(THE ANALYTICAL LANGUAGE OF JOHN WILKINS By Jorge Luis Borges Translated from the Spanish 'El idioma analítico de John Wilkins' by Lilia Graciela Vázquez; edited by Jan Frederik Solem with assistance from Bjørn Are Davidsen and Rolf Andersen. A translation by Ruth L. C. Simms can be found in Jorge Luis Borges, 'Other inquisitions 1937-1952' (University of Texas Press, 1993))Sort of, Jorge Luis, but no, not really. I mean, you are a genius to problematize language and knowledge in this way, and declare these causes for cognitive, utter humility. And I will follow close by you, it will be seen, yet I say No.
"I have registered the arbitrarities of Wilkins, of the unknown (or false) Chinese encyclopaedia writer and of the Bibliographic Institute of Brussels; it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures. The reason for this is very simple: we do not know what thing the universe is. "The world - David Hume writes - is perhaps the rudimentary sketch of a childish god, who left it half done, ashamed by his deficient work; it is created by a subordinate god, at whom the superior gods laugh; it is the confused production of a decrepit and retiring divinity, who has already died" ('Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion', V. 1779). We are allowed to go further; we can suspect that there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense, that this ambitious term has. If there is a universe, its aim is not conjectured yet; we have not yet conjectured the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonyms, from the secret dictionary of God.
"The impossibility of penetrating the divine pattern of the universe cannot stop us from planning human patterns, even though we are conscious they are not definitive. The analytic language of Wilkins is not the least admirable of such patterns. The classes and species that compose it are contradictory and vague; the nimbleness of letters in the words meaning subdivisions and divisions is, no doubt, gifted. The word salmon does not tell us anything; zana, the corresponding word, defines (for the man knowing the forty categories and the species of these categories) a scaled river fish, with ruddy meat. (Theoretically, it is not impossible to think of a language where the name of each thing says all the details of its destiny, past and future)."
In the process of biochemical evolution, arbitrary effective mechanisms, with specific (generically matching) inputs and outputs, evolved for organismal survival in a physically constrained and enabling cosmos, are triggered here or there, at input-matching times, but not everywhere or always. "Biological categorization" emerges: when the trigger triggers, the category can be considered as having applied. It's a sort of internal labelling by process. (This describes biochemistry, physiology, metabolism, intracellular-level and organism-internal processes, at least.)
On the other hand, external interactions of the organism may have little to do with much of this vocabulary of internal triggers; these external interaction processes are in a subset relation to the internal triggered mechanisms, the biological categories. These external interactions which trigger organism-internal states or responses may be termed "organismal categorizations".
Cognition begins with these latter. Combinations of them, as in temporal or spatial overlaps or sets or sequences of them, induce further potentially labellable categories, whether at the level of biochemistry (always fundamental) or higher even cognitive functions and representations all the way up: whatever the organism is capable of putting together into useful forms. It may be found convenient to label special combinations when those are frequent or, say, socially significant. Take as an example five-part verbal proddings, a.k.a. "trolling" encompassing the two roles of the speaker, true and portrayed, and three roles of different audiences, contemptuously-poked-at, the manipulatingly-appealed-to, and the humorously-winked-at. Such a rich combination might arise late as the audience size and complexity of interaction increases with the advent of online media, and become interesting, frequent, and significant enough to deserve a name. But the basic underlying (rather high-level but still organismal) categories such as speaker/audience, insult- or offense-giving, posturing/virtue-signalling, etc., would be present before their combination is noticed, labelled, and taken up as part of the language. The human lexicon surely arises as sound-sequence labelling of, in general, exactly such combinations. (Examples in the vocabulary of emotion here.)
Hume might be declared right about the childish, decrepit or dead god (or half-eternal evolutionary process) decreeing us a fixed vocabulary of biological categorizations, for those are each in a way the mere accidents of evolutionary history. For example, that light-sensitive, rod or cone, retinal, sensory chemistry happened accidentally to occur within the constraints and capabilities of physical, organic, and biological chemistry, a happenstance which further happened to come about within a context or foundation of genetic reproducibility, and which further happened to implement a certain transduction, the ability to detect certain colors of light and make the event internally interpretable by the organism. The story repeats for all our sensory modalities and subjective qualia, as well as every unsensed biological mechanism; thus exactly it repeated thousands of times, giving us our genetic endowment. (Is there another way?) Lucky for us that each such resource happened to happen; but then it was less pure luck that, after it happened, it was selected for and became part of us, since indeed it conveyed survival advantage so its further survival was selected for systematically. Yes all those historical accidents brought into being many hundred or thousand morphemes of chemical capability (I am using the linguistic technical term): each relating a form (or shall we say, process) to its meaning (or shall we say utility). That is, input goes through an organismal process to obtain output, but all that then has some internal utility, meaning, significance in context. (The minimal unit, FORM:MEANING is a "morpheme"; language then builds hierarchical information-bearing structures up from these; this seems a relevant model for the information structure of biological processes).
