by James Somers, February 27, 2010

The legal blogger Lawrence Solum suggested, in a “legal lexicon” entry about the counter-majoritarian difficulty, “that any really deep discussion” of this rather specific subject “would lead (sooner or later) to almost every other topic in constitutional theory.”

The remark stuck with me because it sounded exactly like something our professor warned us about in a class on James Joyce’s epic novel, Ulysses, about how we would have to be careful not to let a close reading of any particular portion of the text turn into a treatise on the whole book. He suggested that even the most tightly scoped inquiries would have a way of leading us down the proverbial rabbit hole.

It makes one wonder what constitutional theory and Ulysses might have in common, or what it is about these intellectual objects that tempts us to engage all their parts at once, to swallow them whole.

I can think of other examples. Some parts of Wikipedia, for instance, are pretty difficult to leave once you’ve dipped your toe in the water: the large circle of pages on delusions, for instance, which I came to by way of the excellent Best of Wikipedia blog and a post on the Jerusalem syndrome; or the set of concepts surrounding the ultimate fate of the universe; or the history of modern analytic philosophy, the whole of which you can get to via any number of individual philosphers’ pages.

Project Euler, an online competition with hundreds of computer problems in elementary (but often tricky!) discrete mathematics, also seems intraconnected in this way, such that you often end up explicitly reusing code or techniques from one problem to the next, even when they seem only vaguely related at the outset. And if nothing else the problems are gateways to other great examples of deeply intrawoven ideaverses: places like Wolfram MathWorld, or the online encyclopedia of integer sequences, or even the Python language reference.

But it’s not clear to me that there’s anything deep going on here. I suspect that it could just be that any intellectual endeavor of sufficient complexity has to be broken into parts, that these parts have to be connected by links or allusions, and that novitiates especially are drawn into the webs that this process creates by a kind of naive curiosity, or the instinct to follow footnotes. [1]


[1] A case could be made for the alternative—that these few examples I’ve touched on do share some special feature—by pointing to large, complex subjects that don’t feel “intraconnected.” But I’m having trouble thinking of any.