1. The Evolution Will Not Be Relativized

1.1 “A thing is identical with itself.”

A philosophical riddle was propounded in antiquity about the identification, early and late, of a ship belonging to Theseus: was it the same ship despite successive replacement, over the years, of all its parts? The same riddle is familiar from Heracleitus in application to a river: you cannot step into the same one twice, he claimed, for its substance is continually renewed. For that matter, is Ralph as of now the same man [? Moreover,] are you indeed you after all this time? These three riddles—one, really—are wrongly reckoned as identity crises; they hinge not on the nature of identity, but on what we choose to count as a boat, a river, a person. Words are instruments, and their vagueness is tolerated where it does not impair their utility.

—W.V. Quine, 1986

If there actually are any persons for whom the question “are you indeed you” does not, when taken seriously, invoke an “identity crisis” we should like to know how they attain such austerity. Moreover, we should very much like to discover where the vagueness of words “does not impair their utility.” There we may but find the vagueness of “instruments” exchanged for instrumental vagueness; but to parse surmise from sophism, we will have to ply Quine’s thoughts on “identity” from further angles.

[E]vidently to say of anything that it is identical with itself is trivial, and to say that it is identical with anything else is absurd. What then is the use of identity? Wittgenstein put this question. Genuine questions of identity can arise because we may refer to something in two ways and leave someone wondering whether we referred to the same thing. [...] There is little need to give a man two names, nor much interest in developing an identity concept solely for that contingency. What is more important is reference to something not by two names but by two descriptions, or by a name and a description. We need to be able to identify Ralph with the man who mows the lawn.

But to what names, and to what descriptions, will “a man” or a “something” answer? Should we admit that both classes of entity benefit from (and as classes are constituted by) a name and a description, we must refine our question: Who names the names, and who justifies, warrants, verifies, or validates the descriptions? Who identifies identities and differentiates differences? Who has been authorized to put the right name to a man/thing, and/or put the man/thing right by a name? Depending upon your meta-ethics, the latter may strike you as two discrete (if not incommensurable) questions.

to identify Ralph with the man who mows the lawn

If you work as a cleric, for example, then matters of (de)nomin(ation)al authorization have been settled for you ab initio. Similarly, if you work as a journalist, your lexicon of (more-or-less) ‘common parlance’ is helpfully culled by a ‘Standards and Practices’ department. In either case, known quantities are expected of you. By contrast, if you work as a lexicographer, you can answer the eternally repeated “what exactly do you do?” question several ways, from the offhand “I write dictionary entries” to the underhanded “I determine which characteristics are necessary and sufficient to qualify and quantify the nominal substance of a something as, for example, a man—and vice-versa, Bob’s your uncle.”

On one hand, Archemind is, as a type of ‘open source’ project, in keeping with 21st-century crowdsourcing and other cognitive distributed systems. Thus, by using our Mind Modeler, our general user base will tell us on, in, and by what terms our qualities and quantities are associated—blissfully irrespective of our diligent, rigorous nitpicks. On the other hand, its immediate synchronic functions depend upon mediated diachronic reformulation—whence our call for Ontographers. Why? Claims to the democracy of language, even if rightful, are ultimately held in check by philology as conditioned by the metes and bounds of geology and topography. That is to say, while hill-folk talk old-like, valley-folk talk fancy—where “fancy” means: after the fashion of periodic conquerors and itinerant merchants.

On behalf of (and for that matter, in opposition to) which party does our own fancy-talk advocate, and does “our” include “your”? If nothing else, we aim this metonymic (if misanthropic) missive towards answering these two (or three) bits. Quid pro quo, being professionally predisposed across a wide spectrum of jargon, we trust that you will forgive us for belaboring the obvious, and grant us our references as far as we can throw them. We trust. We also assume you would have seen any graciously offered (faux-ecumenical) “Mission Statement” or (worse yet) “Vision Statement” for what they typically are—namely, a tissue of platitudes. But then, even a tissue proves problematic once you refold it or six or seven times.

Philosophy primers tell of two opposing doctrines as to the nature of truth: [...] Neither theory, when naïvely stated, can be taken seriously. The coherence theory would have it that the truths qualify as such simply by all hanging together as a logically consistent system. The correspondence theory would have it that they qualify as true by corresponding to reality. [...] Coherence and correspondence, properly considered, are not rival theories of truth, but complementary aspects. The coherence aspect has to do with how to arrive at truth, by the best of our lights. The correspondence aspect has to do with the relation of truths to what they are about.

