Wittgenstein on AI, Poetry, and Babel
Philosophy of Language is Underrated
St. Augustine thinks that the way we learn language is by pointing to things and repeating the words for them, matching the linguistic sign to its correspondent object. Tree. Cloud. Car. Table. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, claims that children learn the meaning of words not by fitting them to things, but by using them in sentences. You don’t need to visualize the specific meaning of “God made the world” or “I hope the package will arrive” or “I was sad when you knocked down my tower” to use these sentences convincingly. This argument is part and parcel of what is called “ordinary language philosophy”—the idea that we know the meaning of words by using them in context, not by having a picture in our minds of what they represent.
If Wittgenstein is right then no word has any intrinsic meaning; rather, the meaning of a word changes with use, and is a matter of practicality. One function of literature may be to reveal just this, to show us that the meaning of our words is determined by the “language-game” we happen to be playing. The problem with the paper you submitted in 7th grade English class is not that it was erroneous, but that it didn’t properly participate in the language game of “paper for 7th grade English class.” Once you adopt Wittgenstein’s point of view, a lot of debate, about proper grammar, about diction, about what is good or bad communication comes down to a handful of questions—is this appropriate to the game you want to be playing? Is this the game you should be playing? What could possibly determine the answer to that but another game called “what game should you be playing?”
The Tower of Babel story, on which I’ve written several times, may be read as an allegory for the dispelling of Augustine’s view of language. In the beginning, people thought words fit things in some kind of consensus way. This is the word for brick. This is the word for mortar. But once the people are scattered, language becomes simply a system of “family resemblances,” with the meaning of a word changing from moment to moment.
If you think about a person with limited linguistic capacity in a Wittgensteinian mold, the limit is not the vocabulary per se—the limit is not that the person can’t remember the word for Y or find the right word for Z; it’s that the person can’t figure out how to play the communicative game, and thus can’t live in the world. Hence, Wittgenstein’s famous pronouncement, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
I have no doubt that AI will succeed in simulating linguistic intelligence precisely because it runs on the Wittgensteinian and not the Augustinian model. AI doesn’t need to know what a word in a sentence means to sputter out an appropriate sentence. Still, AI will never know this—it can’t know that language itself is the self-generative thing, this Babelian chimera, this failure, this boundary, this point whereof we cannot speak and must remain silent. AI will be able to produce fake research papers and fake headlines and half-baked op-eds. But it will not be able to convincingly emulate Samuel Beckett or Gertrude Stein, whose language game is the overt struggling with the question of what language itself is. AI will write confessional poetry in iambic pentameter, but it will not be able to invent new language games; it will not be able to be avant-garde. And that’s fine. It has second mover advantage. It’s not supposed to lead.
A poetic use of AI is the fact that it makes us. Pause. It takes what is a natural, effortless, unthinking endeavor and asks us to consider, did you mean that? What if you put it this way? What if. A pony is eunoic, out of place, and proper.
Predictive text has a poetic use beyond just reminding us that we could use this synonym instead of that one, or that we’re likely to complete the sentence with a period. It can reveal the phenomenon of language to be a mystery.
It is sometimes said that the people worshipped the Tower of Babel, but what if they worshipped language itself, this great mystery simulating the divine? By scattering their tongues, God destroys their idol and their idolized view of the word. A word has no meaning, or, as it were, it has 70. The power of language is derived not from its ability to refer, but its ability to bridge the being created in the divine image with the world.
Some of these thoughts are inspired by Marjorie Perloff, author of the excellent Wittgenstein’s Ladder.