Sunday, September 22, 2013

Esse est percipi (redivivus ter)

“To be is to be perceived” -- Bishop Berkeley
[corresponding to the Latin   esse est percipi, pronounced ESS-ay est pare-KIP-ee.  Percipi is the passive infinitive, a delightful category, which does not exist in any of the other languages with which I am conversant.]

“We call a real dynamical variable whose eigenstates form a complete set   an observable.”  -- Paul Dirac

To be  is to be the value of a variable.”  --  W.V.O. Quine


~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(I am Bishop Berkeley, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

Three radically different takes on  being and seeing.
(Cf. "Seeing is believing" -- vs. Berkeley:  Being seen  is being.)

The first and most famous of the epigrams above  applies to the ontology of basic objects, such as coffee-cups -- about which no plain man has any doubts whatsoever.   (Quine's quip  will, however, frequently detain us further;  e.g. here.)
A related but different question  concerns things which, unlike a coffee-cup or its relativistic mass, you cannot directly perceive -- though someone else might.

Scott Soames, Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century (2003), vol. I, p. 17, re the views of G.E. Moore:
For things presented in space, but not things to be met with in space, to exist is to be perceived.  That is, afterimages .. and pains  can only exist when they are perceived or experienced.

Or, classically,  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

A psychological vice ontological version of Bekeley’s epigram, is the vernacular “Out of sight, out of mind.”  (Cf. French, "Si tu te tais, ni vu ni connu.")  Or, as Fielding wittily put it in Tom Jones,

De non apparentibus, et non existentibus,
eadem est ratio. -- In English, ‘When a woman is not seen to blush, she doth not blush at all.’ 

(Lawfolk interpret this Latin tag more prosaically:  “What is not juridically presented cannot be judicially decided.”   Spoilsports.)


A noted intuitionist philosopher, anent “the celebrated [loathsome, leprotic -- ed.] thesis that mathematical statements do not relate to an objective mathematical reality  existing independently of us”, writes that, on such a view, to be is to be conceived:

Unlike material objects,  mathematical objects are, on this thesis, creations of the human mind.  They are objects of thought, not merely in the sense that they can be thought about, but in the sense that their being is to be thought of [or rather, thought into existence -- ed.];  for them, esse est concipi.
-- Michael Dummett,  “ The Philosophical Basis of Intuitionistic Logic”, in: Truth and other enigmas (1978), p.  228

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The above is really just a placeholder post, reminding me to someday address the deeper problem of observables.   This may never happen.  To begin with, even in the simplest quantum-mechanical case, an observable is an operator on Hilbert space, so you have to wrap your mind around that.  With some luck and some study, that might be doable.  But just now I encountered the following dismaying sentence:

In quantum field theory, unlike in quantum mechanics, position is not an observable.

I may well have retired to my hamster farm, before ever figuring such things out.

In the meantime, some further thoughts about ontology  here.

Bonus quote:
  How do you know you’re having fun  if there’s no one watching you have it?
  --Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the end of the Universe (1980).


Visitors to the site have enquired about the pronunciation of the classic Latin phrase “esse est percipi”.   About this (although I used to be editor of pronunciation at Merriam-Webster, back in the day) I have so far had nothing to say.  Embarrassed, I messaged my colleague and comrade Dr. Keith Massey (officially out of comms, but reachable in the bush), as follows:

More than once, someone has searched the blog via
   pronounce esse est percipi
-- alas in vain.  In my head, I have always pronounced this pear-KIP-ee, but, given that the vowel is short, the Latin would be more like PEAR-kip-ee, no?
Or rather, the Vulgar Latin, since Latin itself, being quantitative, lacked phonemic lexical stress.  Correct so far?
A second question is how philosophers in various countries pronounce it -- anglicized, frenchified, etc.

Swifter than lightning, our colleague replied:

In classical Latin the C is always pronounced as a K. But we don't know when the thing started to change before E and I. I suspect it was already being realized regionally as something else in the Late Imperial period. And speakers of Latin dialects took to pronouncing their classical Latin as if it were their living register. And so, in France,  percipi was pronounced “persipee”. In Italy perchipee, and in Spanish pershipee (attested still in Ladino) and later, in Iberia as perthipee, and, yet later in the New World, as persipee.

Accent in Latin is a hotly debated topic. I personally follow the view that the classical accent is unknowable and therefore all we have to work from is the living dialects and the rules of Ecclesiastical Latin. And so, penultimate except in a few cases. Accent falls in the syllable before -ibus. But I'd say perCIPee.

As for Anglo-Latin, this is an exciting topic. There's some evidence that a Romance language survived in the Isles for a several centuries after the withdrawal of forces in 380. It apparently, from inscriptional evidence, turned long E into a long I, fecit --> feecit. The way we pronounce phrases like Habeas Corpus may actually be representative of the pronounciation of Anglo-Romance, rather than a later scholastic recasting.

Those further interested in this topic can consult the essay by Thomas Pyles, “The Pronunciation of Latin in English:  A Lexicographical Dilemma”, reprinted in his Selected essays on English usage (1979).  Executive summary:  The history is so tangled, it is now an unresolvable mess.

In his “Tempest in Teapot: Reform in Latin Pronunciation”, reprinted in the same volume, Pyles quotes an amusing epigram that alludes to what became of Latin in Spain, where original v and b merged into a bilabial fricative:

~ Felix natio, ubi vivere est bibere ~

[Variant: "o felix iberia, ubi vivere est bibere"]

For further adventures in pronunciation, click here

Für psychologisch tiefgreifende Krimis,
in pikanter amerikanischer Mundart,
und christlich gesinnt,
klicken Sie bitte hier:


Distinguishing discontinuous state-reduction (which he dubs R) from linear evolution as per the Schrödinger equation -- i.e., the “collapse of the wave-function” upon “observation”, a mathematician remarks:

I do not mean to imply that the experimenter deliberately sets up a ‘measurement’ to achieve this.  … Nature herself is continually enacting R-process effects,  without any deliberate intentions on the part of an experimenter or any intervention by a ‘conscious observer’.
-- Roger Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 593

Thus achieving the esse of percipi  ‘naturally’ (vacuously).


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