Notes toward a theory of the corpus, Part 1: History

By corpus I mean a collection of texts. The texts can be of any kind, but I am interested in literature, so I’m interested in literary texts. What can we infer from a corpus of literary texts? In particular, what can we infer about history?

Well, to some extent, it depends on the corpus, no? I’m interested in an answer which is fairly general in some ways, in other ways not. The best thing to do is to pick an example and go from there.

The example I have in mind is the 3300 or so 19th century Anglophone novels that Matthew Jockers examined in Macroanalysis(2013 – so long ago, but it almost seems like yesterday). Of course, Jockers has already made plenty of inferences from that corpus. Let’s just accept them all more or less at face value. I’m after something different.

I’m thinking about the nature of historical process. Jockers’ final study, the one about influence, tells us something about that process, more than Jockers seems to realize. I think it tells us that cultural evolution is a force in human history, but I don’t intend to make that argument here. Rather, my purpose is to argue that Jockers has created evidence that can be brought to bear on that kind of assertion. The purpose of this post is to indicate why I believe that.

A direction in a 600 dimension space

In his final study Jockers produced the following figure (I’ve superimposed the arrow):

Each node in that graph represents a single novel. The image is a 2D projection of a roughly 600 dimensional space, one dimension for each of the 600 features Jockers has identified for each novel. The length of each edge is proportional to the distance between the two nodes. Jockers has eliminated all edges above a certain relatively small value (as I recall he doesn’t tell us the cut off point). Thus two nodes are connected only if they are relatively close to one another, where Jockers takes closeness to indicate that the author of the more recent novel was influenced by the author of more distant one.

Each node in that graph represents a single novel. The image is a 2D projection of a roughly 600 dimensional space, one dimension for each of the 600 features Jockers has identified for each novel. The length of each edge is proportional to the distance between the two nodes. Jockers has eliminated all edges above a certain relatively small value (as I recall he doesn’t tell us the cut off point). Thus two nodes are connected only if they are relatively close to one another, where Jockers takes closeness to indicate that the author of the more recent novel was influenced by the author of more distant one.

You may or may not find that to be a reasonable assumption, but let’s set it aside. What interests me is the fact that the novels in this are in rough temporal order, from 1800 at the left (gray) to 1900 at the right (purple). Where did that order come from? There were no dates in 600D description of each novel. As far as I can tell, that must be a product of the historical process that produced those texts. That process must therefore have a temporal direction.

I’ve spent a fair amount of effort explicitly arguing that point [1], but don’t want to reprise that argument here. For the purposes of this piece, assume that that argument is at least a reasonable one to make.

What is that direction? I don’t have a name for it, but that’s what the arrow in the image indicates. One might call it Progress, especially with Hegel looking over your shoulder. And I admit to a bias in favor of progress, though I have no use for the notion of some ultimate telostoward which history tends. But saying that direction is progress is a gesture without substantial intellectual content because it doesn’t engage with the terms in which that 600D space is constructed. What are those terms? Some of them are topics of the sort identified in topic analysis, e.g. American slavery, beauty and affection, dreams and thoughts, Greek and Egyptian gods, knaves rogues and asses, life history, machines and industry, misery and despair, scenes of natural beauty, and so on [3]. Others are stylistic features, such as the frequency of specific words, e.g. the, heart, would, me, lady, which are the first five words in a list Jockers has in the “Style” chapter of Macroanalysis(p. 94).

In a post back in 2014 I suggested that Jockers’ image depicts the Geistof 19th century Anglo-American literary culture [2]. That’s what interests me, the possibility that we’re looking at a 21st century operationalization of an idea from 19th century German idealism. Here’s what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Hegel’s conception of history [4]:

In a sense Hegel’s phenomenology is a study of phenomena (although this is not a realm he would contrast with that of noumena) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is likewise to be regarded as a type of propaedeutic to philosophy rather than an exercise in or work of philosophy. It is meant to function as an induction or education of the reader to the standpoint of purely conceptual thought from which philosophy can be done. As such, its structure has been compared to that of a Bildungsroman (educational novel), having an abstractly conceived protagonist—the bearer of an evolving series of so-called shapes of consciousness or the inhabitant of a series of successive phenomenal worlds—whose progress and set-backs the reader follows and learns from. Or at least this is how the work sets out: in the later sections the earlier series of shapes of consciousness becomes replaced with what seem more like configurations of human social life, and the work comes to look more like an account of interlinked forms of social existence and thought within which participants in such forms of social life conceive of themselves and the world. Hegel constructs a series of such shapes that maps onto the history of western European civilization from the Greeks to his own time.

