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Sunday, November 12, 2006 -- 7:43 am

Continuing on yesterday's topic of the aesthetics of grammar, there's actually a more fundamental question that I also need to address, which is the applicability of notions of "beautiful" and "ugly" to something as abstract as a grammar. (We'll also have to discuss "boring", of course, but I'll put that aside for the moment.) People often say that certain languages "sound beautiful", but that's typically only when they don't understand it, and they're usually referring to Italian. I've never heard anyone, whether a native speaker or otherwise, describe English as a beautiful language. And more generally, on those occasions when people do describe something as beautiful, they're referring to sense perceptions, rather than conceptual frameworks. Music can be beautiful; so can dance, sculpture, landscapes, and people, and I'll elaborate my views on this as time goes by. Can food be beautiful? That's a bit more controversial. I'm inclined to think not, and I'm also generally of the view that not all pleasant experiences can be described as "beautiful"; as I discussed in my college thesis over a decade ago, I think that notions of beauty are really only applicable to experiences that are pleasurable because of the particular way in which they engage our cognitive processes, which I referred to then as the "free play of expectation and surprise". I'll elaborate on that more at a later point.

There's another example I'd like to explore as well. Because people do refer to "beautiful theories" and "beautiful proofs", and poetry is described as beautiful as much for the mental images it conjures as for the euphony of carefully arrayed words. These can all, in fact, be described as purely cognitive experiences without any sensory component. Does the use of the word "beautiful" make sense in this context, and is the same idea being applied here as when people talk about music? It's not easy to say, but I do find it interesting that describing a theory as "ugly" or "tedious" is a bit more political a statement than describing a piece of music that way: it's more of a personal attack on the person who created it, whereas art that's ugly may legitimately be so by design, and if we consider a painting ugly, we tend to assume, with some justification, that it was intended to be so by the artist. As Schoenberg noted, art is not about making people comfortable. But neither is the scientific method.

One additional point I'd like to touch on with this idea of "beautiful theories" is whether a theory can be regarded as appealing to particular appetites we have rather than to our cognitive faculties. What immediately comes to mind when describing such a theory is that it can no longer purport to be true -- it is a fantasy -- because it's been arranged in such a way as to create excitement, rather than to accurately (which includes completely, in a representative fashion, in a fair light) describe the workings of the world. Such a theory would, of course, be almost useless except as an abstract mental exercise. It would be a caricature, and designed solely to appeal to our desire for symmetry, subtlety, elegance, and the richness of its implications. So, however foreign the idea may sound, I think that it may, at first glance, that some theories may simply be candy, or something more prurient. A grammar, to the extent one exists, could be discussed very much along the same lines.