The accidental nature of such history could be seen as the partly random and certainly limiting and incomplete impositions of the mind of an imperfect god, metaphorically speaking -- if we were to conceive ourselves as created by some god or other -- and a dead god, since these events of happenstance and selection are all (as far as relevant to us) safely in the far past.
I spent mesmerized hours during my teenage years, playing with and staring at the high pressure water jet from the hose of our swimming pool cleaner (Arneson Pool-Sweep), trying to will myself into seeing something other than what was there. Unsuccessful, I became deeply persuaded that I live within a consistent external reality that is actually real and fully independent of my perception or will. I am not one of those fuzzies who think you can think what you want to think, or see what you want to see. Emotionally, yes, but physically, no, sir. Reality is real. And equally hard headedly, logic is logic. True and undeniable.
And yet there is this irreducible crease between, on the one hand, the logic of symbolic statements existing in the heads of organisms called logicians and homomorphically in written symbols on paper or in the sounds of language somehow representing the circumstances of things and seemingly-complex reasonings about them (and yes those are all reducible to tautology), and, on the other hand, the hard consistency of reality itself. Reality certainly subserves the logic of valid scientific description.
No bright light, no genius perspective, seems to resolve this and iron out the crease. I finally subside into Darwin, the truths which must be so under fewest presuppositions: after a few hundred million years, the evolutionary outcomes we do indeed observe outside us, and as us, ourselves, do have a reality-basis and a stability (tending toward functional utility, thus toward survival) that is pretty rock hard. So between our own mechanisms being evolved, and reality being what it miraculously is in order to evolve them and us, we have that internal vocabulary of processes or significances, internally useful in their various distinct ways, and we have that subset of them which are externally useful and therefore both organismally functional (for the organism's survival within its external environment) and communicably useful (between members of a species sharing the same inner vocabulary). So when logic tautologically asserts A=A, A being specifiable in that vocabulary, which certainly includes place, time, agent, patient, instrument, goal, etc., then, not quite tautologically, the assertion holds on both sides of the reality/symbology divide. We may perhaps then simply be grateful to our evolutionary heritage that holds reality so tight that in our internal, incontrovertible, logical assertions we map to and in a way grasp the patterns of an external logic equally incontrovertible, undubitable, and true.
7/14/2023 Note. After 15 months of meditation on this issue, it seems vision was serendipitously the right example. A species with vision is capable of seeing a boundary in its visual field. A field with one or more boundaries in it is a sufficient basis for logical reasoning. Something on the left, is on the left. H. And not on the right. No greater wisdom, complexity, or valid conclusions were drawn by Aristotle with his 12 syllogisms, and Veatch with his 12 more, but at least Veatch said there's no Wizard behind this curtain, because it is so so so Simple that none of it actually says anything, because it is H, it is tautology. Once Mr. Venn drew his diagrams, and having drawn the exact parallel, and shall I say fundamentally visual, or perhaps geometrical, intuitions from corresponding symbolic assertions, we acquired the great advance (or confustication) of symbolic logic, but the underlying animalian visual-system capability, and organismal reliance and trust thereon, I think, is a sufficient basis for an organism to have logical reasoning systems. As we are fully persuaded by what we see, we are also identically insistent on what we know logically. End Note.This I believe, and yet (by way of transition, to Bliss Theory) irrational emotion raises its dragon head, curiously cocked for further clarification, for us, or it, looking with its staring glistening unbelieveable sparkling penetrating eyes of deepest knowledge and inscrutable laughter, to know what in our hearts is also true, not true, logical, illogical, momentary, or eternal. It is my story and yours, and the story continues, just a little bit longer. Soon enough it will subside into stillness; we storyfollowers will follow it just a little longer.
Dear great and humble master, Borges,
You said, "We have not yet conjectured the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonyms, from the secret dictionary of God." (Borges, Other Inquisitions.)
Bliss Theory responds, here they are: PE[I]X.
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