Now, I am not proposing that Jockers’ has operationalized that conception, those “so-called shapes of consciousness”, in any way that could be used to buttress or refute Hegel’s philosophy of history – which, after all, posited a final end to history. But I am suggesting that can we reasonably interpret that image as depicting a (single) historical phenomenon, perhaps even something like an animating ‘force’, albeit one requiring a thoroughly material account. Whatever it is, it is as abstract as the Hegelian Geist.

How could that be? Continue reading “Notes toward a theory of the corpus, Part 1: History”

Color term salience and cultural evolution

The most salient colors (black, white, and perhaps red) are named in all languages; the least salient of the set are named in fewer languages. Salience correlates with earliness of introduction.

David G. Hays, Enid Margolis, Raoul Naroll, Dale Revere Perkins, Color Term Salience. American Anthropologist, 74:1107-1121, 1972. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1972.74.5.02a00050

Abstract: Eleven focal colors are named by basic color terms in many languages. The most salient colors (black, white, and perhaps red) are named in all languages; the least salient of the set are named in fewer languages. Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution; with brevity of expression, as measured by phonemic length of basic color terms; with frequency of use, as measured by frequency of basic color terms in literary languages; and with frequency of mention in ethnographic literature. None of these correlations are established in the pioneer study of Berlin and Kay (1969), a study whose defects are well exposed by Durbin (1972) and Wescott (1970). The first two were documented respectively in Naroll (1970) and Durbin (1972); the last two are documented here. These four correlations independently support the Berlin-Kay color salience theory. They furnish a sound basis for further research on color term salience in particular and indeed on salience phenomena in general. We speculate that salience may be an important general principle of cultural evolution.

Consider this finding: “Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution”. What that means is that less complex societies (as measured by one of the standard indexes, Marsh’s socially complexity scale) have fewer basic color terms than more complex ones. Why?

The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World

Back in the mid-1990s late David Hays reviewed and synthesized several decades of work on cultural complexity in non-literate societies. That review is now available on the web.

At the time he died in 1995 my teacher, David G. Hays, The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World, had just completed a review and synthesis of cross-cultural work on cultural complexity. His widow, Janet Hays, undertook to publish the book in CD-ROM form. A couple months before she died last year Janet gave me permission to distribute the book in whatever way that seemed appropriate.

I have decided to make the book available at my page, but I am open to other suggestions. The book consists of a PDF of the text, an XLSX file of the data, and a PDF of a brief Read Me document, as follows:

The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World (PDF):

Bounds (XLSL), spreadsheet for the book:

About the book (PDF):

* * * * *


David G. Hays

Whether there can be a science of human life was a question in the air of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1954, where Raoul Naroll and I met. After forty years, the question has been answered only in part. In his last book, The Moral Order, Naroll began to sum up his life’s work on the human condition. That book convinced me, for the first time, that some of the findings of social science have the same kind of validity as findings in physics or biology. Naroll planned more books, but they will not be written.

As a science, anthropology needs methods of measurement that can be applied across all cultures. Of the qualities of culture that need measurement, evolutionary variation stands out. Naroll had already begun work on his Index of Social Development when he came to the Center in 1954, and published it in 1956. Other scales were published in the next few years by anthropologists and sociologists. Nevertheless, some anthropologists still assert that evolution is unmeasurable.

In ethnography, sociology, and archeology, the study of social and cultural evolution continues, and controversies abound. The welfare of groups within industrial countries, and the welfare of all the world outside the industrial sphere, depends on a clear understanding of evolution. The measurement of cultural evolution is an urgent practical matter as well as a necessity for theory builders.

Naroll’s next book would have been called Painful Progress. That evolution is progressive was his credo, and he believed that he could justify that belief, as he wanted to justify all his beliefs, by presenting the right numbers in the right analytic framework. The history of humanity on Earth is full of pain, far more pain than historians generally admit in their books for general readers. Naroll believed that progress is the compensation we receive for the pain we cannot escape. Today the concept of progress is under attack. In other places, I offer an argument in support of Naroll’s position, but here I deal only in the technical issues of measurement. Whether there is progress, decline, or neither in cultural evolution may be argued, but only after accurate measurement reveals the facts.

The story of cultural evolution is the story of human history, most of it unwritten; a full treatment of the subject is, roughly speaking, a complete textbook of anthropology. Naroll might have put a full treatment in Painful Progress, but that is not my intention here. The present book is a tract in methodology: What are the traits and variables that indicate the level of any culture? How can measures of individual qualities be combined into a single measure of cultural evolution? Answering these questions is the body of the present work. Although I was inspired by Naroll’s work, as was the whole field, I draw on a wide range of sources for concepts and data. In appendices, I review Naroll’s improvements in technique: How to determine the extent of a single “culture,” how to take into account the similarity of neighboring cultures, how to draw a sample of cultures, how to control for variations in the quality of the data that the anthropologist can draw on in making comparisons, and how to justify the inference of historical change from the study of groups known each only at a single date. Where others have gone beyond him, and where my views differ from his, I take note.

