A Couple of Enthymemes

I'm pretty sure I intuitively sensed language is at the very heart of reality early on, and hence can be wielded to change reality. In many ways, starting to learn a second language in junior high (Spanish) may have been the kindling. But certainly, stumbling upon Charlton Laird's The Miracle of Language when just beginning college was the fuel that fed the firestorm. Intending to be a language major, I was always mulling over various connections anyway, but Laird's book really brought into focus the notion that language precedes thought. And then after three courses in linguistics taught by the great Dr. John Foster, I was absolutely convinced. As the old hackneyed expression has it, I finally noticed the elephant in the room.

Language was the start of my formalist quest.

To give something a name, makes it exist. Pretty clearly the ancients were more attuned to this concept than we are today in this messy modern world detached from introspection and speculation. Look at all the fables (such as Genesis) which describe how the world was made; the various deities involved spend nine-tenths of their time assigning names to things.

Rather interesting is how these creation myths also typically exhibit the hallmarks of set theory which wouldn't be explicitly noticed until the great Georg Cantor came along in the late 1800s. For example, go to the opening chapter of Genesis and note how often the verb "separate" comes into play. Here we find hints of a well-defined set, complements, universal set, subsets and more. Of course, in my world view as a formalist, Cantor's tools ever put me in mind of who's really building this universe. In the words of Oscar Wilde,
There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
It was only natural that I began to see the connection between language and Cantor's set theory way back in those early undergrad days. And the company he kept! Bertrand Russell, no slouch himself, considered Cantor one of the intellectual giants of the nineteenth century. Even better, David Hilbert wrote of his set theory:
...the finest product of mathematical genius and one of the supreme achievements of purely intellectual human activity.
Best of all, I knew I had found a true compatriot when I read that German mathematician and all-around stinkbomb Leopold Kronecker referred to Cantor as "a corrupter of youth."

Now we're cooking! It's clear Georg Cantor is just the sort of chap I'd tipple a few with.

Incidentally, other imbeciles weighed in with ludicrous calumnies. For example, French physicist Henri Poincaré referred to Cantor's work as "a grave mathematical malady." And then, rather unbelievably when none of these aspersions were having the desired effect, Christian theologians contributed, claiming they detected some odious pantheistic overtones. Unfortunately, Cantor died in an institution, unaware that his work would become the very foundation of modern mathematics.

But back to the main thread: language and set theory (especially Cantor's theory of transfinite numbers) became the bedrock of the world I live in.

And so, not long ago, I stumbled across a word never before encountered: enthymeme. I immediately looked it up, used it, mastered it and lo! Now I see enthymemes everywhere!

Learning that word was quite literally an act of creation.

Briefly, an enthymeme is a deficient syllogism. It may hinge upon an unstated or implied premise. Or perhaps one of its premises is only likely to be true, certitude not guaranteed. As I began to see more and more enthymemes in everyday life, it became clear that it is often employed as a propaganda technique. It would be interesting to do a statistical analysis of how often enthymemes appear in political speeches of the two major parties. I've got a feeling that conservatives of the christo-nazi bent would win that three-legged race.

Now, on to my favorite enthymeme. Back in the 1960s there existed a group of political hell-raisers on the East Coast who called themselves "The Crazies." They targeted Democratic politicians who supported the war in Viet Nam, disrupting fundraisers, speeches, conventions and the like with wild antics. One day at a fancy luncheon featuring Fulbright, Galbraith and Muskie as the guests of honor, one of the Crazies, Sharon, appeared from the kitchen of the Hilton carrying a pig's head on a silver serving platter. Nonchalantly marching through the crowd with the head on display, more was on display as well. For Sharon was totally nude as she delivered the hideous carcass to the intended victim. From the two reports I've read, she definitely disrupted what was supposed to be a repast featuring camaraderie and back-slapping. Incidentally, Sharon was exceedingly comely.

Amidst the pandemonium which erupted, one of the dignitaries attending, the liberal actress Shelley Winters, leapt to her feet and hurled her cocktail at the nude Sharon, screaming:
"Beat her! She's naked!"
And indeed, the other patrons proceeded to beat Sharon with their rolled-up umbrellas.

Do you see how a new word (to me) created something new itself? While I had long been amused by Shelley's imperative, all the way back when first uttered in 1968 or so) it wasn't until this year when enthymeme entered my vocabulary that it took on a much richer meaning. Let's analyze it.

There are only two statements, and yet a traditional syllogism consists of three parts: two premises and a conclusion. Clearly, one of the premises is lurking unstated in the background. A moment's reflection makes it obvious that the entire argument is:

    People who are naked should be beaten.
    Sharon is naked.
    -----------------------------------------------
    Therefore, Sharon should be beaten.

Shelley made a bit of a jump here, assuming that everyone would so naturally accept the missing premise--an article of faith-- and so equally naturally, be persuaded by the validity of the entire argument.

Shortly after seeing this enthymeme for what it is, it struck me that the Marquis de Sade would also find it compelling, but for entirely different reasons.

Still later it occurred to me how often enthymemes, with their unstated premises that "just everyone has to accept," form the bedrock of missionary work, the hammer of religion for millennia.

My second example of an interesting enthymeme arose recently while pondering a peculiar disorder which has been vexing me the past year. That put me in mind of the wonderful story by H. G. Wells. It's quite short and well worth a quick read.


In the story, Wells describes a curious situation in which the senses don't seem to align with a perception shared by others. That got me thinking. Just how do we know we're really here?

Nowadays, the senses always take a bum rap, theologians especially fond of denigrating them in general. Fortunately I bumped into The Picture of Dorian Gray at an early age and took to heart the richly rewarding:
Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.
When reflecting on Davidson's eyes, instantly, cogito ergo sum came to mind. And then a split second later, I realized I was looking at yet another enthymeme. Do you see what I mean? Language, in this case a single new word, gives sight to the blind. I had never really considered Descartes' epigram worthy of much, but now it took on a much brighter luster. What had once been little more than a quick throwaway line to me, now represents a fundamental principle of "life imitates art" and is certainly at the very root of formalism. I am so glad to have realized it before shuffling off this mortal coil, to have resurrected the good name of René Descartes, to have pegged him as perhaps the very father of formalism.

Though not so amusing as naked hippie chicks serving porcine luncheon, it's a beautiful example of an enthymeme.

    Entities that think, exist.
    I am an entity that thinks.
    -------------------------------
    Therefore, I exist.

The unstated first premise is the linchpin, of course, of the formalist's universe.

Enthymemes surround me now, like swarms and hordes of beautiful butterflies flitting about. The word itself is fascinating, coming from Greek roots meaning "hidden soul." That's fitting, isn't it! But the enlightenment or enrichment it brings convinces me yet again that we build this universe one word at time. And with no feeble recourse to authority. Religion is ever in violation of Occam's Razor, don't you know.

Finally, did you notice that the opening sentence to this blog entry is an enthymeme?

Next vignette: To Be Naked

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