[Humanist] 24.154 Herbert Simon and Jorge Luis Borges

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jun 27 08:41:15 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 154.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 27 Jun 2010 07:35:00 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: choice

I am particularly fond of a story that Herbert Simon tells in his 
autobiography, Models of My Life (1996). (The entire book can be 
downloaded from the Herbert A. Simon Archive at Carnegie Mellon. This 
archive, by the way, is marvellous, and itself a model of access to the 
papers of major figure.) Anyhow, at the beginning of Chapter 11, as 
explanation for his central idea of "bounded rationality", Simon reveals 
his very early fascination with mazes -- i.e. structures of bounded 
choice, in his terms. While at RAND during 1960-61, Simon says in a 
footnote, Edward Feigenbaum drew his attention to Jorge Luis Borges' 
Ficciones. Some years later, in a letter to Borges asking for an 
interview, Simon wrote that he was drawn "in particular [to] the story La 
Biblioteca de Babel, to discover that you too conceive of life as a 
search through the labyrinth". During the interview Borges explained his 
use of the maze with a poem:

> I Have Become Too Old For Love
> My love
> has made me old.
> But never so old
> as not to see
> the vast night
> that envelops us.
> Something hid deep in love
> and passion
> still amazes me.
> Here there is a play on words. In English, the word for labyrinth is
> "maze" and for surprise, "amazement." There is a clear semantic
> connotation as well.
> This is the form in which I perceive life : a continual amazement; a
> continual bifurcation of the labyrinth.

What fascinates me here is the divergence of the paths of the two men, 
as it were, starting at the identical image -- at the threshold of the 

It is easy for a certain kind of person (I include myself in this lot) 
to look on Simon's work ignorantly, with disdain for his reductive model 
of thinking, as problem-solving. It is easy to read the 1958 paper he 
wrote with Allen Newell, in which they brashly made those infamously 
rash predictions, and laugh at what now seems silliness.  But thinking 
historically, and thinking in particular of Simon as kin to Borges -- the 
two as different as day from night and as matched as day is to night -- 
stops that laughter in its tracks. We have our preferences, I for 
Borges' story, which I find much greater by far than The Sciences of the 
Artificial, however much less professionally useful. But better yet, I 
think, is to be able to hold both in mind simultaneously, to be both 


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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