Mesocosm

"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

Archive for November 2013

How many are there, anyway?

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The other day I was trying to remember a pluralization rule in Tibetan when I started to wonder if there could be a language that had no concept of plurality. The concept of individual instances of general types is so deeply ingrained in my concepts and language, I can’t conceive outside of it.

In his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche reflected on the formation of abstract concepts on the basis of individual unique experiences:

Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted – but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model. (1)

If this is so, where does this idea come from, this phantom “leaf” concept that seems so compelling? What is it in our experience that so persuades us that there exist, in the world, many instances of particular kinds of things?

Thinking about experience, and perhaps influenced by my long familiarity with Nietzsche’s fine leaf example, I think about the biological world first – we encounter many apples, but they are all so similar by reason of their biological similarity, that they vividly give the impression of all being the same thing.

But a moment’s reflection suggests that it’s more than that, because long before there were apples, there were galaxies and stars, which exist on a continuum, but there are a great many stars of similar size, composition, color, and life cycle. Trillions of stars, stars without end.

So what is it about our universe, that things are organized in this way? Things are composed of atoms, which are more or less the same. And I wonder, are they identical? That is, if you take two helium atoms and compare them, is there any way whatsoever that they can be differentiated from one another, other than, say, their temperature and location? What about electrons? Do electrons have hair? I have no idea.

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, Vidagdha Shakalya asks the sage Yajnavalkya “How many gods are there?”

Yajnavalkya replied, “Three thousand, three hundred, and six.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Thirty three.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Six.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Three.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One and a half.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One.”

References
1) Nietzsche F. trans. by Daniel Breazeale. Philosophy and Truth; Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Humanities Press. 1979. p. 83.

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Written by Mesocosm

November 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Posted in Ephemera

Various Matters

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"Idole cloche," Thebes, c. 700 BCE (Louvre)

“Idole cloche,” Thebes, c. 700 BCE, Louvre (click to enlarge)

What we have in this image is one of my favorite pieces from the Greek antiquities collection of the Louvre. This goddess “bell statue” comes to us from Thebes c. 700 BCE, and it’s a stunning example of the Geometric period of Greek art. The sense of the goddess as all-encompassing is conveyed by her bell-shape and is amplified by the inscription on her surface of various marks typically expressive of the round of life and death in that age, such as the Swastika.

In unrelated news, sounds like I’m late to hear this, but I’m excited that The Diary of Malcolm X: 1964 is due to be published this week, assuming it isn’t successfully blocked by some family members. I certainly hope it appears in print as-scheduled – 1964 is the year Malcolm X undertook the Hajj, which was a milestone in his own life, and for the course of civil rights activism in the United States as a whole. I also very much see Malcolm X’s spiritual journey as textbook case of Jungian individuation, so it’s fascinating to study in that light as well.

Let’s see … what else? I’ve been working on a mammoth post on the Gothic cathedrals for some time, but have been bogged down by the magnitude of the topic. Even to point in a cursory way to a handful of the key features is an enormous job, but I hope to get it up soon.

Via the always-excellent Medievalists.net, I give you Catṡlechta and other medieval legal material relating to cats, a study of medieval Irish laws pertaining to cats. It contains gems such as:

BREONE i.e. This is a cat and she has purring and protecting (or an inarticulate cry) and three cows are paid for it if it has both, purring and protecting. If it has one of the two, it is a cow and a heifer or there might not be anything for purring at all and that obtains whenever it is more than or equal to that which it protects.

Read, and enjoy.

Written by Mesocosm

November 10, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Ephemera