Sunday, May 25, 2008

Isolated Solutions to Isolated Problems

Arthur C. Danto argues in his Nietzsche as Philosopher. An Original Study that in philosophy there "is no such thing as an isolated solution to an isolated problem. The problems of philosophy are so interconnected that the philosopher cannot solve, or start to solve, one of them without implicitly committing himself to solutions for all the rest. In a genuine sense, every philosophical problem must be solved at once. He may work piecemeal at isolated problems only insofar as he accepts, if only tacitly, a system within which to conduct his inquiries." Nietzsche had difficulties with this, but "the fact remains ... that philosophy as such is architectonic" (24).

I'd like to believe that this is false.

Negative Press

Not everyone likes working with index card files. Some are definitely opposed to them, as I tried to show in Critique of Zettelkasten.

In a German review of Erwin Einzinger's recently published novel "Aus der Geschichte der Unterhaltungsmusik" (Residenz, 527 Seiten. 24,90 Euro), which is called Ein wüster Zettelkasten-Roman, there is the following accusation: the book is "a textual alluvium that knows no structure and no line. This 'story' is like the extract of a gargantuan and unordered heap of index cards or notes, compared with which Arno Schmidt's and Frederike Mayröcker's chaos of notes look like the carefully arranged contents of a small drawer in a night stand."1 It is a "wild index-card novel."

I have no interest in the book. I don't even know whether it was written, using the index-card method. The only thing that makes it (or the review) interesting to me is the claim that a product like this must be the result of using index cards in writing.

I don't think that there is any necessary connection between such a book and card files. In fact, I am doubtful that there is even so much as a strong correlation.

1 In German: "einem Text-Schwemmland, das keine Struktur kennt und keine Linie einhält. Diese "Geschichte" ist wie der Extrakt eines riesigen, ungeordneten Zettel/Notizen-Haufens, gegen den sich Arno Schmidts oder Friederike Mayröckers Notizen-Chaos ausnimmt wie sauber geschlichteter Inhalt eines Nachtkasten-Lädchens."

Alphabetical Order

To keep notes (or any kind of information) in the order of the alphabet, without any attempt to order it systematically has seemed unnatural to many thinkers: The world is a cosmos, it has a natural order or ordo that comes from God or from reason. The idea of an ordo rationis that expresses the way things are in themselves is at least as old as Aristotle's philosophy. According to such a theory, "to order" means therefore neither to organize and systematize knowledge according to our preconceptions or purposes. Nor does it mean to "manage" it. Rather, it is the interiorization of the order that is cosmic and symbolic at the same time. "It was one of the fundamental character traits of the early Christian and medieval mentalities that the signifying, symbolizing, and allegorizing function was anything but arbitrary or subjective; symbols were believed to represent objectively and to express faithfully various aspects of a universe that was perceived as widely and deeply meaningful." (See Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text. A Commentary on Hugh's Didascalicon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

One of the last writers to attack alphabetical order was Mortimer Adler, who wrote much of his A Guidebook to Learning: For the Lifelong Pursuit of Wisdom to criticizing alphabetical order and arguing that "resorting solely to the alphabet" amounts to "intellectual dereliction" and "an aversion of intellectual reponsibility." But there are many others who have objected to alphabetization on similar grounds.

It is easy to dismiss such a view as a relic of the past. But there is, it appears to me, no need to do so. Adler was missing the wrong target. Listing or presenting things in the order of the alphabet does not imply that there is no other order. Alphabetization does not even imply that we do not or could not know any other order, even though some suggest as much. All it means is that for some purposes alphabetization is more convenient and useful. The same holds for ordering things or ideas according to some numerical scheme (such as the one proposed by Luhmann for his Zettelkasten). Pace, Luhmann, I would claim that such ordering schemes may with equal justification be thought of as helps in discovering the true order of the universe as they may be seen as tools that express our subjective or social needs. Per se, they are neutral as to the ontological structure of the world, unless we explicitly wish to make them relevant in this way.

The same holds, of course, for links and tags. The fact that hypertextual and wiki links are useful for keeping notes or for presenting information does not necessarily imply anything about the nature of the universe. The same things holds for tags. David Weinberger argues in Everything is Miscellaneous. The Power of the New Digital Disorder (New York: Times Books, 2007) that they provide a new order of order. This may well be true. It may well be that "for the first time we have an infrastructure that allows us to hop over and around established categorizations with ease," but this does not invalidate the idea that there is an order of the world that is independent of this infrastructure - however difficult this fundamental order may be to determine. What's wrong with Adler's view is that it involves a much too simple idea of what the order of the universe must be.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Has the Internet Changed the Way We do Research?

There is an interesting post about The Tyranny of the Discrete at Ben and Alice, which starts from a discussion of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, but is in some sense about "the decline of context and the rise of small chunks of unrelated data." The author seems to believe that "the Internet has changed the way that people think about doing research--indeed, how people think in general," but then claims against some, who have argued that this presents a decline, that this is not necessarily so.

I am not sure that the Internet has changed the way we think about research, or anything else for that matter, but I would agree that the problem of thinking "within a context of no context" raised by George W.S. Trow is real and worth thinking about some more (see And Now He's Dead). But it's a problem that is around at least since Herodotus. If there is a context of (all) contexts, we have not clearly identified it yet. On the other hand, contextualization alway presupposes some kind of larger context, even if we usually do so unreflectively.

I liked the quote by J.D. Marshall about the sources of research in The Tyranny of the Discrete:
If the student remains absorbed in original sources, he or she will be content to reproduce information from these sources, which he or she will regard as having special historical validity. In other words the information itself will become a substitute for history; the discrete fact itself becomes pseudo-history.
Students ... are more likely to develop the notion that crucial or important historical information comes from manuscript sources only. This leaves them unable to appreciate an argument which uses a variety of different sources to provide evidence. They are also prone to develop a prejudice to the effect that facts are more important than arguments, and the verification of facts represents almost the sum total of local historical activity. ... Local history, like any other kind of history is meaningless without coherent, immediate, imaginative and above all telling context
True, but "coherent," immediate," "imaginative" and "telling" contexts presuppose wider contexts, and that is what we seem to have "lost." Insofar as you can only "lose" what you once had, the question should be whether , or perhaps better, in what sense we "had" such contexts.

I would argue that we had them only insofar as we made them, which is not to say necessarily that they were arbitrary.

The Internet may not encourage thinking about larger contexts, but what else is new?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Memory Aids

Not tested, and without further comment:

Memory aids

Link no longer works (Saturday, December 19, 2009)