Literality in Epistemology

Literalism is a kind of an impossible demand — it is, I hypothesize, at the heart of our cultural understanding of knowledge. Well, literality and figurality are, it seems to me, almost the same thing, they refer to a kind of impossible angle we have to take, sort of like the tantalizing zen koan. It speaks of something at once of an obvious and unreachable, stupid (thus, something that we should have avoided) and yet and impossible to prevent — inescapable guilt. What I mean is, consider, for example, reading something that sticks with you — like a philosophical sort of book, or something, say, Heart of Darkness in this blog. I’m always recalling passages in that book, for example, whenever I realize something new I seem to talk to that book. However I arrived at my own insight, the discussion with the book always seems to focus on some passage that was taken, at some point, too figuratively: we approach a passage once again with a renewed, “literal” understanding and with the impression that we could have simply gone this route all along!

So it’s strange how much weight we give to literalism as this kind of “shortcut”, as if all we had to do was be more literal, more careful — as a kind of ruby slipper, a la “The Wizard of Oz”. What’s interesting to me is the enormous importance in which we hold literality, which is nonetheless something incredibly elusive.

I want to talk about a few things — math / coding. I do not have the role in which “literalism” (properly applied, to each case) firmly worked out in my mid but I do have a vague outline. And I really want to consider what may considered more unconventional subjects for the topic of “literality” in order to avoid running into some pitfalls that I sense will be there if we deal with literature.

What is mathematical literalism? In the last essay I spoke about the Gauss insight, and I spoke of a recent personal experience involving the Gauss insight (let’s just call it that), and the logic of that story was, indeed, that my poor roommates were caught in a kind of error or an impasse — as if there were a shortcut there. It seems to me now that the Gauss story seems to contain the elements for all mathematical insight in general, which is a kind of dematerialization and rematerializing … well, I mean, these terms used metaphorically. My roommates / Gauss’s classmates had, it seemed, a too representational understanding of the referent of the problem, they understood the problem too well in a sense. Again — here, even as I talk about this, I speak of a kind of obvious error or shortcut. Maybe Dorothy’s ruby slippers should simply be taken as a figure for epistemlogy as such — the study of shortcuts or (less misguided) the study of cultural understandings of shortcuts. I spoke of the distinction between “observational analysis” versus “detective work” there too (valorizing the latter), which seems to relate, indeed, to what basically amounts to the distinction between analysis and theory broached in the beginning — distinctions which may perhaps be misguided: “We have” — so I said (something to the effect of) — “for the longest time been attempting analysis, we have been asking how an ‘obviously eventful’ event takes place, but what we need instead is theory, which asks how, theoretically, given a set of circumstances, an event could unfold — and then seeking such an unfolding in history”.

But what is the “rematerialization” — the forming of a new model? Because for Gauss the case was not the abandoning of linear causation but the reestablishing of one. This seems to relate to the zero, which — and I find this refreshing — we hypothesized (following Rotman, I mean) to arise from pragmatic exigencies — the zero made arithmetic a lot easier, it was a translation of states on an abacus, which may have blank rows. But we also stated that an algorithm is always painstakingly constructed, so that those who use it afterwards believe it to be natural or entirely motivated, unaware of the danger of the path on which they travel.

Let me digress here momentarily — actually, I’m honestly not sure how relevant the following will be. I was reading, for some reason, a wikipedia article about man-eating lions when I was redirected to a British an attempt to build a railroad in Africa using Indian labor, the site of one of the worst cases of man eating lions in history… something like 100 lives or something … this is probably very insensitive me, or maybe not, for ignoring the horrifying plight of the exploited masses or something, but Churchill said something about the railroad, about how he admired the courage of those who “mucked through it” — he’s speaking of the white British colonists of course — of espousing a kind of stiff-upper lip British spirit. This is of course a good metaphor for what we’ve been discussing so far, but what I really like is this idea of mucking… the construction of the railroad required mucking.

The issue here, it seems to me, is the establishing of a new literalism — not merely a new route, but a new way of conceiving of that route. The establishing of the zero was the rejection of an older form of materialism in order to (re)establish an era of epistemic literalism, but one that has been painstakingly developed, pragmatically, by exploring every case, and by mucking through, and finally forgotten (and maybe the above metaphor is really applicable here, too) — in this notion of “merely literal”.




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