—W. V. Quine, 1986

of discerning hitherto undiscovered meaning

What then is “Ontography” about, and what is its relation to truth? We could have hopped up on a soapbox to proclaim “Behold Our Shiny Product: Ontographer!” in order to deem you, as users, de facto practitioners of a new-fangled praxis—but we trust you are not exactly the standard demographic subject to statistical target marketing. Far from promoting further schisms of the information sciences (etc.) into ever-more-esoteric sub-disciplines, here we simply promote a bit of lexical shorthand by recourse to a tried-and-true method of coinage—namely, what Lewis Carroll called the portmanteau, or suitcase word.

How do such neologisms come about? In this case, as is usual, by way of lexical back-formation—a process often phrased along the lines of “[TERM X] coined on the model of [TERM Y].” Thus the term ONTOGRAPHY would denote, by two reverse reiterations, the applied praxis of ONTOLOGY—first, by reiterating the metalinguistic rationale that abstracts LEXICOLOGY as the theory of LEXICOGRAPHY—and second, by reiterating the metamathematical rationale that discerns the TOPOLOGY of invariant constraints from the TOPOGRAPHY of surface features. No more, no less—but to bring our terms into relief, we will need to sieve facts from fictions.

The world is full of things, variously related, but what, in addition to all that, are facts? They are projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence. But let us ponder this last maneuver for a moment. The truth of ‘Snow is white’ is due, we are told, to the fact that snow is white. The sentence ‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if it is a fact that snow is white. Now we have worked the fact, factitious fiction that it is, into a corner where we can deal it the coup de grace. The combination ‘it is a fact that’ is vacuous and can be dropped; ‘It is a fact that snow is white’ reduces to ‘Snow is white’.

—W. V. Quine, 1986

ONTOGRAPHY, as we have it, consists in the schematic ex-plication (‘folding out’) and ex-planation (‘to a graphical surface’) of hierarchic or anarchic TAXONOMIES, by identifying ENTITIES with well-formed SPECIFICATIONS, which consist—should we adapt Quine’s dichotomy—in etymologically and topologically sound NAMES of a kind and DESCRIPTIONS of a degree sufficient to meet the granularity of CRITERIA required by the DISCOURSE DOMAIN in which they are applied. So defined, ontography should be sufficient to specify and schematize the terms of any discourse domain—most crucially, irrespective of its scope or veracity—from astrophysics to astrology, from the cryptic particle zoo to cryptozoological partitions, from stone soup to plumb nuts.

But this brief scansion risks disjoining ‘practice’ from ‘theory’—a suspect maneuver which, far from founding ‘ontography’ on a stable footing, would would hop it around on the same peg-leg as ‘language’ tout court, deprived as we are of English equivalents to the French langue/parole distinction (other than competence/performance, the correlation of which invites a host of problems). So what? On one hand, ontography “couldn’t care less” about relativistic valuation, for if it could, it would no longer be onto-graphy, it would be onto-theology; on the other hand, once it is applied, it necessarily assumes the valuations inherent to the domain of application. In the case of Archemind, as a would-be ‘disinterested’ party, this assumed inherence (or inherent assumption) becomes strictly asymptotic—for can valuation as such be discerned from classification (as reciprocal “forms”), or only distinguished within it (as its subsidiary “content”)? With any luck, we shall see.

“Truth is disquotation” is true iff truth is disquotation

As for subsidiary definitions: by ONTOLOGY we mean, in short, the grouping of reference objects and their referring signs into the sorts of sorts of sorts of ordinarily hierarchical schemata (from genealogies to site maps to encyclopedias) most commonly termed “tree structures” irrespective of the non-conformity with phytomorphological bifurcation given by ‘multiple inheritance’—a metaphor far more familial to anamorphic anastomoses and the humble rhizome.

By LEXICOGRAPHY we mean, in short, the grafting and snipping of localized linguistic bonsai (dictionaries, thesauri and the like) by recourse to syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, philological and etymological evidence, from tabula to tabloid—be it of scholarly attestation, respectable papers of record, pulp-fictional slang, or other contractual (consensus) conventions by which referring signs are yoked to reference objects. Now, about that yoke . . .

Our account of the truth of ‘Snow is white’ in terms of facts has now come down to this: ‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white. Here, as Tarski has urged, is the significant residue of the correspondence theory of truth. To attribute truth to the sentence is to attribute whiteness to the snow. Attribution of truth to ‘Snow is white’ just cancels the quotation marks and says that snow is white. Truth is disquotation. An ignominious end, one may feel, to the correspondence theory of truth. But we shall see later that it is more gnominious than it looks.

