Sunday, March 16, 2008

The thesaurus, continued

This is a continuation of my response to jc's comments, under the entry "Books."

As I guess everybody knows, the standard Roget's has words listed in the back, with numbers next to them. You look up the word, find its number, then look up the number in the front. The thing that is so great about it is that the numbers mark off conceptual categories, into which the words fall. It's good because you can see how nuances of meaning between words are given by the differing general concepts that govern their definitions. I love that. Though admittedly I love conceptual categories in general. As it were.

Anyway, it gets better. My understanding is that Roget was a realist about the categories, which means that he thought that meaning is organized in the way that it is because reality is organized that way. Reality with a capital r, that is. Now, that's probably wrong deep down - or, maybe it's only right deep down - but it's still kind of neat (a word that I recognize can be said but not written) that the thesaurus is so unabashedly ontological. You have to admire an attempted mapping of what philosophers call real (in contrast to "nominal") kinds. Don't we think?

But why do they always have to be dicks? (See jc's report of article about how Roget was an unpleasant weirdo.)


Anonymous said...

Have you ever read "The Analytical language of John Wilkins" by Jorge Luis Borges? Or Umberto Eco's "The search for the perfect language"? Borges' is an excellent satire, Eco's contains some quite interesting essays on the subject. I think systems of the kind of Rogets are much too susceptible to erosion because language is constantly mutating. But I do share your suspicion that he might have gotten something right at a deeper level, in spite of the fact that such a suspicion contradicts my convictions. I had not been aware of Roget's Thesaurus, I shall get myself a copy.

t-ruth said...

I read a Borges story once about a guy who could only deal with particulars, had no access to universals. Funes, maybe, was his name? I liked it, and would like to find it again. Do you know it?

Anonymous said...

The story is called "Funes el Memorioso" it is included in my Spanish edition of "Ficciones" which is a compilation of 2 books,"Artificios" being the one in which it originally appeared. But unlike Funes' my memory is leaky as a sieve and the story had already slipped it. So while I was at looking for it I re-read it. The interesting thing is that Funes does without generals because he has access to all particulars he has ever encountered, as a result of his inability to forget anything at all.

t-ruth said...

Yes! That's it! Yay.

I loved that story because I so completely cannot imagine what it would even mean to think of a thing, any thing (I almost wrote "any kind of thing") and not think of it as one kind of thing rather than another kind. I know, I know: all you have to do is say that there is only one instance of each kind -- and you can almost imagine Aristotle having been able to say that, I guess. But even to say it presupposes the concept. Of a kind, I mean. I can't imagine not having the concept. Literally; I don't think that I could think without making use of it, even if implicitly. It seems like I can't be alone in this regard. I think that this is Plato's point. It's interesting.

Anonymous said...

That is one of the points Borges touches on at the end of the story. I translate:
I suspect, however, that he was not too able to think. To think is to forget differences, to generalize, abstract. In Funes' cluttered world there was nothing but almost immediate details.