Anthropology has been, mostly, the study of the non-literate world. In a long collaboration with William L. Benzon, I have written about the evolution of culture on up to the present day. We find qualitative differences that make it seem natural to me to limit the scope of this book to the customary scope of anthropology. Several of the sources that I draw on included in their samples such cultures as Athens and Rome, or Bulgarian peasants; even a few industrial cultures turn up. To deal properly with evolution after the invention of writing would require the introduction of additional variables; in the end, this is a book about the non-literate world. In Chapter 20, I show some of the deleterious effects of mingling literate and nonliterate cultures in the same study, as Naroll and others have done. The design of scales to measure cultural evolution in literate cultures remains a task for the future.

Every culture is a natural experiment. The experimenters are the bearers of the culture; they cannot know in advance what the outcome will be, just as we today cannot be sure of the effects of our own inventions, technological or social. That some experiments produce situations in which further evolutionary steps can be taken, and some do not, tells us nothing about the intelligence or merit of the experimenters. A culture of high evolutionary level is a valuable possession, but does not prove inherent worth. The study of cultural evolution is altogether compatible with the belief “that all men [and women] are created equal.”

The most important point to remember in the study of cultural evolution is perhaps this: That the evolution of culture is absolutely not predicated on the evolution of biological traits. The minds of culture bearers must certainly be different at different evolutionary levels, as they are different across cultures of the same level. But the brains of all humanity are biologically similar, as best we know, over all Earth and over 25,000 to 250,000 years. No racist conclusions can be drawn from cultural-evolutionary facts. Indeed, the methods of measurement that I describe here would be nonsensical if the variations observed were biological; human uniformity is the working premiss of the art.

The principal contribution of this book is, I should suppose, the collection of profiles in Appendix F. In my judgment, these profiles are more informative than any of the scales on which they are constructed. Research on the correlates of cultural evolution should be more valid if it uses these profiles to estimate the level of each unit (culture, society) studied. Students beginning to read about cultures other than their own can orient themselves by examining the profile of each culture they encounter: The general level, and the differences among such aspects as governance (the polity), social stratification (class), and expressive culture (religion), will help in the interpretation of ethnographic writings.

In addition, methodological review demonstrates a number of shortcomings in prior work that require remedy. Some aspects of culture have been measured with adequate precision for some units, but no aspect has been measured adequately for all the units that will be drawn in future samples, and some aspects have not been measured adequately at all. Chapter 23 contains some suggestions.

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism

If you’ve heard of Dan Everett at all, most likely you’ve heard about his work among the Pirahã and his battle with Noam Chomsky and the generative grammarians. He went into the Amazon to live among the Pirahã in the mid-1970s with the intention of learning their language, translating the Bible into it, and converting them to Christianity. Things didn’t work out that way. Yes, he learned their language, and managed to translate a bit of the Bible into Pirahã. But, no, he didn’t convert them. They converted him, as it were, so he is now an atheist.

Not only did Everett learn Pirahã, but he compiled a grammar and reached the conclusion – a bit reluctantly at first – that it lacks recursion. Recursion is the property that Chomsky believes is irreducibly intrinsic to human language. And so Everett found himself in pitched battle with Chomsky, the man whose work revolutionized linguistics in the mid-1950s. If that interests you, well you can run a search on something like “Everett Chomsky recursion” (don’t type the quotes into the search box) and get more hits than you can shake a stick at.

I’ve never met Dan face-to-face, but I know him on Facebook where I’m one of 10 to 20 folks who chat with him on intellectual matters. Not so long ago I reviewed his most recent book, Dark Matter of the Mindover at 3 Quarks Daily. I thus know him, after a fashion.

And so I thought I’d address an open letter to him on my current hobbyhorse: What’s up with literary criticism?

* * * * *

Dear Dan,

I’ve been trying to make sense of literary criticism for a long time. In particular, I’ve been trying to figure out why literary critics give so little descriptive attention to the formal properties of literary texts. I don’t expect you to answer the question for me but, who knows, as an outsider to the discipline and with an interest in language and culture, perhaps you might have an idea or two.

I figured I’d start by quoting a fellow linguist, one moreover with an affection for Brazil, Haj Ross. Then I look at Shakespeare as a window into the practice of literary criticism. I introduce the emic/etic distinction in that discussion. After that we’ll take a look at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the course of which I introduce the question, What would I teach in a first level undergraduate class? I find that to be a very useful way of thinking about the discipline; I figure that might also appeal to you as a Dean and Acting Provost. I conclude by returning to the abstractosphere by distinguishing between naturalist and ethical criticism. Alas, it’s a long way through, so you might want to pour yourself a scotch.

