466. Roget’s Scheme of Classification

March 25, 2015

To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.


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