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Re: VMs: Viola tricolor

Hi Nick

Polite as always.

Interlineals below.

Nick Pelling wrote:

Hi William,

At 11:07 25/05/2004 +0100, William Edmondson wrote:

Ignotum per ignotius

AKA "the unknown explained by the still more unknown" (i.e. "sorry, but your supposed explanation didn't move me forward one jot").

Actually I meant precisely what the phrase means. We really don't know what the VMS is, why, where, how, who, when....???? and we do know that some of the images are reminiscent of things we do know, but not good representations of those things. So, to explain these ignorances on the basis of conjectured possibilities like steganographic images is indeed to explain the unknown on the basis of the still more unknown. Mysterianism, snake oil and pixie dust are all not far behind. :-)

Short digression: here in VMsLand we discuss neither *episteme* ("that which can be known with certainty"), nor *the unknown* ("that which is not known at all") but instead *uncertain knowledge* ("unreliable [but possibly correct] knowledge").

Assuming that the plant pictures are there solely for identification purposes doesn't make that assumption true - it remains one of a large number of actively-backed VMs-related hypotheses and conjectures, none of which (despite strenuous efforts) has yet been confirmed or refuted. All of which is a bit of a pain, but there you go. :-o

Yes - but the conjectures have varying degrees of plausibility in terms of human behaviour - and we are forced, lacking other evidence, to take that sort of 'if it were me' perespective - not as license to be freely imaginative, but simply to attempt to recover the possible contexts of the creation and purpose of the artefact. Occam is valuable, as ever, to keep plausibility as a filter for conjecture.

Incidentally, I never suggested the images were FOR identification, merely that they were bad enough to be misleading and that could be dangerous. The simplest assumption is that they do represent stuff (plants, as that is where we were focussed, but no doubt other things in the other sections). We don't know anything about for whom they are putative representations - a minimal conjecture is 'for the originator' (there is plenty of evidence that in the 16th/17th C, for example, people wrote aides memoires, personal notebooks, experimental records, accounts of meetings.... not with any obvious 'audience' in mind other than themselves).

However, the quality as represenations is so poor (this we can assert) that even the originator might get confused. The images are unrecognisable - so perhaps that is what they are meant to be? Not because they are crafted contortions with hidden meaning but simply because the are meaningless. So, if that works, then the purpose must be to be suggestive of meaning, and of possibly privileged knowledge, but actually to be content free.

Even to conclude the VMS is a hoax is not to understand it. THAT is a challenge (how done, why, where, who, when...... ???).

But take care - I'm not saying it IS a hoax, merely that that is the most probable. To my mind the least difficult ( :-) ) place to start to try to find meanings might be the labels - isolated 'words' for images. A compilation of all possible names (various languages) for each of all the possible interpretations of the labelled items would be a sensible way to start to look for meanings in the text, if there are any. Why? simply because this exploits what little we think we might know of meanings (possible identifications of plants).

So, to get specific, take f9v and the 'viola' and construct a list of all names for such a plant and its relatives in various parts of Europe. Strictly speaking viola tricolor is not southern european in distribution - but one could include some names.... but this is only useful if somewhere in VMS there is a label for such a plant (I'm not sure there is for that particular plant - but you get the idea). Any language you think is likely then get the name in that language, formal names, familiar names, etc.

Surely someone did all this already?

So, what do we do with the 'sunflower' (I forget the folio - but it's recoverable) when it is known that this didn't reach Europe until somewhat more recently than the supposed likely period for the VMS? Finding terms/words won't get you anywhere. So, ignore it and try others (going the route which says, for example, that the Ming dynasty naval explorations might have brought knowledge of sunflowers to some parts of Europe in 1421 or thereabouts is fun, but ultimately so unconstrained that you can't keep focussed on the artefact).

And the artefact - there again there is a serious problem. How many people on the VMS list have actually been to the Beinecke and seen/handled the VMS? a few no doubt, but not many. We have poor copies of copies of........ sufficiently distorting of the artefact that some of what we discuss is fanciful. We end up piling conjecture on wish on dream on fancy on rumour .....

The VMs has two main aspects - a cryptographic side and a historical side. I contend that we will have to understand both of them in order to resolve its mysteries - but this means we must integrate both certain and uncertain knowledges into our repertoires.

We don't actually know it has a cryptographic side, actually. We know that we cannot find meaning. We suppose there is meaning and this leads to a cryptographic quest. It could be that there is no meaning. The historical side is relevant to both options.

The "Ionian Enchantment" is Gerald Holton's term for the idea that everything is reducible to (the logic of) science: yet this only posits one type of knowledge - episteme, certain knowledge. Is it really the case that we can, for example, "do history" (where evidence is often fragmentary and deceptive), but relying only on certain knowledge? I think not.

Absolutely - but historians are trained/schooled in techniques of interpretation which are founded in understanding of the human condition, and which permit/license interpretations which have strong plausibilities. To be sure, biases get worked in (and out by the next generation) but the process is not uncomfortable or problematic. My concern with VMS is that we can indeed use some logic/science to ensure that we don't multiply explanations beyond the data given. We can also borrow modes of thought from anthropology and psychology and distributed cognition and wherever if they yield less elaborated (more plausible) accounts of processes, artefacts... Certainty is not part of it, really, in any true/false sense; we are concerned about something involving more judgement and skill.

You seem to be an expert at solving problems using cognitivist thinking and methodologies, and have decided to apply that skill to an intriguing historical mystery. Good for you - but please understand (a) that the kind of certainties this kind of mindset typically relies upon are in desperately short supply here (we're not even sure what the alphabet is, nor if our transcriptions capture all the nuances we'd need); and

I too have pointed out that the alphabet poses problems. But think - if we are unsure of the alphabet then start with small units plausibly self-contained in meaning (labels). Taking longer units leads to an explosion of possible alternatives (witness attempted solutions and the recent discussion about the significance of spaces).

(b) that we are swimming in a sea of overlapping (ie, not all mutually exclusive) uncertainties.

Not sure about this. There are more certainties than might appear, I think.

But - we can surely agree on one thing. When the colour images become available the speculations will start up all over again, but more colourfully!



Cheers, .....Nick Pelling.....

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-- Dr William H Edmondson School of Computer Science University of Birmingham Edgbaston B15 2TT United Kingdom

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