It’s the first day of the 2013 European Quizzing Championships in Liverpool and I’m sitting next to Jesse Honey—English national team member, winner of the game show Mastermind and the 2012 World Quizzing Champion. I’m going to mark Honey’s answers and he, ridiculously, will mark mine.
Honey keeps telling people he’ll be giving up quizzing. Family and job won’t allow him the time he wants to spend on it.
No one believes him.
Honey is an urban planner from Bath who studied Japanese at university and is brimming with boyish enthusiasm. After the first stage of the quiz, he’s in third place. Extraordinarily positive and friendly, he even congratulates me on the two questions I get that slipped by him. Still, Honey rakes in the points, sometimes scoring full marks on a round. The few answers I’m particularly pleased to know—that Church Slavonic and Greek use a semicolon for a question mark, that capsaicin is the compound responsible for a chili pepper’s heat, what happens in the final scene of Aida—Honey chalks up with ease. He tells me how he got one question, asking to identify an oyster mushroom, from the Latin clue (Pleurotus ostreatus). Honey didn’t study Latin, however: he looked at a pack of frozen oysters in the supermarket and recalled the name from there. You have to retain these little facts. Who knows when they could be useful?
As the quiz progresses Honey writes out a list of question categories. He’d like to build a library and is curious how many rubrics to include. It seems he’s never thought too strongly about categorization. Before long he’s filled a sheet of paper.
Honey goes on to take bronze overall following a final shoot-out between the top ten scorers. I land somewhere in the bottom quartile.
“Just you wait,” he tells me. “You’ll get bitten by the bug.”
Quizzing, sometimes referred to as “trivia,” has been a part of popular culture for many decades. Jeopardy!, arguably America’s most iconic televised quiz show, appeared in 1964, though its notable forerunner, Truth or Consequences, first aired on radio in 1940. The town of Hot Springs in New Mexico changed its name to Truth or Consequences in 1950 so that they could win a contest to have the show hosted there. Since then, a multitude of trivia formats have found success across the world. Usually, the rights to a format are sold and the questions adapted to suit regional knowledge. Televised trivia enjoyed a boom in the late 1990s thanks to the global popularity of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which combined a preposterously large cash prize with tension-building gimmicks like “lifelines” and the “hot seat.”
Insofar as the TV quiz is an abiding presence, the world of quizzing is never far from any of us. In a passive capacity, it’s widely frequented. Quiz shows always have a “play along” element. They’re democratic, as pretty much any area of knowledge is fair game. Parallel to television, the pub quiz is also a common sight. Pub quizzes offer the social satisfaction of collaboration—friends can be free to indulge their specializations, so long as the team is balanced overall, and sometimes it takes two to dredge a fact from the collective memory. Surprisingly, there is little correlation between the popularity of pub quizzes and the consumption of beer. Quizzing culture is most prominent in England and Belgium, the two countries that effectively alternate as European champions, but both trail Germany, Ireland and the Czech Republic in annual liters consumed per capita.
The international quizzing scene takes this casual fun to the next level. It’s not just that the questions are harder, which they are, but that the players are really, seriously good. They treat the game like a competitive sport and train accordingly. If quizzing were like soccer, the typical pub quiz would be a kickaround in the park and the official England quiz team—on which Jesse Honey joins Kevin Ashman, Olav Bjortomt and Pat Gibson—would be the German national squad. England has always made a stronger showing in quizzes than in the World Cup.
Yet, having seen Honey and the England team in action, what is most striking about the world of professional-level quizzing to me are the philosophical problems it raises: If we train to be good quizzers, what do we have to ignore? What are the implications of seeking to know a little bit about everything? Can we live in a world composed of facts, and what would this world look like?
David Markson’s 1988 novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress describes one such frightening possibility. A woman, Kate, wanders a seemingly uninhabited Earth recalling scraps of (possibly erroneous) information. Many of these concern notable figures from the Western tradition:
Somehow I would also appear to know that Bach had eleven children, however.
Or perhaps it was twenty children.
Then again it may have been Vermeer who had twenty children.
Though possibly what I have in mind is that Vermeer left only twenty paintings.
Leonardo left fewer than that, perhaps only fifteen.
Not one of these figures may be correct.
Apparently the only person alive, Kate sleeps in the Louvre and the National Gallery, tries to remember the Greek myths, searches out a biography of Brahms, conjures up imaginary encounters between Rembrandt and Spinoza and paints in a house on the beach. The novel has little in the way of progression. Rather, it sketches a world—one composed, it seems, almost entirely of atomic facts that can never quite be brought into relation to Kate’s life or, indeed, to one another. Her memory works over these details, revises them. Names circulate in an empty world.
One way of seeing the novel is as a philosophical experiment: What does solipsism look like? Yet it is not only solipsism Markson has in mind, but Ludwig Wittgenstein’s early treatise, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was published in 1921.
