Happy Birthday, Blog

I’ve been running this blog for just a year now—I posted the first essay on July 12, 2020—and I thought this would be an appropriate moment to think (out loud, as it were) about what I’ve been doing and what I might do in the future. I have enjoyed writing and posting these little essays. The blog has kept me busy during a hard time, busy thinking about and writing about some topics that interest me greatly. I hope some other people find it interesting. I’m always happy to see comments and suggestions. I have appended to the end of this a list of the titles of the essays and the dates they were posted, in case anyone wants to take a look back.

So much for the past. For the future I plan to continue writing about philological topics, but I’ve decided to allow myself to talk more about my own work. In a sense I’ve always talked about my work, just because the topics I’ve chosen have been topics that I find interesting, but up till now I’ve tried to keep away from my current writing and research projects in order to give some kind of account of philology in general. For instance, historical linguistics is an essential part of philology, and on the blog I’ve posted some, not enough, in that area, even though it’s not the kind of work I do myself. Likewise, I’ve posted a little on the editing of texts, though I’m certainly not a textual critic. I have posted mostly in the other two areas—the interpretation of meaning in context and literary criticism with a special attention to language—simply because those are the areas I find most interesting myself and the areas in which I do my own work.

As I move forward, I will continue to write about general philological topics, using approaches most philologists would find reasonable, but I will also write about my own perspective, without making a claim that all philologists would agree with what I say.

I may as well jump right in with a little theory. I don’t think of myself as a theorist; in fact I’m wary of the term “theory”, partly because it means different things to different people, and sometimes it doesn’t mean much at all. Here I will use the term to designate certain general propositions which form the framework or background for specific interpretations. Or something like that.

One of the general propositions I have found useful is a kind of four stage model of development. Development of what? Primarily mental activities, I suppose, but that’s pretty vague. Ideas, in the widest sense of what an idea is. We will have to see where the model applies and say that’s what we meant all along. I don’t claim that this model is always the way development works, but it works often enough to make it useful, so long as it is applied with tact and flexibility. Here it is: (1) Practice; (2) Abstraction; (3) Elaboration; (4) Application. So what does this mean?

Practice. The first stage of thinking is simply living in the world. We are born into a world and we gradually come to some understanding of what the world is and how it works. We don’t start from general principles, as many philosophers (not all) seem to suppose; we start with the practical process of being alive.

Abstraction. At a certain point, we may pull our thinking away from the practical problems of living. Abstraction just means “pulling away”—it comes from the Latin preposition “ab”, which means “away”, and the verb “traho” ( the principal parts are “traho, trahere, traxi, tractum”), which means “to pull” or “to drag”—the word “tractor” comes from the same Latin verb, because you use a tractor to pull things. So abstraction is pulling an idea away from its practical context.

Elaboration. Once an idea has been abstracted, it can be elaborated without concern for whether or not it has any practical value. Elaboration is the realm of the ornate, the fantastic, the world of let’s-do-it-just-for-the-fun-of-it.

Application. But sometimes we want to take the results of the elaboration and see if somehow, against expectation, they actually apply to the real world, the world of practice. And often enough they do. Often enough a crazy elaborated idea will solve a practical problem in a way we would not have discovered if we had not gone through the steps of abstraction and elaboration.

Each of these aspects of the theory has its own value. We don’t leave Practice behind when we move through the process—we are always living in the world. Abstraction is interesting in itself; there are usually several different ways to abstract, and it makes a difference which way you pick. Application may look like the goal of the process, and often it is, but there are times when Application may be a bad idea.

An example may help. Consider the development of the number system. (Some people may want to bail out here; if you hang in I hope you will find that this math isn’t so hard after all.) We begin with the very practical process of counting things: one apple, two apples, three apples, and so on; one orange, two oranges, three oranges, and so on. Abstraction occurs when we no longer count things, but just numbers: no longer one apple, two apples, three apples, but just one, two, three. We have pulled away from the world of apples and oranges into an abstract world of numbers. Once we have performed this abstraction we can do all kinds of strange things. Addition in the abstract, for instance, can go on forever, and thus we get the concept of infinity. In the world of practice, the world of counting apples and oranges, we would never have to think of infinity. Then we can think of other kinds of numbers: subtraction can give us negative numbers; division can give us fractions; multiplication can give us squares and then square roots, and square roots can give us irrational numbers (such as the square root of 2), and then we can even come up with the idea of the square root of a negative number, and get the so-called imaginary numbers.

Here’s a sketch of the reasoning behind the imaginary numbers. We define a square as the result of multiplying a number by itself. So the square of 2 is 2 times 2, which is 4; the square of 3 is 3 times 3, which is 9; and so on. Notice that the square of any positive number will be positive, because a positive number multiplied by a positive number will always be positive. But the square of a negative number will also be positive, because a negative number multiplied by a negative number will always be positive. So the square of negative 2 is negative 2 times negative 2, and that’s positive 4. You get a negative number only if you multiply a positive number and a negative number, but that won’t be a square. Positive 2 times negative 2 is negative, but it’s not a square, since positive two and negative two are not the same number. You will never find the square root of a negative number in what are called the real numbers. That’s kind of a hole in the system (especially since you can find the cube root of a negative number: the cube root of negative 8 is negative 2). So at a certain point, mathematicians said, What the hell, let’s say there is a square root of a negative number. The square root of negative 1 is called *i *(that’s the letter “i” in italics), which stands for imaginary.

