13 January 2008


The more ubiquitous or generic a feature or element of life is, the more names it is likely to have. This comes about because a greater variety of semiotic situations have arisen in which it needed to be distinguished from other features of the current scene. The quality of a concept which demands diversity in its expression is one aspect of what i call polyversity. I recently came across a comment relevant to this which is almost 900 years old. This is translated from the Latin of Peter Abelard's prologue to his Sic et Non, 1120:
There are many seeming contradictions and even obscurities in the innumerable writings of the church fathers. Our respect for their authority should not stand in the way of an effort on our part to come at the truth. The obscurity and contradictions in ancient writings may be explained upon many grounds, and may be discussed without impugning the good faith and insight of the fathers. A writer may use different terms to mean the same thing, in order to avoid a monotonous repetition of the same word. Common, vague words may be employed in order that the common people may understand; and sometimes a writer sacrifices perfect accuracy in the interest of a clear general statement. Poetical, figurative language is often obscure and vague. [tr. Robinson]

Abelard's book went on to juxtapose hundreds of these ‘seeming contradictions’. The authorities of the Church at the time found this highly disturbing, and Abelard's book was suppressed much as the Gospel of Thomas and other ‘apocrypha’ were suppressed 900 years before. But perhaps we have now grown up enough not to panic when we encounter polyversity.

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