Units and Unities


Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley weighing bread for the William Edgar Borah table, Library of Congress

by Justin E. H. Smith

I dreamt last night that weight was bread. More precisely, I dreamt that a kilogram was a loaf of dark, rye-like, round bread, about the diameter of a steering wheel. I do not mean that the loaf represented the kilogram, or stood in for it conceptually, in the way that, say, an anatomical foot originally stood in for a unit of length. I mean that such a loaf is just what a kilogram was.

I was in some sort of shop, and the shopkeeper was trying to weigh something out for me on an old-fashioned scale. He kept having to remove whatever it was we were trying to weigh, and replace it with the loaves of bread. Since the loaves just were weight, only they could give any reading at all on a scale.

Plot-wise the dream was a bit thin, but it raised an important conceptual problem. It is as if the creation of a unit of measurement initiates a process of reification that, in its final stage, has us thinking about the unit as a definite, property-rich entity. I recall reading somewhere that some embarrassingly high number of Americans believe that calories exist in the same way marbles or eggs do: like little invisible pellets scattered in the food that makes people fat. And in turn the holy grail of the diet industry –a calorie-free fat substitute– is conceptualized as fat with the little pellets removed.

This neo-corpuscularianism can perhaps be seen more charitably if we recall that thing-hood is already contained within the concept of unit, a word which in many languages is identical to unity (e.g., Einheit, unité, единство). As Leibniz for one well understood, being and unity are practically the same. A Leibnizian corollary would also have it that whatever is not a thing is not really a unit(y) either, and further anything that is arbitrarily constituted cannot qualify as a thing. Nothing is more arbitrarily constituted than a so-called unit of measurement: there is absolutely no reason why a foot should not be three inches longer or shorter, and moreover nothing at all prevents us from conceptualizing fractions of these units.

So in effect we are being asked to conceptualize an impossible thing –units without unity– when we are asked to think about kilograms and feet and calories, and it may be that I, in my dream of the loaves, or the ignorant Americans polled on their dietetical knowledge, are in our mistake simply correcting something that was conceptually garbled to begin with.

Or consider Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy:

Because there are three tons of joy, and we naturally conceptualize units as unities, we can suppose that each of the three singers is herself one ton of joy, rather than the alternative interpretation, on which we have Marie Adams, the lead singer, and then two additional 1.5-ton units of joy. But if each of the three is a ton of joy, this means that Marie Adams, herself, is something distinct from the ton of joy that is, presumably, her body, since otherwise she would be named twice in the group’s moniker. What is she, then? Her voice? Her soul? Why is she not identical with her body, while her sidekicks are with theirs?

The considerations that went into this act’s naming probably could not offer up answers to these questions. But the conceptual issue is important, and in truth its importance never really struck me until I had that dream about the loaves. And this made me think, once again, about dreams, and the unfortunate habit we have in our culture of dismissing what they tell us: as if taking an interest in dreams were already to descend into a magical world-view on which oneiromancy has the power to reveal the future or, even worse, on which dreams just are reality. What this does not leave room for is the recognition that dreaming is simply a variety of thinking (‘cogitating’, Descartes would say), and one that makes use of different mental faculties (and different regions of the brain) than the ordinary, waking thinking we consider more reliable. In the case of this particular dream, a situation that might on first consideration have been dismissed as absurdist, as ‘so weird’, turns out to highlight a real problem about the way we carve up and conceptualize the world in our waking life.

What’s really curious to me about a dream about units of weight is that dreaming is generally the kind of thinking where reckoning and quantifying are suspended. It is perhaps not surprising that Heraclitus, the philosopher who promoted the idea, by no means original in him, that all is flux, and that you cannot take the measure of the flow of a river, since its flowing entails that there is no single river there at all, is also the philosopher to whom the belief was attributed that the world is sustained in existence by the dreams of sleeping people. I suspect in fact that there is a historical connection between the rise of external-world, thing-based ontology, on the one hand, and, on the other, the appearance of standardized weights and measures (this will remain just a suspicion for now; I think ultimately what is needed is something like a historical anthropology of idealism, which would position, through cross-cultural study, beliefs about the ontology of the external world within the entire web of a culture’s beliefs, which in turn would be studied as anchored in a totality of practices and interactions with the environment, much in the same way Jack Goody has traced the appearance of logic to developments in the practices and technologies of writing. Anyhow, I’m working on it.).

But then if dreams are where flux reigns, why a dream where there are not only discrete units of measurement, but in which these units are reified as things? I’m not quite sure, but I note that it was not a pleasant dream: the mood of it was in fact not so far from a nightmare. I did not at all like seeing kilograms transformed into things, and crude lumps of dough at that.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website