this is a case of science as
rhetorically useful, to assist in making a case for an unusual though
venerable way of seeing things, rather than as a direct inspiration
(which is however something you can also find in Empson, especially in
his poetry).

My favorite comment of Empson's on science is from the 1955 foreword
to his Collected Poems:

By the way, I have been much disturbed by recent theories that the
universe is not, after all, finite though unbounded, as the earlier
poems here often require it to be; but I retain my confidence that the
sane old views we were brought up upon will come back into favour.

John Lavagnino

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