—W. V. Quine, 1986

Hence, the intellect, which is not truth, never comprehends truth so precisely that truth cannot be comprehended infinitely more precisely. For the intellect is to truth as the polygon is to the circle. The more angles the inscribed polygon has the more similar it is to the circle. However, even if the number of its angles is increased ad infinitum, the polygon never becomes equal unless it is resolved into an identity with the circle. Hence, regarding truth, it is evident that we do not know anything other than the following: viz., that we know truth not to be precisely comprehensible as it is.

—Nicolas Cusanus, 1440

insofar as “meta-” is the new “meta-” is the new “insofar as”

METALANGUAGE—now a perfectly obvious use of the combining form ‘meta’—is said to have been coined by Alfred Tarski, who matched Jacques Lacan’s haute absurdism with the disquotational discourse of “‘Snow is white.’ is true if and only if snow is white.” Now to recurse we must resort to reverse recourse: signs denote as true if and only if “signs denote” is true—from which follows either A: is it? or B: do they? Thus appears two disjunctive questions yielding four ontologically incompossible answers—that is, so long as we hew to the distinctions of sense from reference (per Frege) and use from mention (per Quine). Do we? Or, who’s “we”? While the auto-nym-tag of “Lexicographer” skirts controversy swiftly enough, that of “Ontologist” is ambivalent to a fault: with the discipline of ontology having granted itself two purviews, its meta-metalanguage puts Hume’s Fork to word salad.

The disquotational account may still be said, in a sense, to define truth. It intelligibly demarcates all our intelligible truths, by rendering the truth of each sentence as intelligible as the sentence itself. But in a stricter sense it does not define truth. It does not tell us how to eliminate the adjective ‘true’, by paraphrase, from every context in which it can grammatically occur. It only tells us how to eliminate it when it is attached to a quotation. Definition in the strict sense is elimination, and this is not wholly forthcoming. [viz., the Liar Paradox.] It is remarkable how nearly definable we just now found truth to be, and how trivially, and yet how lethal its genuine definability would be.

—W. V. Quine, 1986

For truth may be likened unto the most absolute necessity (which cannot be either something more or something less than it is), and our intellect may be likened unto possibility. Therefore, the quiddity of things, which is the truth of beings, is unattainable in its purity; though it is sought by all philosophers, it is found by no one as it is. And the more deeply we are instructed in this ignorance, the closer we approach to truth.

—Nicolas Cusanus, 1440

How then do we sound the bent tines of our forked tongue? Firstly, the philo-sophical sense of ‘ontology’ typically defines itself as the determination of categories, within which determined limits and bounds genera are legitimated (and delegitimated), conditions of possibility (and impossibility) are fixed, substance and accident are distributed between primary and secondary qualities, and correlation confutes (or convokes) causation. This older sense has long traveled arm-in-arm with COSMOLOGY under the banner of METAPHYSICS—that is, as prescribed from Aristotle to Kant to Heidegger, not as perverted by the rainbow-colored trifle in what may still be named the “New Age” section of your (ahem) local bookseller—though when last we checked, one of those unnamable big-box pablum-peddlers had unceremoniously stowed their last remaining fathom of “Western Philosophy” under the high-flown flag of “Religion”—then thought better of it (so to speak) and moved it under “Literature” (third time’s the charm?) . . .

Secondly, the philo-logical sense of ‘ontology’ defines itself, in effect, as the rigorous execution of a subspecies of clerical work—for example, the administration of an in-tra-net hosted “domain ontology” or “knowledge base” of e.g. biomedical taxa or engineering jargon. This newer sense travels at arm’s length from INFORMATICS under the banner of COMPUTER SCIENCE—that is, the collection of scientific practices which take computation as their subject, rather than those computational practices taken up by the sciences in pursuit of their own subjects. But this latter distinction is perspectival—and as such arguable, depending upon your perspective. From our own, technology—no matter its level of sophistication or area of application—appears unable to divest itself fully of ideology.

Every science must devise its own instruments. The tool required for philosophy is language. Thus philosophy redesigns language in the same way that, in a physical science, preexisting appliances are redesigned.

—Alfred North Whitehead, 1929

[Ancient Egyptian scribe to student:] I instruct you, to make you become one whom the king trusts; to make you gain entrance to the treasury and granary; to make you receive the ship-loads at the gate of the granary; to make you issue offerings on feast days. You are dressed in fine clothes; you own horses; your boat is on the river; you stride about inspecting.

