Distinguishing the General from the Generic / Lectures / Pre-specificity / Projective Theory of Technology / Thinking as an Algebraic Mechanist

The question of ‘signature’ and the computational notion of ‘genericness’

Abstract for the Universal – specific. From analysis to intervention? conference organized by ETH Zürich, D-ARCH Department of Architecture, Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), Prodoc Art and Science

Keywords: Michel Serres; the algebraic quantity notion; computability; literacy


“By world-objects I mean tools with a dimension that is commensurable with one of the dimensions of the world. A satellite for speed, an atomic bomb for energy, the Internet for space, and nuclear waste for time […] these are four examples of world-objects.”

This citation is from Michel Serres’ book The Natural Contract (1996). The paper will sketch the main lines of Serres’ argument as a framework within which it relates it to the historical backgrounds where today’s notions of computability [1] originate. It will expose the algebraic symbolization of the quantity notion (1) in the central role it plays for computing, and (2) in terms of what it entails as a philosophical problematics. The latter will be attempted by giving a comparative account of how the strategies of universal algebra had been problematized by late 19th century intellectuals: George Boole, Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce, Ernst Cassirer, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead all started out with distinct problematizations of the algebraic quantity question [2]. This issue can indeed be seen, the paper will argue, as a kind of common denominator to 20th century philosophical schools as distinct as phenomenology and analytical philosophy, philosophy of culture and symbolic forms, semiotics, general linguistics, transformational grammars of computer languages.

The different attempts all tried to come to terms philosophically with the ‘impossible quantities’ that were computable technically with the so-called imaginary unit [3], which proofed to be so eminently powerful in engineering (electricity). Whitehead referred to what is at stake in these different attempts as ‘Systems of Symbolic Reasoning’ [4]. The paper will argue that they differ in how they seek to settle the classical (metaphysical) distinction between classification and categorization in a new (modernized) way [5]. Furthermore, it will argue that the notion of ‘generic objectivity’, which is central to computer languages today and which threatens to corrupt the classical distinction between the specific and the universal into the ‘one-of-a-kin-particularity’ of computed instances of ‘parametrized master models’, reflects and incorporates all the unsettled issues from this heritage.

The paper will argue that coming to terms with the role of categorization as something distinct form generalization in a notion of reasoning which strives to be critical is as urgent today as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, and it will suggest to attempt engaging with this distinction by recourse to a notion of literacy [6]. It will conclude by problematizing how this term could be elaborated into a philosophical concept, and by discussing the challenging implications that come along with it.


[1] Computability as a concept originates in Alan Turing’s (and in parallel Alonso Church’s) definition of a class of computable numbers (“On Computable Numbers”, 1936), and lies at the heart of cybernetics. Today, many of the aspects that were taken as ‘purely operational’ by Shannon, Wiener, and von Neumann – such as ‘information as a quantity’ and ‘random variables’ as the ‘quantities’ dealt with in probabilistic methods – and which served as the ‘functional’ premises’ of cybernetics, ought to be subjected to a problematization in their own terms. The area of research which Luciano Floridi has coined (in the 1990s) as philosophy of information goes in this direction. Cf. Floridi, Luciano, “Semantic Conceptions of Information”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/ archives/spr2013/entries/information-semantic/> as well as: Sullins, John, “Information Technology and Moral Values”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/it-moral-values/&gt;.

[2]  George Boole: An Investigation of the Laws of Thought on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories on Logics and Probabilities (1854); Charles Sanders Peirce: various contributions to the principles of philosophy, exact logics, and diagrammatic reasoning based on a triadic notion of signs (from 1867 onwards); Ferdinand de Saussure: Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo- européennes (1879) (annotation: Saussure attempted to quantize/quantify the phonetic ‘materiality’ of language in this treatise, which was to serve as the basis for a ‘general system of linguistics’); Edmund Husserl’s Dissertation: Beiträge zur Theorie der Variationsrechnung (1882) as well as his Habilitation: Über den Begriff der Zahl. Psychologische Analysen (1887); Bertrand Russell’s dissertation: An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry (1897); Alfred North Whitehead: A Treatise on Universal Algebra with Applications (1898); Ernst Cassirer: Descartes’ Kritik der mathematischen und naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis (1899).

[3]  The square root of minus one, and the domain of the complex numbers constituted by the imaginary unit.

[4]  Alfred North Whitehead, A Treatise on Universal Algebra with Applications (1898), cf the introduction therein.

[5]  The former has always been concerned with description and generalization, while the latter was to provide abstract and universal criteria for distinction (universal means ‘that which is a property of all things’).

[6]  As fuzzy as the notion of ‘literacy’ may be today, it seems obvious that it refers to something equally basic for strategies that attempt to soften / break / disturb / overcome the factual power of homogenization and genericness as proposed by science today (case studies, experimental systems, data-driven empirical approaches or comparative analytically-structural approaches like grounded theory, actor-network theory etc) as for those strategies proposed by the arts (interventions and activisms in the legacy of the Situationist International, Jacques Rancière’s political agenda of ‘aesthetic dissensus’, etc).

One thought on “The question of ‘signature’ and the computational notion of ‘genericness’

  1. Pingback: manuscript for the gta ETH conference “universal – specific”: The question of ‘signature’ and the computational notion of ‘genericness’ | monas oikos nomos

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