[Humanist] 31.97 in what sense a 'perfect language'?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jun 13 07:54:37 CEST 2017

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 97.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 13 Jun 2017 06:35:20 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: in what sense a 'perfect language'

Umberto Eco's impressive study, The Search for a Perfect Language, which 
shares with George Steiner's After Babel the historical sweep from 
Judeo-Christian beginnings to the present, says very little about our 
form of the quest -- less than two pages in a book of 385 (subtitled 
"Artificial Intelligence"). This is not to fault him; an author's 
freedom to define a scope is his or hers. But Eco does leave us with the 
question of what 'perfect' means in the context of our machine. The 
anthropologist Edwin Ardener, in a brilliant essay, "'Behaviour' -- a 
Social Anthropological Criticism", shows how a cultural keyword can be 
plucked from one field, remade by another and then returned to its 
origins unrecognised. He concludes:

> we all have to guard against over-determining a distinction in our
> own culture, objectifying it through new data and then receiving it
> back, no longer able to recognize our own artefact. 'Behaviour' is such
> a case: we may clutch it as those experimental monkey infants clutch
> their mothers made of wire, and receive precious little nourishment.

Is there, for example in the scholarship of 'distant reading', traces of 
that search for a perfect, uncontaminated (objective?) mode of 
expression that gets to the truth of our texts, as clearly we cannot 
unaided? Mostly, as far as I know, we rely on a stochastic model of 
language, apply statistical tests and come up with probable results. But 
do we leave the matter there in its uncertainty?

Some have argued that the specifically digital, Boolean form into which
our artefacts of study must be translated in order to become 
computationally tractable is no longer relevant, that the ubiquity of the 
digital means we can forget the engineering and move on. Might this 
view of things turn out to be such a clutching "as those experimental 
monkey infants clutch their mothers made of wire, and receive precious 
little nourishment" -- in comparison to that which critical awareness of 
the engineering gives us in abundance? 


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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