Tag: Natural language

The inexhaustible wealth of appearance, information and specificity

December 13th, 2015 — 2:36pm


When perceiving an object, for example a chair, the statement “this is X” (this is a chair) is almost entirely uninteresting. The concept by which we identify the object is a mere word, and in a sense entirely devoid of meaning.

That concept does help us align this object with other entities in space and time. It sets expectations about what has been done and what can be done to and with it, and it links the object to social practices. But none of these things are very interesting. After all, we understand quite well what society expects from chairs.

What is more interesting is all the other statements we could make about a particular chair, that is, all the qualities, information, phenomena and experiences that do not fit the general concept of a chair. Call this the chair’s particularity. It may be unusually sturdy or rickety. It may evoke a sense of sorrow or longing for a person who used to sit on it. It may make us think about economics. Its shape may even have something spiritual about it. It may, if it is a chair in an abandoned house, be decomposing. And even this is just scratching the surface.

In all likelihood, we are able to produce an unbounded number of interesting statements about this locus that is the chair. (Recall the famous school assignment about writing a story several hundred words long about the face of a coin.) And this would hold true both when we speak freely, metaphorically and poetically, and when we restrict ourselves to testable, scientific (in the modern sense) statements. New metaphors can always be invented, new scientific equipment may always be constructed. These additional modes of relatedness to the locus provide, perhaps, the basis for new statements.

How are we to understand this fundamental overflowing, this exuberant blossoming, the profound potential wealth that we draw upon and realise when we articulate statements about an entity such as this chair? It is not part of the concept “chair”. This concept is overlaid as an afterthought in order to make the surplus of impressions manageable and graspable. We are used to economising the use of our consciousness, dispensing it only sparingly, through the shielding, buffering and deflection that concepts afford us.

For Heidegger, being is the basis of intelligibility, a carrier of meaning. Language and intelligibility exists only on the basis of primordial being. He makes it his task to inquire as to what this being is.

For Georges Bataille, all activity that involves redistribution of energy, human and otherwise, accumulates a surplus that necessarily must be released in some way.

Myths and archetypes repeat themselves throughout history and society, in constantly renewed forms which are both always the same and always made from different specific constitutent parts. They can always be repeated in a different way. The hero myth exists in every culture (see for example Jung or Campbell). Conversely, this myth in all its specific detail is always different each time it appears.

In difference and repetition, Deleuze argues that conceptual machinery is constantly at work, extracting difference from whatever the underlying basis is.

Genetic material successfully reproduces and preserves itself, and perhaps prospers, only through the continual introduction of difference and variation at an appropriate rate.

The digital world, on the other hand, denies the possibility of generating an unbounded number of statements from some entity (such as a record in a database). In fact, its essence is the possibility of perfect copying, which happens only when the information being carried is strictly circumscribed and limited.

All these concepts, it seems, have something in common – the interaction between a specific form and the possibility of an infinite number of variations of and departures from that form.

4 comments » | Philosophy

Naming as metaphor

April 6th, 2015 — 1:53pm

A metaphor lets us view something as something else. Thus it has creative potential: “a forest of legislation” lets us take the behaviours, meaning and ideas we normally associate with forests and apply them in a completely different context.

But if no two situations in “reality” are the same – if Heraclitus is right that everything flows, nothing stays – then merely calling a forest a forest would be something metaphorical. It would be setting up an equivalence or similarity between two things that are actually different: forests as you have seen them before, and the new forest that has just flowed to you as part of the stream of lived experience.

If this is correct, then merely naming something, calling it what we perceive it to be, is somehow in part a metaphorical or creative action. And there would also be something metaphorical about applying equipment and tools to solve apparently identical problems – in identifying situation X as a context where tool Y should be applied.


Comment » | Philosophy

The bounded infinity of language

August 9th, 2014 — 5:48pm

Works of art, including film, painting, sculpture, literature and poetry, have a seemingly inexhaustible quality. As we keep confronting them, renewing our relationship with them over time, we continually extract more meaning from them. Some works truly appear to be bottomless. Reaching the bottom easily is, of course, a sure sign that a work will not have much lasting value.

Out of the forms listed above, (written) poetry and literature have the particular property that they are crafted out of a demonstrably finite medium: text. A finite alphabet, finite vocabulary, and a finite number of pages. As long as one disregards the effect of details such as paper quality, typography and binding, perfect copies can be made; the text can indeed be transcribed in its entirety without information loss. Somehow, reading Goethe on a Kindle is an experience that still holds power, although he presumably never intended his books to be read on Kindles (and some might argue that reading him in this way is ignoble).

