Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday December 21, 2008

Filed under: General — m759 @ 4:23 PM

An excerpt from Simon Blackburn’s 1999 review of Eco’s Kant and the Platypus:
Prominent literary intellectuals often like to make familiar reference to the technical terminology of mathematical logic or philosophy of language. A friend of mine overheard the following conversation in Cambridge during l’affaire Derrida, when the proposal to grant an honorary degree to that gentleman met serious academic opposition in the university. A journalist covering the fracas asked a Prominent Literary Intellectual what he took to be Derrida’s importance in the scheme of things. ‘Well,’ the PLI confided graciously, unblushingly, ‘Gödel showed that every theory is inconsistent unless it is supported from outside. Derrida showed that there is no outside.’

Now, there are at least three remarkable things about this. First, the thing that Gödel was supposed to show could not possibly be shown, since there are many demonstrably consistent theories. Second, therefore, Gödel indeed did not show it, and neither did he purport to do so. Third, it makes no sense to say that an inconsistent theory could become consistent by being ‘supported from outside’, whatever that might mean (inconsistency sticks; you cannot get rid of it by addition, only by subtraction). So what Derrida is said to have done is just as impossible as what Gödel was said to have done.

These mistakes should fail you in an undergraduate logic or math or philosophy course. But they are minor considerations in the world of the PLI. The point is that the mere mention of Gödel (like the common invocation of ‘hierarchies’ and ‘metalanguages’) gives a specious impression of something thrillingly deep and thrillingly mathematical and scientific (theory! dazzling! Einstein!) And, not coincidentally, it gives the PLI a flattering image of being something of a hand at these things, an impresario of the thrills. I expect the journalist swooned.
An excerpt from Barry Mazur’s “Visions, Dreams, and Mathematics” (apparently a talk presented at Delphi), dated Aug. 1, 2008, but posted on Dec. 19:

“The word explicit is from the Latin explicitus related to the verb explicare meaning to ‘unfold, unravel, explain, explicate’ (plicare means ‘to fold’; think of the English noun ‘ply’).”

Related material: Mark Taylor’s Derridean use of “le pli” (The Picture in Question, pp. 58-60, esp. note 13, p. 60). See also the discussion of Taylor in this journal posted on Dec. 19.

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