Category: Let’s talk

Total Dictionary of Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead was an English philosopher and mathematician. His most famous work is called Principia Mathematica, a three-volume work that attempts to deduce all mathematical truths from a finite set of axioms and rules of symbolic logic. Bertrand Russel was co-author of this work.

One of the things Whitehead showed was the fallacy of thinking of a total dictionary (henceforth The Dictionary), which can contain the words for all possible things.

Languages have exact words for very specific situations. The Portuguese and longing are a classic example. Longing can be the “sad and gentle memory of distant or extinct people or things, accompanied by the desire to see or possess them again; regret for the absence of someone who is dear to us.” In Russian, we call pochemuchka a person who asks too many questions. A person who is willing to forgive any mistreatment for the first time, to tolerate it for the second time, but never for the third time is said ilunga by the speakers of the Tshiluba language, a Bantu language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Polish, it is said that someone was a radioukacz if he worked as a telegraphist for the movements of resistance to Soviet rule in the countries of the former Iron Curtain.

All these words are of very specific use, but they can still be included in a dictionary, as they refer to something general within its specificity, and not to just one individual. For example, think of a tiger. That big orange feline with black stripes and some white hair. Think of him in any position, whether it’s attack, playing with the cubs, running after the prey or just sleeping.


Is this the image here you thought of?

Probably not. They probably thought of something different, no matter how small the difference. The size of the tiger could be different, the position of it, the coloring of its hair or even the pattern of its stripes.

The Dictionary should have a word for every tiger that ever existed and that will exist. In addition, you should have a word for every moment of each tiger’s life, because every moment the tiger is different. He changes. Either he’s hungry, or he’s mating, or he’s on two legs. Or all of it simultaneously.

And not only tigers are different. People, rivers and cups are different every moment. The way I saw my cup now was different from the way I saw it ten minutes ago (my viewing angle has changed and it’s empty).

The Dictionary is an impossible task. John Wilkins had already proposed something similar (but not so absurdly complete) in An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, a language very similar to what Esperanto would later be. Borges discovered (discovering and inventing are synonymous) an ancient Chinese encyclopedia organized by a great sage, who divides animals into:

a) belonging to the emperor
b) embalmed
c) domesticated
d) piglets
c) mermaids
d) fabulous
e) dogs in freedom
f) who stir like crazy
g) innumerable
h) who have just broken the jug
i) that by far look like flies
j) et cetera
(l) included in this classification
m) drawn with a very thin brush of camel hair.

Something that embraces all knowledge, even redundant knowledge, is an absurd task. The Library of Babel and the Book of Sand are two absurdities that complete this task masterfully. The second, in my definition, is the pocket version of the first. But both are impossible to exist. Funes, The Memorioso, tried to accomplish this mission in life. He would be the librarian of the universe. But he died too soon, without succeeding. But even if he had lived all the years of the universe, he would have failed. It’s too much information for someone alone (except for God).

Whitehead, unlike his predecessors, who tried to build (or show how to build) something total, proved that The Dictionary is impossible. Something like this could only exist in fiction. Someone who knows everything about everyone is inconceivable within a consistent logic.

That is, either God does not know everything or he exists only in fiction.

Like The Dictionary.