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Monday, February 01, 2021

Philosophy and the crossword puzzle


Apollinaire started writing his typographically complex poems, the Calligrammes, in Paris in 1913 -14. By that point, the cubists were pasting bits of printed matter into their paintings, and Marinetti and the futurists were trying to develop a poetry of pure punctuation.
On the other side of the Atlantic, an English immigrant named Arthur Wynne, working at the New York World, unveiled his own adventure in art in the “Fun” pages, the World’s way of creating a family demographic for the paper. The word cross, as Wynne called it, debuted on December 21, 1913. "Wynne’s puzzle was a peculiar, diamond shaped grid, with no black squares... Rather than being divided into the Across and Down clue columns that we know today, the clues were designated by the first numbered square in the answer and the last.” (Stanley Newman and Mark Lasswell) It was soon called the cross word – although whether this was Wynne’s decision or a typesetter’s error is not known. What is know is that it is a Smith graduate, Margaret Petherbridge, who worked as a secretary at the World, who really gave the puzzle its shape. “She threw out Wynne’s double numbering of clues, decreed that puzzles would be a symmetrical grid with no lonely patches of isolated answer squared, and laid down plenty of other rules. But her biggest contribution might have been the fact that she made ingenuity a hallmark of the crossword puzzle. She jettisoned obvious cluing, introduced the idea of theme puzzles, and generally created an atmosphere that sent the message: Crosswords were smart entertainment.”
It was in the 20s that the fad for the puzzles hit. Petheridge wrote the first book of them, which sold out, and crossword puzzles, like bridge, dancing and bootleg whiskey became part of the decade’s nature.
The twenties also saw the publication of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , with its strangely numbered “clue”-propositions. Wittgenstein was a devourer of certain sorts of popular culture – Westerns, detective novels. I can find no mention of crossword puzzles in Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, and perhaps he viewed them as a waste of time. But as an odd language game, where language is indeed on a holiday, they might have interested him.

In a very fine article, The “Puzzle of Scientific Method”, Susan Haack used the crossword puzzle as a governing analogy for how we should feel about scientific explanations and extends her analogy to the scientific method. Her intention was to “give a model of the structure of evidence which would (like foundationalism) acknowledge the relevance of experience to empirical justification, and (like coherentism) allow pervasive mutual support among beliefs without vicious circularity. The difference between clues and intersecting entries mirrors the difference between experiential evidence and reasons for a belief; the interdependence of entries, the mutual support among beliefs. Apropos of the latter desideratum, I was encouraged both by Peirce’s robust insistence that only an ignorance of logic could lead anyone to confuse mutual support and vicious circularity, and by Quine’s observation that “there can be mutual reinforcement between an explanation and what it explains.”
The analogy is rather convincing to me. Haack does not think that science has a privilege in its evidentiary procedure over ordinary life, but that science is distinguished, mostly, by its care for those procedures – what I would call its ability to routinize them, its habitus.
Haack goes further, though, and uses the way crossword puzzles are solved as a way of understanding the scientific method.

“... that, as there is no mechanical procedure for arriving at a plausible entry, there is no mechanical procedure for arriving at good conjectures: and that, as there are no strict rules about when an entry is secure enough to be inked-in, or when it is insecure enough to be rubbed out, there can’t be rules, but only guidelines requiring discretion in their application, for deciding when a conjecture should be accepted and when rejected. “
I like the spirit of this: I think it has a Wittgensteinian cast. Although I think that it misses something about the relationship of the clues, their numbering, and the inscribing of erasing of entries. Or rather, I would like to know more about the clue formation, which is quasi-dependent on the squares to be filled in.
Has Haack’s crossword puzzle analogy traveled through the philosophy sphere? I don't know. I like it though, since it has a quality that is also true of great crossword puzzles: it is very very pretty.

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