Haj’s Problem: Interpretation and Poetics

Let’s start with the opening paragraphs from a letter that Haj Ross has posted to Of course you know who Haj is, but I think it’s useful to note that, back in the 1960s when he was getting a degree in linguistics under Chomsky at MIT, he was also studying poetics under Roman Jakobson at Harvard, and that, over the years, he has produced a significant body of descriptive work on poetry that, for the most part, exists ‘between the cracks’ in the world of academic publication. The letter is dated November 30, 1989 and it was written when Haj was in Brazil at Departamento de Lingüística, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte [1]. He’s not sure whom he wrote it to, but thinks it was one Bill Darden. He posted it with the title “Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures” and with a one-line abstract: “How number can become the fabric on which the light of the poem can be projected”. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:

You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question – I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.

You’ll have to read the whole letter to find out what he meant by that one-line abstract, but I assure you that it’s both naïve and deep at one and the same time, mentioning, among other things, the “joy of babbling” and the role of the tamboura in Indian classical music. At the moment I’m interested in just those two opening paragraphs.

While I got my degree in literary criticism and understand the drive/will to meaning, I also understand Haj’s attraction to verifiable pattern/structures and his willingness to pursue that even though he cannot connect it to meaning. Yes, meaning is the primary objective of academic literary criticism and, yes, justifying proposed meanings is (deeply) problematic. I also know that the academic discipline of literary criticism was NOT founded on the activity of interpreting texts. It was founded in the late 19th century on philology, literary history, and editing – that is, editing the canonical literary works for study by students and scholars. Roughly speaking, the interest in interpretation dates back to the second quarter of the 20th century, but it didn’t become firmly institutionalized until the third quarter of the century. You can see that institutionalization in this Ngram search on the phrase “close reading”, which is a term of art for interpretive analysis:

close reading

Figure 1: “Close reading”

And that’s when things became interesting. As more and more critics came to focus on interpretation, the profession became acutely aware of a problem: different critics produced different interpretations, which is the correct interpretation? Some critics even began to wonder whether or not there was such a thing as the correct interpretation. We are now well within the scope of the problem that bothered Haj: How do you justify one interpretation over another?

That’s the issue that was in play when I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1965. Though I had declared an interest in psychology, once I’d been accepted I gravitated toward literature. Which means that, even as I was working as hard as I could to figure out how to interpret a literary text, I was also party to conversations about the problematic nature of interpretation. As I have written elsewhere about those years at Hopkins [2] there’s no need to recount them here. The important point is simply that literary critics were acutely aware of the problematic nature of interpretation and devoted considerable effort to resolving the problem.

In the course of that problematic thrashing about, literary critics turned to philosophy, mostly Continental (though not entirely), and linguistics, mostly structuralist linguistics. In 1975 Jonathan Culler published Structuralist Poetics, which garnered him speaking invitations all over America and made his career. For Culler, and for American academia, structuralism was mostly French: Saussure, Jakobson (not French, obviously), Greimas, Barthes, and Lévi-Strauss, among others. But Culler also wrote of literary competence, clearly modeled on Chomsky’s notion of linguistic competence, and even deep structure. At this point literary critics, not just Culler, were interested in linguistics.

Here’s a paragraph from Culler’s preface (xiv-xv):

The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning. Granting new attention to the activity of reading, it would attempt to specify how we go about making sense of texts, what are the interpretive operations on which literature itself, as an institution, is based. Just as the speaker of a language has assimilated a complex grammar which enables him to read a series of sounds or letters as a sentence with a meaning, so the reader of literature has acquired, through his encounters with literary works, implicit mastery of various semiotic conventions which enable him to read series of sentences as poems or novels endowed with shape and meaning. The study of literature, as opposed to the perusal and discussion of individual works, would become an attempt to understand the conventions which make literature possible. The major purpose of this book is to show how such a poetics emerges from structuralism, to indicate what it has already achieved, and to sketch what it might become.

However much critics may have been interested in this book, that interest did not produce a flourishing poetics. Even Culler himself abandoned poetics after this book. Interpretation had become firmly established as the profession’s focus.

As for the problem of justifying one interpretation over another, deconstructive critics argued that the meaning of texts was indeterminate and so, ultimately, there is no justification. Reader response critics produced a similar result by different means. The issue was debated into the 1990s and then more or less put on the shelf without having been resolved.

I have no quarrel with that. I think the basic problem is that literary texts of whatever kind – lyric or narrative poetry, drama, prose fiction – are different in kind from the discursive texts written to explicate them. There is no well-formed way of translating meaning from a literary to a discursive text. When you further consider that different critics may have different values, the problem becomes more intractable. Interpretation cannot, in principle, be strongly determined.

What, you might ask, what about the meaning that exists in a reader’s mind prior to any attempt at interpretation? Good question. But how do we get at THAT? It simply is not available for inspection.

