[Humanist] 30.54 language before?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri May 27 06:57:21 CEST 2016

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 54.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 26 May 2016 15:28:09 +0100
        From: Marinella Testori <testorimarinella at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  30.52 language before?
        In-Reply-To: <20160526052801.4EFD96862 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

In his meditation "On Language" (Cambridge University Press 1999), W. von
Humboldt defines language as one of the "manifestations of human mental
power" (p.26), which is triggered not only by "an external necessity for
maintaining communal intercourse" (p. 27).

To paraphrase it, we could say that using language is something of which we
cannot rid of precisely because we are human beings and aim to act
according our human nature. The article about DNA seems to confirm this
fascinating perspective: language, in a certain way, is already in our
cells, and even sequences of letters are used to explain the code of life!

This irresistibly forces me to reflect on what kind of usage of technology
we are making and what type of human beings we are becoming; I am
wondering, for instance, whether an increasing presence of technology to
replace human beings and, thus, their unique faculty of communicating and
interacting, in workplaces, could be seen as a sign of decline - a decline
of our true humanity by starting from what mainly characterizes it: the
faculty of language, and a decline of technology itself in its ethical
implications  - rather than an advancement.

It is like men, scared by the modern "towers of Babel" they have built,
they wish to renounce, to retire them from what they shape their nature
mostly. The challenge of a computational mind, of a computational man,
seems thus to me to consist in reflecting on analogies (between mind and
machine, between language and computerized model), while keeping firm that
we cannot allow them to overcome what is unique and irreplaceable in us.

Thank you.


2016-05-26 6:28 GMT+01:00 Humanist Discussion Group <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>:

>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 52.
>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>         Date: Thu, 26 May 2016 06:18:20 +0100
>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>         Subject: language before
> In today's New York Review of Books Daily, H. Allen Orr reviews Matthew
> Cobb's Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code
> (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/06/09/dna-power-beautiful-experiment/).
> It is in itself a worthy review, but I refer to it here for something
> Orr says in passing:
> > You might not have noticed that I used the language of information
> > when discussing DNA above. The 'information'  that is 'encoded' in DNA
> > gets 'read'  by cells. You likely didn't notice because this is now a
> > nearly reflexive way of talking about DNA, even in popular culture.
> > It's just obvious to us that DNA stores information 'for curly hair or
> > blue eyes' and it's natural to think of it as an information storage
> > device much like the hard disk of a computer. Yet one of Cobb's main
> > points is that this is a remarkably recent way of thinking about
> > biology.
> >
> > The rise of this style of thinking had everything to do with what was
> > happening in other fields of science during and immediately after
> > World War II....
> Many here will be able to guess the story that follows that last
> sentence. But again, my point is not the history of post-war science
> but the process Orr describes -- "one of Cobb's main points" -- of how
> what later seems natural fact is naturalised. "It's just obvious to us
> that..." was not before it was made that way. We are (perhaps on the far
> side of) the same thing happening with respect to computing, with
> decades of 'the computational model of mind' behind us, ubiquitous,
> embedded computing everywhere we don't see, and so on and so
> forth.
> It seems to be crucial, even at the heart of what digital humanities
> could do if only we can summon the wit to do it, to keep firmly in
> mind the transitional moment when computing is naturalised. A
> struggle, of course, perhaps an impossible one. How do you imagine the
> world before the changes Cobb writes about or before analogue became
> the word to describe what is not digital (when it meant 'analogous to')?
> But, I would say, the power of the discipline is in proportion to the
> difficulty of this task -- and a few other things, of course. But this
> is one of them, surely.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London

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