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June 12, 2002

A bit of Borges
Posted by Teresa at 07:35 AM *

This morning brings a quotation Kevin Maroney has obligingly dug up for me. This is Jorge Luis Borges, from “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”:

These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
Comments on A bit of Borges:
#1 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 08:42 AM:

This is truly an excellent list. I cannot think of any animal that isn't described therein. From this list we can derive that mermaids do not look like flies from a distance, that the dogs belonging to the emperor are neither mad nor do they stray, and that the man who lives in the blue house smokes Camels and owns innumerable vases.

#2 ::: Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 11:50 AM:

Jim's inferences only work if we assume that the operator here is the exclusive, rather than the inclusive, "or". Which does not diminish his wit, of course, but leaving a bit of syllogistic pedantry dangling like that acts on my psyche as tapping out shave-and-a haircut acts on Toons.

Abjectly compulsive,


#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 12:03 PM:

I thought about that; but decided that the inclusive/exclusive question was made irrelevant by the presence of (h), "those that are included in this classification". I love (h). It's the verbal equivalent of the loop of tubing that makes a klein bottle a klein bottle.

#4 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 03:02 PM:

I'm very fond of the fact that (l) others isn't the last entry on the list.

#5 ::: Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 07:31 PM:

I don't think (h) makes the inclusive/exclusive
question irrelevant; rather, I think it's strongly
suggestive that the question must be settled in
favor of inclusive 'or'. Unlike Russell's question about whether the set of all sets which are members of themselves is a member of itself, I don't think (h) actually generates a paradox. It's self-referential, and redundant, but doesn't introduce an impossible claim, I think, since animals are not sets. With Avram, I am however charmed that (l) is not the last entry on the list. Stainless steel whimsey.

#6 ::: Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 07:35 PM:

Bother. That's the set of all sets which *aren't* members of themselves. I think. God I'm tired.

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 08:36 PM:

Ulrika, that list was no more meant to be parsed under the normal rules than Escher's castle was meant to be an architect's blueprint. That's the joy of it.

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 08:36 PM:

And yes, (l).

#9 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2002, 10:57 PM:

Wasn't that Groucho's Paradox -- "I wouldn't belong to any club that wouldn't have itself as a member"?

#10 ::: Kate Yule ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2002, 01:22 AM:

Hoo boy.

I understand that Japanese has different ways to count different classes of object -- flat things (not to be confused with slices, or with floors of a building), long skinny things, boxes, bugs, people, "other small objects" and so on. This was unfathomable.

Now David and I are taking an ASL (American Sign Language) class, where the verb "to open" takes various quite distinct forms depending on the sort of thing being opened, and the Japanese approach takes on a faint glimmer of plausibility.

This list, however, just takes the cake.

(Speaking of which, have placed on hold at the library a book titled "Loose Cannons, Red Herrings, and Other Lost Metaphors". Should be fun.)

#11 ::: Barbara Nielsen ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2002, 11:56 AM:

Having tried to teach outlining and organization for 28 years, this may become my all time favorite classification list. It also should have come earlier in my life, so that I could have understood some of those teenage outlines. It makes everything fit perfectly! To hell with parallel constructs.

#12 ::: Prentiss Riddle ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 02:08 PM:

My small contribution to human knowledge: a classification of people who like Borges' classification system.

#13 ::: Prentiss Riddle ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2003, 08:58 PM:

That URL has changed; here's the updated one for the classification of people who like Borges' classification system.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

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