How is it then that the evocative power of something finite can seem to be boundless? This curious property is something we might call the poetic or metaphorical qualities of a text. (Works of film, painting, sculpture and so on most likely also have this power, but it is trickier to demonstrate that they are grounded in a finite medium.) Through this mysterious evocative power, the elements that make up a work of art allow us to enter into an infinity that has been enclosed in a finite space. It will be argued that what is evoked comes as much from the reader as from the text, but this duality applies to all sensation.

With this in mind we turn, once again, to programming and formal “languages”. Terms in programming languages receive their meaning through a formal semantics that describes, mathematically, how the language is to be translated into an underlying, simpler language. This process takes place on a number of levels, and eventually the lowest underlying language is machinery. This grounds the power of a program to command electrons. But this is something different from the meaning of words in a natural language. The evocative power described above is clearly absent, and computer programs today do not transcend their essential finitude. With brute force, we could train ourselves to read source code metaphorically or poetically, but in most languages I know, this would result in strained, awkward and limited metaphors. (Perhaps mostly because programming languages to a large extent reference a world different from the human world.)

Consider how this inability to transcend finitude impacts our ability to model a domain in a given programming language. With an already formal domain, such as finance or classical mechanics, it is simple since what needs to happen is a mere translation. On the other hand, other domains, such as biology, resist formalisation  – and perhaps this is one of their essential properties. Here we would like to draw on the evocative, poetic, and metaphorical capacities of natural language – for the sake of program comprehension and perhaps also to support effective user interfaces – while also writing practical programs. But we have yet to invent a formal language that is both practical and evocative to the point that works of art could be created in it.

an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water

(Bashou, 1686)

1 comment » | Computer science, Philosophy, Software development

Meta notes: 1+ year with Monomorphic blogging

May 29th, 2010 — 12:28am

After 13 months and 51 posts, my experiments in blogging continue, although they are perhaps better described as polymorphic than monomorphic. Maybe it’s time for some reflections.

On the whole blogging in this format and at this frequency has been a pretty fun and fulfilling process. I get to practice writing free-form, nonscientific texts, and even if many of them might not be read by so many people, the idea that they might be turns it into a useful exercise.

Recently Flattr buttons were added to this blog, which allows users who use the service to donate money and show appreciation for my texts (some such people indeed exist – thanks a lot, all two of you!). Initially I had a single button for the entire blog, but now I am trying out a format where I have one button per post.

I’ve noticed, on this blog and elsewhere, that I can’t quite decide if I should write with British or American English. I feel culturally uncertain as a writer of this language. But recently I’ve come to think that I should embrace my European background, so more of the British variety in the future is a likely prospect.

Topics have been varied. The tag and category systems have been used in an attempt to bring some order to the table, but they’ve become too chaotic to be useful. A restructuring is perhaps in order during the next 13 months.

One of the most popular topics I’ve written about has been the Scala language. People tend to google Scala a lot, and it’s actually really uplifting to see the interest in it (since I hold it to be a way forward). If you are a blogger who wants to get a billion page views, write about Scala. I don’t want to consciously pander to the readers too much, so in itself it is not a reason for me to write about the topic. I will write about Scala when I want to say something about it. (A difficult principle to really practice.)

I’ve tried out some different WordPress themes occasionally, but so far I haven’t found anything I like better than this “Infinimum” theme. It feels very clean, functional and modern.

That will be enough of the reflections for now.

2 comments » | Uncategorized

Overloading words in research and programming

March 11th, 2010 — 3:16pm

In research and academia, one of the fundamental activities is the invention and subsequent examination of new concepts. For concepts, we need names.

One way of making a name is stringing words together until the meaning is sufficiently specific. E.g. “morphism averse co-dependent functor substitutions in virtual machine transmigration systems”. Thus the abstruse academic research paper title is born.

Sciences sometimes give new meanings to existing words. This could be called overloading, following the example of object-oriented programming. E.g. a “group” in mathematics is something different from the everyday use of the term. A “buffer” in chemistry is something different from a software or hardware buffer, even though a fragment of similarity is there. And so on. This overloading of words gives newcomers to the field a handle on what is meant, but full understanding is still impossible without understanding the actual definitions being employed.

Sometimes new terms can be created using inventors’ names and everyday words. E.g. a “Lie group” or the “Maxwell equations”, or “Curry-Howard correspondence”. This is potentially useful, but perhaps not something you can do freely with your own research without seeming like you’re trying to inflate your ego excessively. (Even though researchers love inflating their egos, nobody wants to admit it.)

There’s a similar problem in software development. When we invent names of functions, classes and variables, the lack of words becomes very clear. Intuitively, what is an “adapter registry”? An “observer list”? Or an “observer list mediation adapter?” My feeling is that we often end up compounding abstract words because we have no better choice. And here lies a clue to some of the apparent impermeability of difficult source code. We need better ways of making names. We’re inventing ideas faster than our language can stretch.

Comment » | Philosophy, Software development

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