For a long time these imaginary numbers didn’t have much use—and some mathematicians didn’t even accept them. But eventually it turned out that they come in handy in all kinds of real-world calculations. Here I’m beyond my own knowledge—I’ve never used an imaginary number, except in homework problems, and I have to trust those mathematicians and engineers who assure me that they are in fact useful. At any rate, no mathematician today would doubt the existence of imaginary numbers (whatever it means for a number to exist, anyway).

We have moved beyond Elaboration to Application. Elaboration gave us the imaginary numbers, but it was Application that proved they were useful. In general, we can always ask if the results of Elaboration have an actual Application in the real world. In a sense, Application of Elaboration returns us to the world of Practice, which is where we started. I’m not arguing that Elaboration always has to lead to Application. There is a value in Elaboration even without Application. The name, or one name, for Elaboration without Application is Playing a Game.

I don’t claim that this little model always applies everywhere to everything, but I’ve found it interesting and useful in several areas, with appropriate adjustments and a certain flexibility. Laboratory science is a perfect example of Abstraction and Elaboration. In the real world of practice, a zillion things are always happening at the same time and influencing one another. The trajectory of a baseball in a real baseball game, for instance, might be influenced by the wind, or the moisture in the air, or by an obstruction, such as the Green Monster in Boston. All of these factors will change from day to day and place to place. If you want a general account of the path of an object, you need to construct a situation in which these factors are minimized, and that’s when you build a laboratory.

The model also applies to music, to the development of the equal-tempered scale and all the music which is possible only because of equal temperament. I think it also applies to stories and story-telling. Stories probably started out in the area of Practice, when one cave-person told another cave-person some practical story about finding food and avoiding danger. But soon enough people starting Abstracting their stories, and fiction and fantasy were invented. Myth and religion probably began in the world of Practice as well, as a way of holding a group together by having a shared set of stories and beliefs. (Where dreams fit into this I don’t know.) Stories of various sorts became Elaborated, and we have epics and novels. And often enough we take an Elaborated story and try to see if it has some Application to our own lives.

Language in general fits the model as well. Here we find one of the differences between philology and some of the most influential schools of modern linguistics. Language begins in Practice, in face-to-face communication. But if you read a modern textbook in the theory of syntax, chances are pretty good that you will never come across one person talking to another person. The grammar might as well reflect the way one computer talks to another. (I’m exaggerating, but not much.) Most of the examples are made-up examples, devised to test or prove some theoretical point. Noam Chomsky is quite explicit about his methods—his kind of linguistics is supposed to mimic as much as possible the conditions of a scientific laboratory. I hasten to say that I have great respect for Chomsky, and I admire his work greatly, even though I suspect it’s wrong in certain crucial respects. But I’m interested in how people actually use language. That’s why I think of one aspect of philology as the interpretation of language in context. Context is all the stuff that a laboratory linguist wants to get rid of.

Language can abstracted from face-to-face practice in many ways. Oratory is a special kind of communication, as is drama and the poetic performance of oral epic. Even greater abstraction occurs in written literature, which can live far longer than the original author and audience. All of these abstracted forms of language are likely to be elaborated, and these elaborations are a proper concern of philology, in its aspect as literary criticism with a particular attention to language.

I’ve exceeded my usual word limit for these essays, so I will leave further theoretical musing for later posts. But I said I would append a list of all the posts of the year, and here it is:

1. Language and Meaning #1 (July 12)

2. Language and Meaning #2 (July 12)

3. Etymological Entertainment #1 (July 23)

4. Etymological Entertainments #2 (July 25)

5. Lost in a Book (July 29)

6. Pneuomnia, Amnesia, and Knee (3 August)

7. Plangent, Ostiole, and Winze (August 9)

8. Rhetorical Figures in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians (August 16)

9. Antitheses in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians (August 23)

10. English as a Germanic Language #1 (August 30)

11. How Does a Novel Mean? (September 27)

12. Meaning and Rhetoric (4 October)

13. Meaning and Rhetoric #2 (October 13)

14. A Heap of Words (October 26)

15. A Little More on Congeries (November 1)

16. Philology in the Future (November 1)

17. Rocks on my Shoulders (November 9)

18. When is a Mistake Not a Mistake? (November 17)

19. Etymology and Entomology (November 27)

20. Synchronic and Diachronic (December 9)

21. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction (December 15)

22. More on Dialects (December 26)

23. Video Meliora Proboque, Detoriora Sequor (January 6)

24. Verbing Weirds Language (January 11)

25. Verbish Nouns and Nounish Verbs (January 29)

26. “Girl Twenty, define a horse.” (February 8)

27. How Many Roads? (February 19)

28. Things and Actions (March 3)

29. Second Thoughts on Things and Actions (March 4)

30. Vote-a-rama (March 12)

31. The Letter “P” (March 26)

32. What’s the Difference (April 6)

33. Phonemes, Morphemes, and People (April 16)

34. Etics and Emics (30 April)

35. It’s All Just an Allusion (16 May)

36. Words without a Song (24 May)

37. Is That Original? (20 June)

38. Allusion Hunter (6 July)