[Humanist] 31.101 in what sense a perfect language

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jun 15 07:08:12 CEST 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 101.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 14 Jun 2017 13:26:18 +0200
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  31.97 in what sense a 'perfect language'?
        In-Reply-To: <20170613055437.7BC3F1B8E at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

Your citation of Eco's The Search for a Perfect Language
reminded me of Gregory Chaitin's talk with a near same title:

 The Search for the Perfect Language? 

given at the Perimeter Institute on 21.09.2009, with a video
here:  http://pirsa.org/displayFlash.php?id=09090007

Chaitin's talk is a merry romp through some history of
mathematics and, in his words, a continuation of the story Eco
tells with more modern work on logical and programming

Chaitin's talk is of some relevance, I think, to your asking
about [computational] "mothers made of wire."  Amongst several
things, I liked, we have this.

 "...  Christian Huygen's hated Leibniz's calculus because he
  [Huygen] said that it was mechanical, it was brainless: Any
  fool can just calculate the answer by following the rules,
  without understanding what he or she is doing.  Huygens
  preferred the old, synthetic geometry proofs where you have
  to be creative and come up with a diagram and some
  particular reason for something to be true.  Leibniz wanted
  a general method.  He wanted to get the formalism, the
  notation, right, and have a mechanical way to get the
  answer."  (Top of page 4.)

However, Chaitin ends at a place I would not go, but which
perhaps relates some to the scholarship of 'distant reading'
you refer to.

 "...  So from the perspective of the Middle Ages, I would
  say that the perfect languages that we've found have given
  us some magical, God-like powers, which is that we can
  breath life into some inanimate matter.  Observe that
  hardware is analogous to the body, and software is analogous
  to the soul, and when you put software into a computer, this
  inanimate object comes to life and creates virtual worlds.

 "So from the perspective of somebody from the year 1200, the
  search for the perfect language has been successful and has
  given us some magical, God-like abilities, except that we
  take them entirely for granted."

Where I would go is the place that insists that everybody, who
uses instruments to aid their investigations, knows well how
these instruments work and are engineered, so as to know well
what artifacts their use may introduce in to the observations
and treatments performed with them.  Good astronomy is not
done merely by looking through a good telescope.  A good
knowledge and understanding of optics and how the telescope
implements these well enough, is also required, if false or
misleading observations, and claims based upon these, are to
be avoided.

Best regards,


> On 13 Jun 2017, at 07:54, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 97.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                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? 
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> 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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