[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
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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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