I'm finishing up another read of David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous--wow do I enjoy this book. I wanted to post this passage to my living memory since I think it would make a nice opening to my Historical Rhetorics seminar this Fall. For a bit of context, Weinberger is discussing how the "miscellaneous" properties of digital organization essentially call into question some of the most profound and fundamental assumptions of Aristotelian taxonomy/ontology. Here Weinberger is sharing an encounter with psychology professor Eleanor Rosch. Since I'm in a typing kind of mood, I'll create a few paragraphs:
To know what a thing is, thought Aristotle, is to see what is essential about it (that humans are rational animals), and not be fooled by just what happens to be true about it (that humans have their navels on the front). The definitinos of those essences determine which things are in a category and which are turned away. Here there is no messiness, only an order so precise and harmonious that it is beautiful.
Or so Aristotle and generations of thinkers assumed. So de we when we argue about, say, how to define race, knowledge management, or blogging. But suppose this sort of Aristotelian categorization-through-definition were shown to be an essentially artificial way of approaching the world. Suppose the neatness it strives for is impossible. Suppose messiness is not a flaw in our thinking but enables it.
In her office, lit only by the late-afternoon light slanting in through the window, Eleanor Rosch turned back my question about the over-all significance of her work: "What do you think its significance is?" she asked. In a different tone of voice, from a person seated less squarely or dressed less practically, this might have been a request for praise. Instead, it seemed to be a way to get at why I had come, as well as a dodge by a person unwilling to speak as immodestly as my question proposed.
I paused, unprepared. "I think you unhorsed Aristotle."
This isn't a matter of pulling down a dusty equestrian statue. When I asked for an example of Aristotle's continuing influence, Rosch said "For the past two and a half days, I was at a conference on the effect of the media on the Buddhist transmission into our culture. Attendees kept asking "Wouldn't it help if you first defined Buddism?" By that they meant an Aristotelian definition. If that's what we need, then the conference couldn't have happened." She continuted: "As far as I can see, there isn't a single course that could be taught at this or any other University [...] if we had to start out by defining the subject matter. No one at the conference could define Buddhism, but no one had the least doubt about what the conference was about." (183-184).
Now, what do you think it means?