Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Singular Flavor of Souls

While I’m recording things I’ve read recently that do a far better job of articulating, and expanding, what I was trying to say last summer, I have two more things to mention that touch on what I was trying to get at with my posts on difference and the acknowledgement thereof. I assume there are many people for whom these ideas are well-trod ground, but they were new to me and it might be worth something to record my nascent reactions here.

In “From Allegories to Novels,” in which Borges tries to explain why the allegory once seemed a respectable genre but now seems in poor taste, he writes the following:
Coleridge observes that all men are born Aristotelians or Platonists. The Platonists sense intuitively that ideas are realities; the Aristotelians, that they are generalizations; for the former, language is nothing but a system of arbitrary symbols; for the latter, it is the map of the universe. The Platonist knows that the universe is in some way a cosmos, an order; this order, for the Aristotelian, may be an error or fiction resulting from our perfect understanding. Across latitudes and epochs, the two immortal antagonists change languages and names: one is Parmenides, Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Francis Bradley; the other, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Locke, Hume, William James. In the arduous schools of the Middle Ages, everyone invokes Aristotle, master of human reason (Convivio IV, 2), but the nominalists are Aristotle; the realists, Plato. […] 
As one would suppose, the intermediate positions and nuances multiplied ad infinitum over those many years; yet it can be stated that, for realism, universals (Plato would call them ideas, forms; we would call them abstract concepts) were the essential; for nominalism, individuals. The history of philosophy is not a useless museum of distractions and wordplay; the two hypotheses correspond, in all likelihood, to two ways of intuiting reality.[*]

But the distinction between nominalism and realism is not so keen as that, commentaries on Borges—Eco’s The Name of the Rose is notable—have noted, maybe missing that Borges might already have understood that.

I read Borges' essay months ago; Saturday, I read/skimmed the first chapter, written by Marcia J. Bates, of Theories of Information Behavior, edited by Karen E. Fisher, Sandra Erdelez, and Lynne (E. F.) McKechnie. In that chapter, I read this:
First, we need to make a distinction between what are known as nomethetic and idiographic approaches to research. These two are the most fundamental orienting strategies of all.
  • Nomothetic – “Relating to or concerned with the study or discovery of the general laws underlying something” (Oxford English Dictionary).
  • Idiographic – “Concerned with the individual, pertaining to or descriptive of single or unique facts and processes” (Oxford English Dictionary).
The first approach is the one that is fundamental to the sciences. Science research is always looking to establish the general law, principle, or theory. The fundamental assumption in the sciences is that behind all the blooming, buzzing confusion of the real world, there are patterns or processes of a more general sort, an understanding of which enables prediction and explanation of particulars.  
The idiographic approach, on the other hand, cherishes the particulars, and insist that true understanding can be reached only by assembling and assessing those particulars. The end result is a nuanced description and assessment of the unique facts of a situation or historical event, in which themes and tendencies may be discovered, but rarely any general laws. This approach is fundamental to the humanities. […]
Bates goes on to describe the social sciences as being between the two, the contested ground; at times, social sciences tend to favour one approach and then switch to the other. It is in the context of the social sciences that she talks about library and information science:
LIS has not been immune to these struggles, and it would not be hard to identify departments or journals where this conflict is being carried out. My position is that both of these orienting strategies are enormously productive for human understanding. Any LIS department that definitively rejects one of the other approach makes a foolish choice. It is more difficult to maintain openness to these two positions, rather than insisting on selecting one or the other, but it is also ultimately more productive and rewarding for the progress of the field.
I don’t think it’s difficult to see the realism/nominalism distinction played out here again, though it’s important to note that realism v. nominalism is a debate about the nature of reality, while the nomothetic v. idiographic debate concerns merely method (if method can ever be merely method).

Statistics, I think, is a useful way forward, though not sufficient. The idea of emergence, of patterns emerging at different levels of complexity, might also be helpful. Of course, my bias is showing clearly when I say this: Coleridge would say that I am a born Aristotelian, in that it is the individual that exists, not the concept. And yet it is clear that patterns exist and must be accounted for, and we probably can’t even do idiography without having ideas of general patterns, and it’s better to have good supportable patterns than mere intuitions and stereotypes. So we need nomothety! (I don’t even know if those are real nouns.) Statistics, probability, and emergence, put together, are a way of insisting that it's the individuals that are real while still seeking to understand those patterns the cosmos won't do without.

(And morality has to be at least somewhat nomethetic/realist, even if the idiographic/nominalist informs each particular decision, or else it literally cannot be morality, right?)


As you can tell from the deplorable spelling of flavour, the title is a quotation, in this case taken from a translation of Borges' essay "Personality and the Buddha;" the original was published at around the same time as "From Allegories to Novels." The context reads like this:
From Chaucer to Marcel Proust, the novel's substance is the unrepeatable, the singular flavor of souls; for Buddhism there is no such flavor, or it is one of the many varieties of the cosmic simulacrum. Christ preached so that men would have life, and have it in abundance (John 10:10); the Buddha, to proclaim that this world, infinite in time and in space, is a dwindling fire. [...]
But Borges writes in "From Allegories to Novels" that allegories have traces of the novel and novels, traces of the allegory:
Allegory is a fable of abstractions, as the novel is a fable of individuals. The abstractions are personified; there is something of the novel in every allegory. The individuals that novelists present aspire to be generic (Dupin is Reason, Don Segundo Sombra is the Gaucho); there is an element of allegory in novels. 

* What is strange about Aristotle and Plato is that Plato was Aristotelian when it comes to people and Aristotle, Platonic. Plato admitted that a woman might be born with the traits of a soldier or a philosopher-king, though it was unusual, and if such a woman were born it would be just to put her in that position for which she was suited. Aristotle, however, spoke of all slaves having the same traits, and all women the same traits, and all citizens the same traits, and thus slaves must always be slaves and women subject to male citizens. I want to hypothesize, subject to empirical study, that racists and sexists are more likely to be realists and use nomothetic thinking, while people with a more correct view of people (at least as far as sex and race are concerned) are more likely to be nominalists and use idiographic thinking... but the examples of Aristotle and Plato give me pause. Besides, is not such a hypothesis itself realist and nomothetic?

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