Re: Classification; Phoenician

From: John Hudson (
Date: Mon May 24 2004 - 19:18:17 CDT

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    Michael Everson wrote:

    >> Classification is an arbitrary process in which one produces useful
    >> categories into which to arrange an otherwise unwieldy body of knowledge.

    > I dispute this. It is not arbitrary. Sometimes the cuts are difficult to
    > make, because there is messiness in the data, but classification puts
    > like with like and separates like from unlike. If it were arbitrary, we
    > would not be able to distinguish abugidas from syllabaries, or trace the
    > relationships between scripts and name the nodes on the tree.

    *All* classification is arbitrary. This is a basic philosophical proposition. Note that
    arbitrary does not mean baseless or capricious, it just means that systems of
    classification are determined by the classifier, not by the thing classified. In 'putting
    like with like and separating like from unlike' the classifier exercises judgement based
    upon how he views the things being classified. This doesn't mean that the judgement is
    capricious, but it is arbitrary because the same set of things could be classified in a
    different way according to another, equally non-capricious set of criteria. You are making
    the basic philosophical mistake of assuming a correlation of your classification (e.g.
    abugidas vs. syllabaries) to description. As I said before, classification is a method of
    managing and making sense of large bodies of knowledge; the system of classification
    should not be confused with the body of knowledge itself. Classification is how we talk
    about what we know; it is not what we know.

    In 'The Analytical Language of John Wilkins', Jorge Luis Borges famously described a
    system of classification of animals from a fictional Chinese encyclopaedia, in which
    animals are divided into 14 classes:

        1. those that belong to the Emperor,
        2. embalmed ones,
        3. those that are trained,
        4. suckling pigs,
        5. mermaids,
        6. fabulous ones,
        7. stray dogs,
        8. those included in the present classification,
        9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
       10. innumerable ones,
       11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
       12. others,
       13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
       14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

    This influential system of classification (Foucault said that, on reading it, all the
    familiar landmarks of his thought were shattered) serves to demonstrate the philosophical
    proposition stated above: systems of classification are arbitrary.

    >> The classification of scripts in the general history of the world's
    >> writing systems is useful for writing general histories of writing
    >> systems. It does not necessarily represent the truth.

    > It is not just useful for "general" work. It has been, and will be,
    > useful in my own work in analyzing and encoding scripts.

    As I would expect it to be, but be careful not to make that usefulness prescriptive. Just
    because a writing system has been classified as a script by a particular author or authors
    is not in itself grounds for encoding. The fact that many sources classify Phoenician as a
    separate script is indeed important and informative, in exactly the same way that it is
    important and informative to know that not everyone agrees with this classification or
    finds it useful.

    > I don't make the determinations that I make randomly, John, nor do I
    > study the history of writing system for the pleasure of it, or to get
    > publish to get tenure at a university.

    Again, arbitrary does not mean random. Of course you don't make determinations randomly.
    You might, however, acknowledge that other ways of classifying writing systems may make
    more sense to other people and that to them your determinations are far from as obvious as
    you claim them to be. As I said very early in this discussion, encoding of historic
    scripts is almost certainly going to be more likely to engender disagreement and debate
    than the generally more obvious needs of modern scripts with neatly standardised
    orthographies and character sets and properties. This is going to require fuller
    justification of decisions, and the argument 'This is what we have done for other scripts'
    isn't going to get us very far.

    Whether Phoenician is encoded or not, I sincerely hope that the outcome of this process is
    a better *mutual* understanding among the makers and users of Unicode.

    John Hudson

    Tiro Typeworks
    Vancouver, BC
    Currently reading:
    Typespaces, by Peter Burnhill
    White Mughals, by William Dalrymple
    Hebrew manuscripts of the Middle Ages, by Colette Sirat

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