What happens, though, when you give up the search for meaning? Or, if not give up, you at least bracket it and subordinate it to an interest in pattern and structure as intrinsic properties of texts? Is a poetics possible? Let’s set that aside for awhile and take a detour though the profession’s treatment of The Bard, William Shakespeare, son of a glover and London actor.

Continue reading “An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism”

Polythetic Entitation & Cultural Coordinators

Timothy Taylor has an interesting entry in this year’s “Edqe Question” idea-fest. It has the ungainly title, Polythetic Entitation. He attributes the idea to the late David Clarke:

Clarke argued that the world of wine glasses was different to the world of biology, where a simple binary key could lead to the identification of a living creature (Does it have a backbone? If so, it is a vertebrate. Is it warm blooded? If so, it is a mammal or bird. Does it produce milk? … and so on). A wine glass is a polythetic entity, which means that none of its attributes, without exception, is simultaneously sufficient and necessary for group membership. Most wine glasses are made of clear glass, with a stem and no handle, but there are flower vases with all these, so they are not definitionally-sufficient attributes; and a wine glass may have none of these attributes—they are not absolutely necessary. It is necessary that the wine glass be able to hold liquid and be of a shape and size suitable for drinking from, but this is also true of a teacup. If someone offered me a glass of wine, and then filled me a fine ceramic goblet, I would not complain.

Taylor is an archaeologist as was Clarke. They face the problem of how to identify cultural objects without knowing how they are used. An object’s physical characteristics generally do not speak unequivocally, hence the term polythetic (vs. monothetic). Thus:

Asking at the outset whether an object is made of glass takes us down a different avenue from first asking if it has a stem, or if it is designed to hold liquid. The first lumps the majority of wine glasses with window panes; the second groups most of them with vases and table lamps; and the third puts them all into a super-category that includes breast implants and Lake Mead, the Hoover dam reservoir. None of the distinctions provides a useful classificatory starting point. So grouping artefacts according to a kind of biological taxonomy will not do.

As a prehistoric archaeologist David Clarke knew this, and he also knew that he was continually bundling classes of artefacts into groups and sub-groups without knowing whether his classification would have been recognized emically, that is, in terms understandable to the people who created and used the artefacts. Although the answer is that probably they did have different functions, how might one work back from the purely formal, etic, variance—the measurable features or attributes of an artefact—to securely assign it to its proper category?

What matters for proper classification are the attributes with “cultural salience” (Taylor’s term).

Now cultural salience is how I define the genetic elements of culture, which I have taken to calling coordinators. Coordinators are the culturally salient properties of objects or processes. In a terminology originally promulgated by Kenneth Pike, they are emics (notice that Taylor uses this terminology as well).

One thing that became clear to me in Dan Everett’s Dark Matter of the Mind (see my review in 3 Quarks Daily) is that a culture covers or paints (other terms of art I am considering) their natural environment with coordinators. Thus Everett talks about how, even after he’d been among the Pirahã for a couple years he simply could not see the jungle as well as they did. They were born and raised in it; he was not. Features of the jungle – creatures and events – that were obvious to the Pirahã because they had learned to identify them, that were culturally salient to the Pirahã, were invisible to Everett. They may have been right in front of his (lying) eyes, but he couldn’t discern them. They were not culturally salient to him, for his mind/brain had developed in a very different physical environment.

The polythetic nature of cultural artfacts is closely related to what I have called abundance elsewhere. The phenomena of the world have many properties; they are abundant. Only some of those properties will even be perceptually available; after all, our ears cannot hear all sounds, our eyes cannot see all electromagnetic radiation, etc. Of the perceptually available properties, only some will be culturally salient. This is as true for natural objects as for cultural artifacts and activities.

Dan Everett’s Dark Matter @ 3QD

Consider these three words: gavagai, gabagaí, gabagool. If you’ve been binge watching episodes in the Star Trek franchise you might suspect them to be the equivalent of veni, vidi, vici, in the language of a space-faring race from the Gamma Quadrant. The truth, however, is even stranger.

The first is a made-up word that is well-known in certain philosophical circles. The second is not quite a word, but is from Pirahã, the Amazonian language brought to our attention by ex-missionary turned linguist, Daniel Everett, and can be translated as “frustrated initiation,” which is how Everett characterized his first field trip among the Pirahã. The third names an Italian cold cut that is likely spelled “capicola” or “capocolla” when written out and has various pronunciations depending on the local language. In New York and New Jersey, Tony Soprano country, it’s “gabagool”.

Everett discusses first two in his wide-ranging new book, Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious (2016), which I review at 3 Quarks Daily. As for gabagool, good things come in threes, no?

