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The Limits of Language (slate.com)
58 points by pron on Sept 2, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 13 comments

It is quite striking to me that the decentralised, statistical, emergent treatment of meaning in PI fits so well with neural-networks and connectionism[1] whereas Fodor's "Language of Thought Hypothesis" and other opposing views seem wedded to "top-down" cognitive approaches.

Given the ability of neural nets to produce "modeling functionality" (like playing Breakout as though there was a model of the game somewhere in the AI) without requiring the actual model implementation, Ockham seems to favour Wittgenstein over Fodor &co. (despite the excellent qualities of the Fodor fog parody linked in the article[2].)

As PI is often at pains to show, however, our own naive thinking tends to assume that the modeling function of language is in virtue of some fundamental metaphysical relation with reality, so that when Wittgenstein wrote:

  "There must surely be a further, different connexion
  between my talk and N, for otherwise I should still not
  have meant HIM."

  Certainly such a connexion exists. Only not as you
  imagine it: namely by means of a mental mechanism.
he now seems to me to be aiming squarely at our inner cognitivist.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectionism

2: http://garbage.world/fodor/

3: PI: #689

>decentralised, statistical, emergent

How do any of these buzzwords apply to anything that Wittgenstein says in PI?

>Ockham seems to favour Wittgenstein over Fodor &co

Fodor &co have arguments for their position. The simplest explanation isn't the best explanation if it's wrong. And in any case, there's no obvious sense in which connectionist architectures are simpler than classical ones.

> buzzwords

Ok, so apologies for that - the point I was trying to make is that PI's view of "meaning is use" is consonant with some quite recent and popular (and therefore buzzword-prone) ideas about AI and psychology.

Right at the start of PI, the "Augustinian picture" of meaning is set out: "words in language name objects - sentences are combinations of such names" a picture where "every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands." And so (later, #81) we "think that if anyone utters a sentence, and means or understands it, he is operating a calculus according to definite rules." This is the view of language which PI aims to - sorry, buzzword incoming - disrupt.

By contrast, PI puts the case that there is no central unifying model applicable to all instances of language use, rather: "I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all - but that they are related to one another in many different ways, and it is because of this relationship, or these relationships that we call them all language." (PI #65)

There follows a discussion of vagueness. In the Augustinian picture where the meaning of a word is an object, and a calculus of these objects is performed, it is difficult to avoid the consequence that meanings are exact. PI uses the example of defining the word "game": "How should we explain to someone what a game is? I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: "This and similar things are called 'games'". And do we know any more about it ourselves? [...] But this is not ignorance. We do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn. [...] we can draw a boundary - for a special purpose. Does it take that to make the concept usable? Not at all! [...] One might say that the concept 'game' is a concept with blurred edges."

So much for "decentralised" and "statistical". As far as "emergent" goes, I think even with the large variance in readings of PI it's uncontroversial to say that it seeks to ground meaning and understanding in relation to "customs" or social practices rather than in some variety of metaphysical correspondence between language and reality required by different variations of the Augustinian picture. In this sense, meaning emerges from the use of words relative to these cultural forms.

Connectionism, as an investigative paradigm, (oops, buzzword!) is simpler (I believe) in that it doesn't require the identification of an actual realised model (or "mental mechanism") such as a neural encoding of a "language of thought" or cognitive frames, etc., in the brain - it "just" requires that a bunch of simple elements can result in complex rule-following behaviour without needing to explicitly encode the rules. Hopefully the quotes above will go some way to indicate how this programme is philosophically somewhat in tune with PI.

(Indeed the extensive sections on samples and teaching language games are eerily reminiscent of descriptions of training neural nets, now that I think of it... "How do I explain the meaning of 'regular', 'uniform', 'same' [...] if a person has not yet got the concepts? I shall teach him to use the words by means of examples and by practice - And when I do this I do not communicate less to him than I know myself." (PI #208))

I have long understood language from a neuroscience perspective is a means of sharing thoughts. If you see a car there is a cluster of neurons that light up saying 'car'. Apparently the same thing happens if you remember a car. Language taps in to that memory aspect and lights up the same associations.

Thus, the word Happy is the abstract feeling/memory of being happy and can have different but related meanings to everyone. Ditto, stop, gerund, pi etc.

IMO, abstractions past that point have more to do with redundant encoding than anything else.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the only book I've never managed to get past the first page. It's really hard to read - Wittgenstein actually numbered all the paragraphs so they can be discussed individually it's so dense. I'd still recommend picking up a copy though, because there's a foreword by Bertrand Russell that's really worthwhile reading.

For those interested it's available on Project Gutenberg:


(english version)

I got deeper into it, but it's still dense, I couldn't get through to the end.

It's notable how hard it is to write a logically strict and abstract text without using the language of mathematics. It could be so much clearer and shorter if he used formulas to express his key points. Apparently Wittgenstein knew plenty enough math, but he decided not to use it, I suppose, to make his work more accessible to those not so well-versed in it, that is, most other philosophers.

> Wittgenstein actually numbered all the paragraphs so they can be discussed individually it's so dense.

I'm not sure that this is indicative of particular density of the TLP, though; I believe that it is common practice in text-heavy scholarly works. (I can't cite any examples off the top of my head, so it's possible that my vague recollection is leading me astray.)

Seconded. Almost all law books I possess have numbered paragraphs.

In twenty years of reading philosophy books it's the only one I've encountered that does it.

An interpretation of the limits of language aided by Finnegans Wake:


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