British Museum; trans. Miriam Lichtheim

or, talking about talking about it

Among other examples of humorous lexical redesign, one finds such terms as “phenomenontology” knocked around the ACL (Association for Computational Linguistics). We intend our own portmanteau (we say “our own” despite that a quick web search returns a few other instances, unsurprisingly similar) neither to multiply entities needlessly (abscising as we do by Ockham’s razor,) nor to ply affectation by Latin affixion in the manner of Heidegger’s Greek (noesis : noema :: ekstasis : ekstema), but rather to utilize the specific modal dissymmetry of “-graphy” and “-logy” from which, again, lexico-graphy pre-sup-posed lexico-logy. If lexicology is as purported the theoretical correlate to the practice of lexicography, ontography would then be the applied practice of theoretical ontology.

If this last noun phrase rings pleonastic, we can always blame Rudolf “M-is-for-Metaphysics” Carnap. Are we stuck in a spin-cycle of talking about talking about it, or can we muster the whathaveyou to actually talk about it? For an example of “it”—if, as Carnap would have it, when we state that, e.g., “all As are Bs” we are practicing logic with no theoretical implication, then what are we practicing or not when we state that, e.g., “all dark-skinned bipeds are chattel”? Is this a ‘value-free’ designation, to be given no ‘significance’? Or, yet more abstractly, can ‘metalanguage’ be disengaged, or at least distinguished, from ‘meta-ethics’? If not, then to paraphrase Pascal, we are back to “Law is Law.”

Philosophy will not regain its proper status until the gradual elaboration of categorial schemes, definitely stated at each stage of progress, is recognized as its proper objective. There may be rival schemes, inconsistent among themselves; each with its own merits and its own failures. It will then be the purpose of research to conciliate the differences. Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities.

—Alfred North Whitehead, 1929

We would like it to escape no one’s attention that we are not playing games of synonymy by manipulating the speechwriter’s senseless bag of tricks. Philosophy’s court admits of no synonyms, unless in this day and age we wish to reckon amongst philosophers those grammarians who have acquired their chief distinction from the despicable power of words while harmonizing in the style of parrots and monkeys; nor unless we wish to compete with Cicero in the profession of sciences by trading small Greek words for large Latin ones, thereby mixing linguistic knowledge into the matters under consideration.

—Giordano Bruno, 1592

We would like it to escape no one’s attention that, being neither Grammarians over Philosophers, nor Professors of Scientism over Practitioners of Science, we are not playing games of antinomy by manipulating a mixed bag of metaphors. As we factor in the incentives to obscurantism endemic to late laissez-faire pathonomics (war profiteering, commercialized medicine, privatized penitentiary, etc.), the stake of Bruno’s complaint cannot but strike us as even higher in our day. By way of wager, should we wish to reckon amongst critical thinkers as large a cohort as capable, we might do so (simply,) by trading large Latin words for small English ones, and (not so simply,) by trading (predicative) proposition for (impredicative) presentation—for (in short,) we should like to separate linguistic knowledge from the matters under consideration. Where to begin such a fool’s errand? Quine brings us close to a good starting place—namely, the problem of subjecting the terms “person” and “identity” to stable definitions—at least one of which is bound to bear on the definition of every discourse.

To narrow our scope, we can perform what Charles Peirce called a “prescissive abstraction” by treating whole PERSONS as partial ROLES (to expropriate Quine’s example, we would isolate the person of “Ralph” from his name and attend to how he instantiates the role of “man who mows the lawn”). Archemind’s general-purpose database ‘learns’ in real time from Mind Modelers (Users, particularly registered Members); as Administrators (not only as Ontographers,) we dynamically adjust the kinds and degrees of influence according to a matrix of variables. But if this makes us ‘language police’ then we aspire to the utility of the traffic cop more than to the ulteriority of the interrogator. In any case, mediating in this way (rather than taking a hands-off ‘anything goes’ wiki-style approach) implicates us as an ideological ACTANT. This odd term, coined by the linguist Algirdas Greimas, is less causatively presumptuous than AGENT, and less dramaturgically pretentious than ACTOR—but it yanks us right us back to the “who?” and/or “what?” of Quine’s man/thing who/that yet stands in need of “a name and a description.”

David Hume was puzzled. Identity seems like a relation, but it does not relate things pairwise as a relation should; things are identical only to themselves. How then does identity differ from a mere property? Moreover, it applies to everything. How then does it differ from the mere property of existence, the property enjoyed by everything? It is hard to project oneself into the confusions of even so gifted a mind as Hume’s, after those confusions have given way to the progress of science. A relation is now clearly conceived as consisting of pairs of objects; the uncle relation comprises all the uncle-nephew and uncle-niece pairs. The identity relation comprises all and only the repetitious pairs {x, x}; {x, x} is still not to be confused with x. On confusions over identity see also USE VERSUS MENTION.

