|Photo: David Auerbach|
|“Describe the aroma of coffee—why can't it be done? Do we lack the words? and for what are words lacking?—But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded?” Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. |
Photo: Slate Magazine
David Pears, a prodigious yet modest and approachable figure visiting from Oxford, changed my mind. In large part because of Pears’ instruction, Wittgenstein’s philosophy has been directly relevant to my thinking about computer science, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science. When other scholars were thinking that language and thought could be reduced to a universal, logical language, Wittgenstein turned the matter to practical questions and raised incredibly inconvenient questions that gained traction in artificial intelligence in the 1970s, 40 years after he was working on them.
Wittgenstein, who lived from 1889 to 1951, is most famous for a handful of oracular pronouncements: “The limits of language are the limits of my world.” “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” They sound great; they are also hopelessly mysterious except in the context of Wittgenstein’s entire philosophy. Or more accurately, philosophies. Wittgenstein’s writings, broadly speaking, divide into two periods, and in the second he more or less wholly rejected the underlying conception of the first. In his first lecture, Pears began: “Some philosophers fly; others struggle to crawl.” Wittgenstein flew, then crashed to earth and crawled thereafter.
(Since pretty much no one can agree on anything about Wittgenstein, I’m going to present things in the spirit of Pears’ interpretation, with the caveat that you could probably find a philosopher somewhere who would disagree with every following sentence.)
Wittgenstein’s first period, culminating in 1921’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (which Pears had co-translated), drew heavily on Bertrand Russell’s work in philosophical logic and made a huge impact on the logical positivist movement of the time, which would later in turn influence computer science, artificial intelligence, and linguistics. The Tractatus makes an ambitious and ostensibly definitive attempt to chart out the relationship between language and the world. Alongside Russell’s work, it was tremendously influential on logicians, yet Wittgenstein later ended up rejecting one of its central premises: that our linguistic statements depict true or false states of affairs, and that formal logic provided the structure that regulates our construction of these statements. Language and the world share logical form, which is also the form of reality. This attempt to regiment language as formal logic went on to be an article of faith for many computer scientists and cognitive scientists for decades, as well as exerting a foundational influence on Noam Chomsky’s linguistics.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Source: Slate Magazine