The order of things

How to describe reality according to aliens

When I was young I discoverd more or less by accident that every library that I visited used the same ordering of topics for their books. You could always find Philosophy somehwere in the beginning and Futurists were also somewhere around there. Psychology was somehwere in the middle. And there was a section about Computers also in the same place.

Many years later I read in David Weinbergers book “Everything is miscellaneous” that this is an international system that has been developed by Dewey. This system is still under development and keeps on being refined and expanded upon.

Weinberger makes some remarks about the negative sides of this approach, like the fact that some topics will not fit easily and some branches are too specialistic to grant their own top level category. This should not be held against it. The system was built initially at the end of the 1800’s. No wonder that the topics that are important now are different from then.

What I found a bit weird is that Weinberger’s critique looks like it is very much based on the arguments that are brought up by Borges in his essay called “The analytical language of John Wilkins“. However, Weinberger uses Foucault as a source for this. Why? I do not know. Let’s get back to the source and quote Borges because it is so much fun:

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Borges: The analytical language of John Wilkins

Because this is so funny, what Weinberger perhaps fails to note (as I also did) is the next bit of the essay. Borges claims that all systems of ordering the universe will be incomplete, because we cannot know what the universe is. He continues to write however:

The impossibility of penetrating the divine pattern of the universe cannot stop us from planning human patterns, even though we are concious they are not definitive.

He goes on to praise the system of Wilkins as a good attempt and we can assume that he also admires the Dewey system as such an attempt. Borges then goes on:

Theoretically, it is not impossible to think of a language where the name of each thing says all the details of its destiny, past and future

This brings us to Ted Chiang, who has written a chilling story about just such a language in his story “Story of Your Life” (of which a movie called Arrival has been made). This story introduces an alien species that has formed a language which has intentionality built in and can describe of each thing alls the details of its destiny, past and future.

Is this a coïncidence or did Chiang read Borges much better than Weinberger and I did?