Thursday, October 09, 2014

Lambda the ultimate incantation

I endorse this:
Thus, I believe it is possible...to understand programming languages as the latest instance of a dream and set of technologies developed by mystics, alchemists, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. These languages do not just represent things, they also do things in the world. They are both symbolic and material in form. They are central to the disenchantment of the world and, simultaneously, the substrate for a "reenchantment of the world." They are, to sacrilegiously misappropriate the lexicon of the Catholic Church, "the word incarnate." Programming languages melt the boundaries between science and religion because they are an unholy union of the two.
-- Warren Sack, The Software Arts (forthcoming)

(for more on this project, see here).

Computation is the intersection of quite a few different things: science and religion, mathematics and language, engineering and psychology, and more. I don't know that these unions are exactly unholy, but let's just say they tend to have relationship problems.




4 comments:

Crawfurdmuir said...

One of the most fascinating books I have ever read was Dame Frances Yates's "The Art of Memory." The methods of "artificial memory" she describes, both as practiced by the ancients, and as developed in the middle ages, e.g., by Bl. Raymond Lully, seem to me to be some sort of ancestors to computing. It is only a small step from the volvelles of Lully's ars combinatoria to the wheels of Leibniz's step-reckoner, and thence to Babbage.

mtraven said...

Yes indeed, the Lully → Leibniz → computation genealogy is sketched out in the same chapter I was quoting from.

rdn32 said...

Maybe there's something I'm unaware of, but this doesn't sound like the right lineage for Babbage - not for the difference engine, anyway. Babbage took to its logical conclusion de Prony's application of industrial production to the method of finite differences. I believe there is a Leibniz connection, though. I have a hazy recollection of seeing paper given on oral traditions within mathematics: in it there was a story of Leibniz as a young man 'inventing' finite difference interpolation only to learn to his disappointment that amongst English mathematicians it was already known (having been developed a few generations earlier by Sir Walter Raleigh's associate Thomas Harriot).

I would have thought the more obvious things to look at through the lens of The Art of Memory would be in the neighbourhood of hypertext / library science / information retrieval. As I recall, though, one weakness of Yates' work is that she tends to see memory in isolation from the rest of rhetoric, sometimes making it a bit of a mystery what these storehouses of knowledge are for. Whereas there are a couple of more recent works in the same general area - Mary Carruthers' The craft of thought: meditation, rhetoric, and the making of images 400-1200 and Markus Krajewski' Paper machines: about cards & catalogs, 1548-1929 - which go much deeper into the connection between inventory and invention.

If I had a lot more leisure than I do, I might like to research a long history of that sort of thing: you know, Hugh of St. Victor's ark, Peter Ramus and outlining, Vannevar Bush's memex, etc. However, I'm guessing the chances are that someone already has.

Crawfurdmuir said...

I suppose how you perceive Dame Frances saw memory depends upon your familiarity with the sources she cited. For example, "Ad Herennium," which outlines the classical art of place-memory, is very definitely the work of a rhetor (though whether that was Cicero, as long believed, is questionable). It's intended as a practical handbook for public speakers - in ancient Rome, either lawyers or politicians.

Similarly, Lully's great art was intended to help propagate the spread of the Gospel - Lully himself hoped to convert the Muslims, and narrowly escaped with his life after trying to preach to them in Tunisia. In like fashion, Giordano Bruno's elaboration of the Lullist system was part of his effort to marshal support for his heterodox beliefs - and so on.

The encyclopaedic concept of the early modern period relied upon detailed taxonomies of knowledge; and in their turn these taxonomies were intended to provide the rhetor with a ready armamentarium for his arguments, whether they were of the purely workaday variety of the ancient Greek or Roman advocate or official, or the intensely religious and philosophical concerns of the mediaeval preacher or Renaissance Hermeticist.

The two-letter prefixes of the Library of Congress cataloguing system are a sort of Lullist combinatory system of classification; I suppose its rival, the dear old Dewey decimal system, is a descendant of Ramism.

The connection between Lully and Leibniz is that Leibniz coined the term 'ars combinatoria' to describe the Lullist system; and the connection between Leibniz and Babbage is in the mechanism of their respective computing devices - although a closer and even more recent echo of Leibniz's step-reckoner is the little Curta calculator.

In any event, Dame Frances expected her readers to be only a little less learned than she was herself, a standard that is increasingly not met (e.g., in the disappearance of the ability to read Latin as a skill the ordinary university student), and her works are made the more difficult by modern readers' failure to know what she took for granted that they would.