—W. V. Quine, 1986

“Non uno vinculo vincit vinciens diversa.”

By mere alliterative axiom, Bruno (1591) rounds up the Latin lexeme antecedent to English terms bound near as tightly such as invincible, convince, evince, conviction, and convict. By clunky translation: “A bonding-agent does not bind diverse bindables with one bond.” Conversely (but not inversely), Bruno tells us, “Non est unus qui omni vinciate particularis.”—there is no singular bond for everything. While the former proposition is, so to speak, self-evident (as in: “one size does not fit all”), the latter is self-absenting (as in: “all fits do not size one?”). Neither surmise is merely imprudent by 16th-century standards—rather, they face two sides of a coin still unlikely to pass in our perennially superstitious polity (despite veracity vis-a-vis twentieth-century physics).

Bruno’s VINCULUM (and for that matter, Greimas’ ACTANT) may just as readily denote a concrete thing or person as an abstract relation, and as readily the transformative as the transformed. We can discern the term’s denotations by way of our many English “vinc” and “vict” terms, but its connotations we can better distinguish via the translation of Latin vinculum into English as both BOND and BIND (cf. Tocco 1891, Cambridge 1996): On one hand, we “bond with” friends and family, whence the “ties that bind”; on the other hand, no sooner do we “break the bonds of slavery” than we are put “in a bind” by obligations. At a glance, both usages seem metaphorical—but the latter yanks us right back by crook to flail, by yoke to goad, by rein to spur. Withal, this double-bind is not a metaphor for something else.

Thanks to our circuitous multiple inheritances, English is well-stocked with lexical equivocations that bear conceptual import—convict/convince, legal/leal, bind/bond, and so forth. This same equivocation extends, by way of tense, to the terms ‘bound’ and ‘bounded,’ where both serve as concrete metaphors for related abstractions: as the former indexes the transitive contractual obligation of persons (to bind or to be bound by?), the latter indexes the categorial demarcation of variables unto intransitivity (to bound or to be bounded by?)—if not unto the absurd, as Quine quips, “To be is to be the value of a bound variable.

How might we attend to what-or-who does-the-binding (the vinciens)? We can translate Bruno’s democratic link (atomistic vector? objectivized trajector?) transitively, either as “bonding agent”, which connotes subjects in a Role (e.g. Bondsman, Attorney, Factor, Notary), or “binding agent”, which connotes substances in a reaction (be it culinary, pharmaceutical, or encaustic). As such, our contemporary use of the term AGENT—in showing the same disregard for designating things or persons—evokes ambiguity, if not amphibology. Merely to state that “an agent” is anything (or anyone) that “does something” does not suffice to determine for whom (or what) it acts. Does it (or s/he) act for itself (or his/herself), as in our general notions of ‘social agency’ and ‘self-determination’? Or does it act for another, as in our general notions of ‘mediation’ and ‘representation’?

To name names that point fingers: employed in the capacity of ‘Language Mediators’ so to speak, we—viz., your humble narrator qua ‘Instrumental Factotum’ and presumably you qua ‘Juridical Factor’—advance an agenda such that we are (pick a prolepsis: “always-already” or “from the get-go”) obliged to stand here or there to speak of this or that from a position of politic (if at times impolite) pragmatism. Put another way, “we” are apt to don different hats as needed, irrespective of the veracity of local hat laws (just ask George Carlin). But what does this mean—that we only tell ‘white lies’? Or that we all keep two sets of books? Three sets? Four sets? More?

the whatness of what?

PETER: You are seeking what?

CARDINAL: You are right.

PETER: I ask you a question, yet you make fun of me.

—Nicolas Cusanus, 1464

And so goes the original Abbot and Costello routine. Who’s on first? What’s on second. Which Whom? What What? Despite his preliminary riposte, the particular what (quid) of which Peter inquires is sought by Cusanus qua Kardinal von Kues with a mind to investigating a rather more universal whatness (quidditas). We should be surprised not that he finds it, nor by what ratiocination (a skeptical trajectory we would now likely call “Cartesian”), but rather by the manner in which he Names it:

In contrast to the Perennial Pantheon of Patriarchs, Cusanus settles (finally) on the singular Nomination of Posse Ipsum (‘Potentiality Itself’), which, beyond expanding the horizon of posits unto more modern meta-multiverses, stands in contrast to both his earlier neologism Possest (the portmanteau of posse and esse conforms ‘Potential-Actualized’, or if you like, ‘Potentiactual’) and to Aquinas’ Ipsum Esse (‘Itself Actualized’).

