Note 3: Number. 1/1/99

Using word to describe what number means, or suggests, about any given physical space or configuration, like the ones found in astronomy, for instance, can be a serious problem for a person who knows more numbers than words, or who knows number better than word. Jacques Derrida, in Of Grammatology, has spoken to this problem, if only from the point of view of the word, when he notes that

"The empty symbolism of the written notation--in mathematical technique for example--is also for Husserlian intuitionism that which exiles us far from the clear evidence of the sense, that is to say from the full presence of the signified in its truth, and thus opens the possibility of crisis. This is indeed a crisis of the logos." (40)

The crisis stems from the fact that number, in its mathematical notation as a written form, cannot readily, or naturally, be spoken. 2 + 2 = 4, while it certainly exists in a purely verbal articulation (two plus two equals four), does not strike the circles of the soul with the same kind of muse to the truth that a line of pure and absolute poetry does (insert one of your own favorite lines here).

Number is not equal to the word when it comes to catching the truth out of what we think about any given chaotic circumstance. Looking at the night sky as a field of poetic discourse, simply because of what appears to be true about it, has led most people to say that the earth is at a motionless center while every other visible object moves around it. Word constituted that all too obvious perception and the "crisis of the logos" was opened when number was applied to the appearance of celestial motion by Kepler, Galileo, and Newton in the seventeenth century. This is a fact not necessarily in evidence to a person who never uses number, or even thinks of using number, to describe a given circumstance. Being numberless is never the same thing as being speechless, being struck dumb, by an astonishing fact--no one has ever been characterized as being numberless in the same way that individuals are diminished because they have no compelling word to speak.

Most Western Europeans are expected to possess the word, are expected to be possessed by the Word; but no one expects number to dominate consciousness, to explicate consciousness.

Being numberless, most people would not recognize the values in this sequence of numbers: 116, 584, 365, 780, 399, 378. Even a person with number might not see any significance in these values. A certain kind of astronomer, however, and perhaps not even every astronomer, would recognize the whole number average synodic periods of Mercury (116), Venus (584), Mars (780), Jupiter (399), Saturn (378), and finally, the whole number average length of the earth's tropical year or its siderial period (365). Making a category out of the kinds of astronomers who might happen to know or recognize a planet's synodic period, which is a measurement taken from, and which only refers to, appearance (as it were from the surface of the earth, as if the earth were still considered to be at the center of the planet's orbit, as it used to be in the Ptolemaic world view), probably explains, or anticipates, the reason so few people recognize such values now, since they are not even approximate values in reality but are only ones used to measure a false appearance of motion. These values are essentially meaningless now, since it is so unlikely that anyone from the fifteenth century has lasted long enough to remember what these numbers used to reflect then. No one knows these numbers now because they are mostly irrelevant except to a few people here and there who study Mayan astronomy, or who still think about geocentric concepts in the context of the old Ptolemaic system. These numbers are, in fact, indispensible to anyone who studies these kinds of perceptions of reality; that is, to people who might be interested in studying native American perceptions of reality.

We are an ignorant people, or the Mayas were, because they, or we, never figured out that planets revolve around the sun and not around the earth. You could have fooled us. We were not prepared to hear the truth and it frightened us when we finally did hear it almost as much as seeing a wild bear with her cubs running loose on the side of a sacred mountain. When we used to send the scouts out before the hunters, they would come back and we would ask: "how many horses did you see?" They would say: "six." "How many buffalo?"--"6,000"--"how many stars?"--"six times numberless"--they would always answer.

For a people who have no number, the answer does not matter. For a people who only have the Word, any answer will do.

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