Why gavagai? Willard van Orman Quine coined the word for a thought experiment that points up the problem of word meaning. He broaches the issue by considering the problem of radical translation, “translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people” (Word and Object 1960, 28). He asks us to consider a “linguist who, unaided by an interpreter, is out to penetrate and translate a language hitherto unknown. All the objective data he has to go on are the forces that he sees impinging on the native’s surfaces and the observable behavior, focal and otherwise, of the native.” That is to say, he has no direct access to what is going on inside the native’s head, but utterances are available to him. Quine then asks us to imagine that “a rabbit scurries by, the native says ‘Gavagai’, and the linguist notes down the sentence ‘Rabbit’ (of ‘Lo, a rabbit’) as tentative translation, subject to testing in further cases” (p. 29).

Quine goes on to argue that, in thus proposing that initial translation, the linguist is making illegitimate assumptions. He begins his argument by nothing that the native might, in fact, mean “white” or “animal” and later on offers more exotic possibilities, the sort of things only a philosopher would think of. Quine also notes that whatever gestures and utterances the native offers as the linguist attempts to clarify and verify will be subject to the same problem.

As Everett notes, however, in his chapter on translation (266):

On the side of mistakes never made, however, Quine’s gavagai problem is one. In my field research on more than twenty languages—many of which involved monolingual situations …, whenever I pointed at an object or asked “What’s that?” I always got an answer for an entire object. Seeing me point at a bird, no one ever responded “feathers.” When asked about a manatee, no one ever answered “manatee soul.” On inquiring about a child, I always got “child,” “boy,” or “girl,” never “short hair.”


I believe that the absence of these Quinean answers results from the fact that when one person points toward a thing, all people (that I have worked with, at least) assume that what is being asked is the name of the entire object. In fact, over the years, as I have conducted many “monolingual demonstrations,” I have never encountered the gavagai problem. Objects have a relative salience… This is perhaps the result of evolved perception.

Frankly, I forget how I reacted to Quine’s thought experiment when I first read it as an undergraduate back in the 1960s. I probably found it a bit puzzling, and perhaps I even half-believed it. But that was a long time ago. When I read Everett’s comments on it I was not surprised to find that the gavagai problem doesn’t arise in the real world and find his suspected explanation, evolved perception, convincing.

As one might expect, Everett devotes quite a bit of attention to recursion, with fascinating examples from Pirahã concerning evidentials, but I deliberately did not bring that up in my review. Why, given that everyone and their Aunt Sally seem to be all a-twitter about the issue, didn’t I discuss it? That’s why, I’m tired of it and think that, at this point, it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. I understand well enough why it’s an important issue, but it’s time to move on.

The important issue is to shift the focus of linguistic theory away from disembodied and decontextualized sentences and toward conversational interaction. That’s been going on for some time now and Everett has played a role in that shift. While the generative grammarians use merge as a term for syntactic recursion it could just as well be used to characterize how partners assimilate what they’re hearing with what they’re thinking. Perhaps that’s what syntax is for and why it arose, to make conversation more efficient–and I seem to think that Everett has a suggestion to that effect in his discussion of the role of gestures in linguistic interaction.

Anyhow, if these and related matters interest you, read my review and read Everett’s book.

Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts

I’ve just checked in at and was alerted to this article:

Stephen G. Nichols, Mutable Stability, a Medieval Paradox: The Case of Le Roman de la Rose, Queste 23 (2016) 2, pp. 71-103.

I’ve not yet read it, but a quick skim makes it clear that it speaks to a current debate in cultural evolution concerning the high-fidelity transmission of “memes” (Dan Dennett) vs. the variable transmission of objects as guided by “factors of attraction” (Dan Sperber). I’ve not yet read it, but here’s some tell-tale passages. This is from the beginning (p. 71):

Yet even those who argue, to the contrary, that ‘transmission errors’ often represent creative ‘participation’ by a talented scribe, must recognize the attraction of a stable work.After all, despite an extraordinary record of innovation, invention, and discovery, the Middle Ages are an era that resisted change in and for itself. And yet this same veneration of conservative values underlies a fascinating paradox of medieval culture: its delicate and seemingly contradictory balance between stability, on the one hand, and transformation, on the other. It may be that only an era that saw no contradiction in promulgating an omnipotent, unchanging divinity, which was at the same time a dynamic principle of construction and transformation, could have managed the paradox of what I want to call ‘mutable stability’.

Here’s Dawkins in the 2nd chapter of The Selfish Gene:

Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms.


Back to Nichols, a bit later in the article (p. 77):

In this case, however, it’s one that allows us to understand the paradox of medieval narrative forms whose ‘stability’ over time – in some cases over several centuries – depends on what I call the generative – or regenerative – force of transmission. Why ‘regenerative’ if transmission involves reproducing the ‘same’ work from one representation to another? The answer to that question involves recognizing the complex forces at play in the transmission of me- dieval texts, beginning with concepts like ‘the same’ and ‘seeing’ or ‘perspective’. After all, in a culture where the technology of transmission depends on copying each text by hand, what the scribe sees, or thinks she or he sees, must be factored into our definition of ‘sameness’ when comparing original and copy.