In any case, all three terms are likely (if imprecisely) to be recapped by (post-)moderns as variations on Aristotle’s to on e on (‘being as such’ or ‘Being-qua-Being’) by way of a Scholastic-Thomist quiddity, and which, even if in contrast to a Scotist haecceity (‘thisness’), are liable to be argumentatively (if arguably) subsumed as ‘onto-theological’ in purport (as from Kant to Heidegger). Now, is he (and by extension, are we) ‘talking about’ Theology, or Philosophy, or Science? Yes, no, and maybe—but not respectively, nor respectfully, nor respectably—all three of which recount one recursive ‘re-’ too many for our spectacles, our speculations, our specifications.

In this sense [Aristotle’s “to on e on”], as Peirce said, Being is that abstract aspect that belongs to all objects expressed in concrete terms: it has an unlimited extension and null intension (or comprehension). Which is like saying that it refers to everything but has no meaning. [...] Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that to be is also a verb, which expresses not only the act of being something (and hence we say that a cat is feline) but also the activity (and hence we say that it is good to be in sound health, or to be on vacation), to the point that often (when one is said to be glad to be in the world) it is used as a synonym for to exist, even though the equation leaves room for a great many reservations, because originally ex-istere meant “to leave-from,” “to manifest oneself,” and therefore “to come into being.” [...] it was on the basis of this [substantive/active, or noun/verb] distinction that Heidegger founded the difference between the ontic and the ontological.

—Umberto Eco, 1997

Should we impute substance to Quine’s rhetorical man/thing by asserting its ‘being’—or better, his ‘personhood’—we would be performing a constrained formal operation in order to grant predicability; this would be an instance of what Peirce called “hypostatic abstraction.” Conversely, we could interpret Quine’s construct as a reification fallacy—an instance of what Whitehead called “misplaced concreteness” (whereas the nominal “person” of Ralph lacks “being” as a discernible property; cf. Eco, above). Alternate nominations abound.

In any event, taking our would-be subject as substantive would force us to a very suspicious categorial-generic operation—one in which the ‘essence’ (as per Aristotle, or should we find him-it subject to specification by weights and measures, as per Descartes or Locke, the ‘primary quality’) of PERSONHOOD is circumscribed by dint of selectively presupposed ‘accidents’ (or ‘secondary qualities’ such as colors, odors, textures, dimensions), the presence or absence of which are sensorily discernible and sententially predicable by humans, and each of which is supposed to have been purported from empirical grounds to figure veridically in a formal operation that finally yields the bivalent designation: this thing “is a person,” that thing “is not a person.” What ever could go wrong with that?

The theory of vincula as articulated by Bruno (i.e., like his monad, not to be confused with Leibniz’s iterations) may yet be unmatched in its democratic regard for causal relation and object constitution. So what would limit the explanatory power of such a ‘flat’ (if not ‘anarchic’) ontology? Only a need to perpetuate that self-enclosed anti-epistemic critico-skepticism which, by swift expansion (e.g., from Galileo and Descartes to Hume and Kant), excluded the whole of what from each of whom—or, put inversely, which contracted to sever the whole of ‘objective reality’ from the human compass of ‘subjective ideality.’

fallacious fideist falsificationism

In retrospect, we should not be surprised that this perspectival inversion was set into motion at the dawn of ‘Modernity’ (and on the heels Bruno’s very public incineration of 1600 CE). While we should like to right this wrong-ended telescope, if at all possible, we must heed Eco’s wry warning as to “Bruno’s space of an infinity of worlds, perhaps all simultaneously present in different dimensions—the whole that encompasses both physical entities and ideal objects or laws, from Pythagoras’s theorem to Odin and Thumbelina”—for even we must draw a line somewhere, if not somewhen. This contraction of purview—this functional foreclosure of philosophy (of ontology and epistemology, at any rate)—is perpetuated by (what amounts to a religious) fideism in the guise of (what would be a secularized) fallibilism. While it appears this parallel’s prevalence is matched only by its misapprehension, we should at least attempt to give it preliminary gloss:

As periodically underwritten, for example, by Peirce, Popper, Dewey, and Quine, FALLIBILISM maintains a provision for error in knowledge—namely, that an absolute truth “in itself” (that would eo ipso warrant various particular truths) is unattainable by ratiocination (as per Quine and Cusanus, above). Despite that its provision is inconsistently excepted in the case of mathematical axioms, fallibilism undergirds the criterion of FALSIFIABILITY in scientific method—i.e., that (rationalistic) purports of knowledge, as contingent, are subject to contradiction by (empirical) evidence.

