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Kind of thing

June 17, 2015

In the game of Twenty Questions, (usually played on road trips to relieve boredom), one person thinks of something and everyone else asks that person questions until they figure out what he’s thinking about.[1] The questions must all be yes/no, except, in a traditional variation, for the first one, which is always:

  • 1. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?

This question contains within itself a picture of the world. Wikipedia associates it with the Linnaean taxonomy, though it seems more generic than that, being just a folk version of the Great Chain of Being. Or, at least, of the lower half of that chain: it’s technically correct but still a bit strange to answer “animal” when you have a human being in mind, and I’m not sure how you ought to answer if you’re thinking of an angel. So let’s try this instead:

  • 1. Divinity, spirit, human, animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Better. Though, we’re probably talking about specific human beings, e.g. Napoleon; whereas we’re probably not talking about a specific vegetable, but rather about a type of vegetable, e.g. kohlrabi. Also, many of the most famous human beings, such as Achilles, do not in fact exist. There are also fictional animals and vegetables and minerals, like the Spice from Dune. We might propose, then, to begin instead with three questions:

  • 1. Type or individual?
  • 2. Actual or fictional?
  • 3. Divinity, spirit, human, animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Still, this picture of the world contains only things that Aristotle would call substances. There exist many things that would not be called substances, but which it is quite strange to refuse to call “things.” For example, the great chain has no place for artifacts, e.g. tables, this table, light sabers, Luke’s light saber (to give examples that match all four possibilities raised by questions 1 & 2). If the table is made of wood, one could to answer “vegetable,” or “mineral” if it’s of stone; but these are awkward, and in any case, what if you’re thinking, not of any particular table, but of “table” as a category? It also has no place at all for linguistic constructs, e.g. books, The Book of the New Sun, Ascian proverbs, the story told by Loyal to the Group of Seventeen[2]; these are neither animal, vegetal, nor mineral, though they can be written down on parchment or paper, or cut into stone. Nor for social constructs, e.g. governments, the U.S.A., utopias, Utopia; a government cannot even be physically instantiated the way a poem can. So perhaps:

  • 1. Category or individual?
  • 2. Actual or fictional?
  • 3. Rational, natural, or constructed?
  • 4.a. Divinity, spirit, or human?
  • 4.b. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?
  • 4.c. Artifact, verbifact, or sociofact?[3]

But we’re still missing so much! What about places, e.g. forests, America, inhabitable alien worlds, Endor? What about events, like revolutions, the American Revolution, entmoots, the battle of Isengard? What about qualities, like largeness, the size of a breadbox, eldritch colors, fuligin? What about states of mind, like ideas, my anger at Comcast customer service, [Teeming], [this-one-who-does-not-individuate]’s [Teeming][4]? What about states of affairs, like political equilibria, the U.S. government’s “balance of powers,” magical resonances, the resonance between Harry Potter and Voldemort? All of these things it makes sense to call, well, things. None of them would fit well into the above categories.

In the round of 20Q I played recently, we were faced with:

  • The American Revolution
  • Andrew Wiley’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem
  • The prisoner’s dilemma
  • Quantum entanglement

Twenty questions is, I have found, much more entertaining when such things are permitted. But, of course, permitting them does leave us with no obvious choice for a first question. We have so many types of things: divinities, spirits, humans; animals, vegetables, minerals; artifacts, verbifacts, sociofacts; places, events, qualities, states of mind, states of affairs. Nor does this list make any claim to be exhaustive. Anything, any noun, is a thing; and nominalization happens all the time.

But then, perhaps there’s no need for a default first question; coming up with such a question is part of the fun.

[1]: Or until they get to twenty questions, except that’s kind of a silly rule; why not just keep playing till you’ve solved it? If you do abide by the twenty-questions rule, you’ll be able to distinguish, at most, between 2^20 = 1,048,576 things. Since your questions probably won’t bisect the answer space perfectly, it’ll probably be less. Wikipedia has almost five million pages, so even if you do play perfectly, you can’t win without having some sense of what the other person finds interesting: for example, you have to know that almost everyone is more likely to choose Napoleon than John J. Anderson.

[2]: While finding examples of individual fictional linguistic constructs was easy, it took some work to come up with a fictional type of linguistic construct. For obvious reasons, searching for “fictional genre” wasn’t much help. The examples I decided on come from Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.

[3]: I did not invent the neologisms verbifact and sociofact, though both are uncommon, to say the least.

[4]: Examples of fictional mental states are even more difficult. Mine are from nostalgebraist’s Floornight.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. David Simmons permalink
    June 18, 2015 4:23 pm

    By the way it is Andrew Wiles not Andrew Wiley,

  2. June 19, 2015 9:25 am

    Right you are. Serves me right for not checking Wikipedia first.

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