In the event, ‘sameness’, for the medieval mind had a very different connotation from our modern senses of the term. Indeed, it even involves a different process of perception and imagination. Whereas in our age of mechanical and digital reproduction, we are used to standards of ‘exactness’ for things we recognize as identical, me- dieval people had neither the means nor the expectation to make ‘same’ and ‘exact imitation’ synonymous. Indeed, one may even question the existence at that time of such a concept as ‘exact imitation’, at least as we understand it. Continue reading “Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts”

Ontology and Cultural Evolution: “Spirit” or “Geist” and some of its measures

This post is about terminology, but also about things – in particular, an abstract thing – and measurements of those things. The things and measurements arise in the study of cultural evolution.

Let us start with a thing. What is this?


If you are a regular reader here at New Savanna you might reply: Oh, that’s the whatchamacallit from Jocker’s Macroanalysis. Well, yes, it’s an illustration from Macroanalysis. But that’s not quite the answer I was looking for. But let’s call that answer a citation and set it aside.

Let’s ask the same question, but of a different object: What’s this?


I can imagine two answers, both correct, each it its own way:

1. It’s a photo of the moon.

2. The moon.

Strictly speaking, the first is correct and the second is not. It IS a photograph, not the moon itself. But the second answer is well within standard usage.

Notice that the photo does not depict the moon in full (whatever that might mean), no photograph could. That doesn’t change the fact that it is the moon that is depicted, not the sun, or Jupiter, or Alpha Centauri, or, for that matter, Mickey Mouse. We do not generally expect that representations of things should exhaust those things.

Now let us return to the first image and once again ask: What is this? I want two answers, one to correspond with each of our answers about the moon photo. I’m looking for something of the form:

1. A representation of X.

2. X.

Let us start with X. Jockers was analyzing a corpus of roughly 3300 19th century Anglophone novels. To do that he evaluated each of them on each of 600 features. Since those evaluations can be expressed numerically Jockers was able to create a 600-dimensional space in which teach text occupies a single point. He then joined all those points representing texts that are relatively close to one another. Those texts are highly similar with respect to the 600 features that define the space.

The result is a directed graph having 3300 nodes in 600 dimensions. So, perhaps we can say that X is a corpus similarity graph. However, we cannot see in 600 dimensions so there is no way we can directly examine that graph. It exists only as an abstract object in a computer. What we can do, and what Jockers did, is project a 600D object into two dimensions. That’s what we see in the image.

Continue reading “Ontology and Cultural Evolution: “Spirit” or “Geist” and some of its measures”

Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature

I’ve uploaded another document: Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature. You can download it from

It’s considerably revised from a text I’d uploaded a month ago: Form, Event, and Text in an Age of Computation. You might also look at my post, Obama’s Affective Trajectory in His Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, which could have been included in the article, but I’m up against a maximum word count as I am submitting the article for publication. You might also look at the post, Words, Binding, and Conversation as Computation, which figured heavily in my rethinking.

Here’s the abstract of the new article, followed by the TOC and the introduction:


It is by virtue of its form that a literary work constrains meaning so that it can be a vehicle for sharing experience. Form is thus an intermediary in Latour’s sense, while meaning is a mediator. Using fragments of a cognitive network model for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 we can distinguish between (1) the mind/brain cognitive system, (2) the text considered merely as a string of signifiers, and (3) the path one computes through (1) under constraints imposed by (2). As a text, Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney is a ring-composition; as a performance, the central section is clearly marked by audience response. Recent work on synchronization of movement and neural activity across communicating individuals affords insight into the physical substrate of intersubjectivity. The ring-form description is juxtaposed to the performative meaning identified by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter.


Introduction: Speculative Engineering 2
Form: Macpherson & Attridge to Latour 3
Computational Semantics: Network and Text 6
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Text 10
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Performance 13
Meaning, History, and Attachment 18
Coda: Form and Sharability in the Private Text 20

Introduction: Speculative Engineering

The conjunction of computation and literature is not so strange as it once was, not in this era of digital humanities. But my sense of the conjunction is differs from that of computational critics. They regard computation as a reservoir of tools to be employed in investigating texts, typically a large corpus of texts. That is fine [1].

Digital critics, however, have little interest in computation as a process one enacts while reading a text, the sense that interests me. As the psychologist Ulric Neisser pointed out four decades ago, it was computation that drove the so-called cognitive revolution [2]. Much of the work in cognitive science is conducted in a vocabulary derived computing and, in many cases, involves computer simulations. Prior to the computer metaphor we populated the mind with sensations, perceptions, concepts, ideas, feelings, drives, desires, signs, Freudian hydraulics, and so forth, but we had no explicit accounts of how these things worked, of how perceptions gave way to concepts, or how desire led to action. The computer metaphor gave us conceptual tools for constructing models with differentiated components and processes meshing like, well, clockwork. Moreover, so far as I know, computation of one kind or another provides the only working models we have for language processes.