Obversely, FIDEISM (from Lat. fides ‘faith’—so we might say “faithism”), as periodically relegitimized, e.g., by Pascal, Kierkegaard, James, and Wittgenstein, is now (post-Kant) taken as a contravening supplement that would claim to overcome reason’s unattainability of truth by an axiom of supra-rational faith in Truth as such, “as it is,” or in itself. While the naïve riposte to fideism assumes the fideist deploys “faith in God” to trump reason outright (i.e., not simply to bridge the gap in reason opened by its fallibility, as it were), this would be a difficult charge to levy against its aforementioned defenders.

The fallibility of fideism yields an parallel onto-epistemic erasure which, while cleverly hidden by discursive reciprocation, can be flushed into the open by a redoubled countercharge: first, that to “have faith” is strictly equivalent to “believe” insofar as both are conditioned, as Quine would say, by placing either before the word that or the word so (“I have faith that thus-and-such”; “Thus-and-such? I believe so.”); second, that the denotatum (of which that is so) is commutable (amenable to substitution). What follows from this charge? To hold the belief that oneself exists is no less an “article of faith” than to hold the belief that God exists—and a fortiori, Odin, Thumbelina, et hoc genus omne (‘and everything of this kind’ or, ‘and all that sort of thing’ or, ‘and the like’ or, ‘and such’ or, ‘whatever’).

We turned this last remark from the provocation of anxiety to a sophistical bon mot not in homage to Quine, but to foreground the rhetorical mechanism by which fallibilism and fideism serve to cover over each other’s tracks. At Archemind, we no more underwrite this reciprocation today than did Bruno yesterday (though we shall try to refrain from name-calling “parrots and monkeys”). Why? Despite holding the legislative Key to the allegorical Keep, Scribes have been yoked to Archons in one ‘priestly caste’ or another from the dawn of (needless to say, recorded) history.

From grimoires to grammars, we need not consult Claude Lévi-Strauss to reckon that every book appears to the illiterate as a book of spells—from which follows that the mediation, moderation, and modulation of occult jargon (“credit-default swap”, “telegraphic agrammatism”) is tantamount to Ownership of the Law. As such, professional Keepers of the Book (so to speak) are at equal liberty (as it were) to ease or to impede the flow of communication between groups of language users, individually and collectively, who may differ in kind and in degree of competence and of performance.

From this liberty follows (depending on your deontological ethics and your reading habits) either Spiderman’s “great responsibility” or Dante’s Yoke. If the older sense of ‘ontology’ takes its own metaphysical import too seriously, the newer sense doesn’t take it seriously enough—for from the gnarled knots of the family tree to the staggered ladders of the corporate org chart to the binomial buckets of Linnean taxonomy, every individual class (category, type, kind, sort, genus, schema) is circumscribed by the same privative set-theoretic topology of inclusion versus exclusion.

‘concerning free negroes, mulattoes, and slaves’

Thus, taxonomy, ontology, and lexicography comprise a territorial triumvirate—just as Deleuze and Guattari (1980) describe the “savage triangle [of] the articulated voice, the graphic hand, and the appreciative eye” by which, in ‘primitive’ societies (as per archeo-paleo-anthropo-logy pioneer André Leroi-Gourhan), young initiates—erstwhile ‘non-persons’—have been branded, cut, tattooed, or otherwise marked as ‘persons.’ Through just such supernatural rituals, as we must confess (if not with which we must contend), despite our own high-minded purports of Western civility, vice-versa—our ‘persons’ are marked as ‘non-persons’. Now, should this correlation (D & G’s, or ours) strike you as a sophistical line of flight, take as a ‘real-world’ example a singular run-on(-and-on) sentence ridden roughshod right over the much-rumored Enlightenment with a nod, a wink, and tip of the hat:

From and after the passage of this act, every free negro and mulatto, whether male or female, who may come within the city of Washington, or who may be manumitted, or be made or declared to be free in any other manner or form whatsoever in said city, shall, within five days thereafter, exhibit to the Mayor satisfactory evidence of his or her title to freedom, to be recorded by the Register, as directed by the second section of the act entitled “An act concerning free negroes, mulattoes, and slaves,” approved May the thirty-first, eighteen hundred and twenty-seven, and shall enter into bond to the Mayor, Board of Alderman, and Board of Common Council of the city of Washington, with one good and sufficient white freehold surety; which said surety shall, before executing said bond, exhibit satisfactory evidence to some police magistrate of this Corporation of his sufficiency in the premises, and which said bond shall also be approved by the Mayor, in the penalty of fifty dollars, conditioned for his or her good and orderly conduct, and a like bond and surety for each and every member of his or her family, to be executed in the same manner, conditioned for the good and orderly conduct of the person named therein, that he or she does not become chargeable to or commit any offense against this Corporation, or against the laws of the United States.

