Re: [sc] The craving for generality (was Definitions; was In-flight upset ...)

Re: [sc] The craving for generality (was Definitions; was In-flight upset ...)

From: MellorPeter_at_xxxxxx
Date: Wed, 30 May 2007 20:18:22 EDT
Message-ID: <d03.10be9bf2.338f6e4e@xxxxxx>
Dear Mauricio,  

In a message dated 12/05/2007 02:33:01 GMT Standard Time, 
mauricio.peixoto@xxxxxx writes:

> Considering all the "mess with terms", why don't also try the opposite
> route - somewhat inspired in Wittgenstein - and downplay the craving for the
> general (the common concept we subsume under a general term) in favor
> of being more descriptive about the world?
> (I am thinking about Wittgenstein remarks on the "craving for generality" or
> "the contemptuos attitude towards the particular case" as a great source
> of philosophical confusions - "Blue Book").

Generality is derived from a large number of individual cases and by 
observing what they have in common.  It is the essence of science 
and engineering.  The "particular case" will always raise its ugly head 
and demand particular consideration, or perhaps a reformulation of the 
generality.  As the old English proverb states: "The exception proves 
the rule."  

(Incidentally, this proverb is now almost always misunderstood.  The 
word "proves" is used in its older sense of "tests" or "challenges", 
rather than in its modern sense of "establishes beyond doubt".)  

In "Funes the Memorious", Jorge Luis Borges wrote:  

"Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) an impossible 
idiom in which each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch had an 
individual name; Funes had once projected an analogous idiom, but he had 
renounced it as being too general, too ambiguous. In effect, Funes not only 
remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he 
had perceived or imagined it. He determined to reduce all of his past 
experience to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would later define 
numerically. Two considerations dissuaded him: the thought that the task was 
interminable and the thought that it was useless. He knew that at the hour of his 
death he would scarcely have finished classifying even all the memories of his 

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural 
series of numbers, and a usable mental catalogue of all the images of memory) are 
lacking in sense, but they reveal a certain stammering greatness. They allow 
us to make out dimly, or to infer, the dizzying world of Funes. He was, let us 
not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only 
difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike 
specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact 
that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as 
the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front)."  

The genius of Borges foresaw what we now call the "autistic" mentality 
(or "Asperger's syndrome", in its milder forms).  

Without generality, we cannot reason (or even live).  However, we 
need those generalities which are of maximum usefulness to our field 
of discourse.  Only by concentrating on the mass of physical bodies and 
the forces acting on them, and ignoring contingent effects (such as friction 
as commonly experienced when pushing a cart), was Newton able to derive 
his "Laws of Motion", equally capable of describing the movement of a 
billiard ball or of a planet.  

We need these "general, platonic ideas", otherwise our task is as 
"interminable" and "useless" as Funes' projects.  



PS: See
Peter Mellor;   Mobile: 07914 045072;   email: MellorPeter@xxxxxx 
Telephone and Fax: +44 (0)20 8459 7669 

[The content of this part has been removed by the mailing list software]
Received on Thu 31 May 2007 - 01:19:00 BST