My purpose in this essay is to recover the concept of computation for thinking about literary processes. For this purpose it is unnecessary either to believe or to deny that the brain (with its mind) is a digital computer. There is an obvious sense in which it is not a digital computer: brains are parts of living organisms; digital computers are not. Beyond that, the issue is a philosophical quagmire. I propose only that the idea of computation is a useful heuristic: it helps us think about and systematically describe literary form in ways we haven’t done before.

Though it might appear that I advocate a scientific approach to literary criticism, that is misleading. Speculative engineering is a better characterization. Engineering is about design and construction, perhaps even Latourian composition [3]. Think of it as reverse-engineering: we’ve got the finished result (a performance, a script) and we examine it to determine how it was made [4]. It is speculative because it must be; our ignorance is too great. The speculative engineer builds a bridge from here to there and only then can we find out if the bridge is able to support sustained investigation.

Caveat emptor: This bridge is of complex construction. I start with form, move to computation, with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 as my example, and then to President Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. After describing its structure (ring-composition) I consider the performance situation in which Obama delivered it, arguing that those present constituted a single physical system in which for sharing experience. I conclude by discussing meaning, history, and attachment.


[1] William Benzon, “The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age,” 3 Quarks Daily, May 5, 2014,

[2] Ulric Neisser, Cognition and Reality: Principles and Implications of Cognitive Psychology (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1976), 5-6.

[3] Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’,” New Literary History 41 (2010), 471-490.

[4] For example, see Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton & company, Inc., 1997), 21 ff.

Words, Binding, and Conversation as Computation

I’ve been thinking about my draft article, Form, Event, and Text in an Age of Computation. It presents me with the same old rhetorical problem: how to present computation to literary critics? In particular, I want to convince them that literary form is best thought of as being computational in kind. My problem is this: If you’ve already got ‘it’, whatever it is, then my examples make sense. If you don’t, then it’s not clear to me that they do make sense. In particular, cognitive networks are a stretch. Literary criticism just doesn’t give you any useful intuitions of form as being independent of meaning.

Any how, I’ve been thinking about words and about conversation. What I’m thinking is that the connection between signifier and signified is fundamentally computed in the sense that I’m after. It’s not ‘hard-wired’ at all. Rather it’s established dynamically. That’s what the first part of this post is about. The second part then goes on to argue that conversation is fundamentally computational.

This is crude and sketchy. We’ll see.

Words as bindings between sound and sense

What is a word? I’m not even going to attempt a definition, as we all know one when we see it, so to speak. What I will say, however, is that the common-sense core intuition tends to exaggeration their Parmenidean stillness and constancy at the expense of the Heraclitean fluctuation. What does this word mean:


It’s a simple word, an everyday word. Out there in the middle of nowhere, without context, it’s hard to say what it means. I could mean this, it could mean that. It depends.

When I look it up in the dictionary on my computer, New Oxford American Dictionary, it lists three general senses. One, “a ginger root,” is listed as “dated.” The other two senses are the ones I know, and each has a number of possibilities. One set of meanings has to do with things moving and has many alternatives. The other deals with kinds of beings, biological or human. These meanings no doubt developed over time.

And, of course, the word’s appearance can vary widely depending on typeface or how it’s handwritten, either in cursive script or printed. The spoken word varies widely as well, depending on the speaker–male, female, adult, child, etc.–and discourse context. It’s not a fixed object at all.

What I’m suggesting, then, is that this common ‘picture’ is too static:


There we have it, the signifier and the signified packaged together in a little ‘suitcase’ with “sign” as the convenient handle for the package. It gives the impression the sentences are little ‘trains’ of meaning, with one box connected to the next in a chain of signifiers.

No one who thinks seriously about it actually thinks that way. But that’s where thinking starts. For that matter, by the time one gets around to distinguishing between signifier and signified one has begun to move away from the static conception. My guess is that the static conception arises from the fact of writing and the existence of dictionaries. There they are, one after another. No matter when you look up a word, it’s there in the same place, having the same definition. It’s a thing, an eternal Parmenidean thing.

Later in The Course in General Linguistics, long after he’s introduced the signifier/signified distinction, de Saussure presents us with this picture [1]:

waves sign

He begins glossing it as follows (112): “The linguistic fact can therefore be pictured in its totality–i.e. language–as a series of contiguous subdivisions marked off on both the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas (A) and the equally vague plane of sounds (B).” He goes on to note “the somewhat mysterious fact is rather that ‘thought-sound’ implies division, and that language words out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses.” I rather like that, and I like that he chose undulating waves as his visual image. Continue reading “Words, Binding, and Conversation as Computation”