Is language as we know it still relevant for the digital age?

In analytic philosophy, any meaning can be expressed in language. In his book Expression and Meaning (1979), UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle calls this idea ‘the principle of expressibility, the principle that whatever can be meant can be said’. Moreover, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’.

Outside the hermetically sealed field of analytic philosophy, the limits of natural language when it comes to meaning-making have long been recognised in both the arts and sciences. Psychology and linguistics acknowledge that language is not a perfect medium. It is generally accepted that much of our thought is non-verbal, and at least some of it might be inexpressible in language. Notably, language often cannot express the concrete experiences engendered by contemporary art and fails to formulate the kind of abstract thought characteristic of much modern science. Language is not a flawless vehicle for conveying thought and feelings.

In the field of artificial intelligence, technology can be incomprehensible even to experts. In the essay ‘Is Artificial Intelligence Permanently Inscrutable?’, Princeton neuroscientist Aaron Bornstein discusses this problem with regard to artificial neural networks (computational models): “nobody knows quite how they work. And that means no one can predict when they might fail.” This could harm people if, for example, doctors relied on this technology to assess whether patients might develop complications.

Read more: openDemocracy

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