That either civil servants or institutional ontologists of today would, having turned a deaf ear to Peirce, labor under a disavowal of (or purport a distinction from, or claim a disinterest in) metaphysics (‘ontology proper’ as it were) indexes a persistent fissure on the order of Heidegger’s reduplicated registers of being—namely, existents as “ontic” entities versus existence as “ontological” essence (cf. Lat. entia vs. essentia). Of course this is but one of the many measures of onto-theological double-bookkeeping to which neither Science nor Philosophy would own up—that is, ‘just in case’ they were equipped with Ownership of Personhood in excess of our metonymic figures of speech. But this is not to charge every card-carrying lexicographer, ontologist, or taxonomist with being (-t/here, or ‘existing as’?) an accidental Heideggerian metaphysician.

like saying it refers to everything but has no meaning

Or is it? As Pascal paraphrases—“That dog is mine said those poor children, that is my place in the sun.” And yet, as namers, daters, numberers, and describers, we must first stake out our topical auspices—which, as virtual purviews abstracted from actual discourse, do not demarcate a place in the sun but rather a templum in the sky. That is to say, is we wish to purport not simply an adequate description but (by disquotation,) a “true” definition of a thing—something, anything—we must stake our claim on a fiat vacuity (as per fallibilism) or guarantor (as per fideism) if only to bring the aerial templum down to earth as a four-corner temple in which to house our juridical tabulae. Should we set aside bird-brained prognostication by augury, this formula holds even we restrict our table stakes to wagering that DOG is a type of MAMMAL, is a type of PET, is a type of CARNIVORE—for we may grant two out of three with little protest. But what of FEAR? —is a type of FEELING? —of RESPONSE? —of PATHOLOGY? —of INFERENCE?

In adopting a questioning approach to the way in which we perceive (but also name) cats, mice, or elephants, it struck me as useful not so much to analyze expressions like There is a cat on the mat in terms of models, or to go see what our neurons do when we see a cat on the mat (not to mention what the cat’s neurons do when it sees us sitting on the mat—as I shall explain, I try not to stick my nose into the “black box,” preferring to leave this difficult profession to the experts), as to bring an oft neglected character back to the stage, namely, common sense.

—Umberto Eco, 1997

Given the depth and breadth to which semantic drift has overtaken the commons (commoners? common ground? Common Council?) we should all see fit to sharpen our own wits. But has common sense not gone the way of the commonplace? Instead of e.g. the concerted effort to co-ordinate discovery, invention, and judgment—an interdisciplinary strategy favored by premodern polymaths from Averroës and Avicenna to Bacon and Bruno—we find the increasing proliferation of unquestioned and/or unquestionable “black boxes”—from theoretical models and governing frameworks to dogmatic Laws and obligatory Doctrines—glued together with abstract metalanguage and abstruse metamathematics by language brokers who would claim—for their own discourse domain, certainly not for yours—a host of exemptions from the critical inquiry of nosy neighbors.

But who is both willing and able to stick their nose in their neighbor’s notations? Like it or not (and odds are even on the latter) our deteriorating state of affairs calls for a reassessment (if not a wholesale revocation) of the more spurious boundaries purported and enforced between discourse domains large and small (such as between the ‘natural sciences’ and the ‘social sciences’), as each is apt to fold under the weight of ideological constraints. Of course, any such revocation would necessitate the reassessment of entitlements (be they categorial, conceptual, or capital) derived from internal or external boundary enforcement. From our perspective in the private sector, the prospects look a bit . . . blurry?

The various soap-boxes upon which we take up slippery ‘discourse positions’ are, true to form, sonorous yet hollow platforms—boxes built of axiom, law, custom, obligation, and other would-be intransitive strata of presupposed givens (beliefs, dispositions, prejudices, conditions,) atop which we each speak or write transitively, as a (or rather, “As a _____,”) Journalist, or as a Teacher, or as a Confidant, or a Friend, or a Father, or an Interrogator (“, I insist that so-and-so is thus-and-such”). Inasmuch as they compound variety with vicissitude, such positions are strictly innumerable; nevertheless, we must at least attempt to reduce them to a minimal set of types and relations if we are to account for anyone’s anything. Of course this sort of quantitative reduction is easier said than done—after all, for any meta-discourse to meta-demarcate itself it must “get outside of itself” if only to speak of its diachronic vicissitudes from a position of synchronic stability. Easier said than done, or easier done than said? With any luck, we shall see.

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