According to the early Wittgenstein, language is isomorphic to the world: it maps onto it like a kind of grid, such that every meaningful sentence corresponds to a fact. His book’s opening propositions—“The world is all that is the case” and “The world is the totality of facts, not of things”—point to the interrelation of language, logic and objective reality. The world is not simply the sum of all the “things” in it. Rather, it is the sum of everything we can assert about it, i.e. the relations between these different things. For Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, then, the “world” is already the world of logical space, of statements that can be true or false. Language is a direct representation of this logical space. This means that “facts” in objective reality are not only what make a sentence true or false, but also meaningful, rather than nonsensical. Meaningful sentences have a logical form and correspond to a set of primitive objects that can determine their truth. For this reason, Wittgenstein claims that aesthetics and ethics—which cannot formulate propositions about such objects—essentially produce meaningless sentences. Indeed, aesthetics and ethics “are one.”
What is most curious about Wittgenstein’s book is that he was mainly interested in just these “unspeakable” domains. He wrote to Ludwig von Ficker (not a joke name):
My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits.
The meaninglessness of ethical propositions is thus not to be taken as a negative value judgment. Rather, Wittgenstein sought to set limits on what philosophy, and language, could do, underlining the sui generis nature of the ethical and aesthetic. These domains go, as it were, beyond the facts.
There is a significant interpretative battle over just how the Tractatus deals with “nonsense” propositions. The “standard” reading is that they do indeed “show” things about the world without “saying” them. Yet many find this unconvincing. Perhaps it is better to consider how the Tractatus fails, not least because its view of language is so peculiar: a transparent medium isomorphic to a (logical) world.
Markson’s novel explores this failure differently: he imagines what the world of the Tractatus would be like to live in. In Kate’s world, logically isolated facts flicker on or off as she runs through various permutations of states of affairs. Most importantly, there are no other people. The facts that make up her world are not the product of interactions with others (as the language-is-embedded-in-everyday-life Wittgenstein would later claim), nor do they capture the particularity of her experience faced with Giotto or Michelangelo or Brahms. People simply did this or that, and what value it may have falls out. After all, ethics in the Tractatus is unspeakable.
The groundwork of quizzing—having an outline of all the stuff there is, all the things that happened—raises the specter of the stark Tractarian world: a circulation of names that never speak.
In the Tractatus, all facts are equal. None is more important than any other—the facts simply are—and the kind of language that would bring value into the discussion is exactly what the book excludes as “nonsense.” Here, the Tractarian world diverges from that of quizzing.
At its best, quizzing is fueled by a certain curiosity. It sees an inherent, even aesthetic, interest in atypical nuggets of information: that Mozambique’s flag features an AK-47, that the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully died of gangrene after stabbing his foot with a conducting baton, that Gérard de Nerval walked his pet lobster Thibaud on a blue silk ribbon. These facts may not be central to our understanding of the world, but they do make it more colorful.
This points to a kind of aesthetics of questions. Besides invoking odd bits of information about things familiar to us, the best questions make connections between things we already know or contain clues that help us find an answer. One of my favorite questions from the European Quizzing Championships showed a picture of the Golden Gate strait before the famous bridge was constructed. The keen-eyed could identify it, but the strait’s Greek name (“Chrysopylae”) was given as an extra clue. Another question asked which small solar system body was visited in Arthur C. Clarke’s third Space Odyssey novel, published just after 1986 and set in 2061. There are two ways to answer this: either to have read the novel, or to realize that both dates coincide with the passage of Halley’s Comet through the inner solar system.
By contrast, a bad question contains no puzzle or surprise. It asks about something that just doesn’t seem worth knowing. Indeed, it is very easy to write extremely difficult questions—you open Wikipedia and hit “random”—but the question won’t be good unless the fact is somehow interesting. For this elusive criterion to be met, it has to connect in some way to the web of things we care about. It needs a place in what is ultimately a human system.
One reason Kate is so forgetful is that she can’t relate her facts to each other. Memory relies on association. Creating associations between facts is key to success in “mind sports” such as quizzing. One popular artificial memory system goes back at least to Roman times: imagine an empty location—a room, or a habitual walk—and mentally place objects around it, to be looked at in the order required. Frances Yates, in the 1966 book The Art of Memory, describes the classical treatises that instructed orators in producing such “memory images” to help them recall their speeches.
Memory images reconfigure the relation of facts to temporal experience. Experience is diachronic—one thing proceeds after another—yet the perception of an image is synchronic: it is a single moment. The eidetic perception of a memory image thus implies the simultaneous perception of numerous facts. It means perceiving their unity or relation and potentially understanding an overarching structure that governs them. There is, as it were, a deeper truth to be found in its schematism.
Yates’s book describes how the classical memory systems, aimed merely at the recall of speeches, were taken up by Neoplatonist thinkers in the Renaissance to provide an eidetic perception of the universe itself. The first such figure she describes is Giulio Camillo (ca. 1480–1544), who proposed the idea of a “memory theater,” a building divided into seven segments on seven levels where knowledge could be organized according to the principles of hermetic philosophy. At the center of his theater he places the highest, most divine essences and the most profane ones he situates toward the outside, such that knowledge is hierarchically arranged. The seven segments categorize each level horizontally according to the seven planets.
Camillo writes about his theater with an analogy of being lost in the woods. We immediately perceive only the trees around us, but when we ascend a slope, we can survey the whole terrain. As Yates writes, “The Theatre is thus a vision of the world and of the nature of things seen from a height, from the stars themselves and even from the supercelestial founts of wisdom beyond them.” It aimed to provide a single overview of the structure of knowledge and represented “the Idea of a memory organically geared to the universe.”