quantum language theory

since handing in my paper for 'metaphor and thought' today, i've been able to finally formulate my own metaphor for the great divide in the philosophy of language that's been bouncing around in my head since i watched that 'elegant universe' documentary.

first there was the newtonian theory of physics, which was fairly over-simplified and deterministic. then (to over-simplify a bit myself), along came albert einstein and came up with a much better theory that explained a lot more phenomena and required a major shift in everyone's thinking about the universe. einstein was pretty smart, but toward the end of his life when people started to talk about quantum mechanics, he couldn't handle it. 'gott würfelt nicht,' he said, meaning, 'god doesn't play dice, the laws of nature aren't based on probabilities.'

this is the same position analytic philosophers are in. (i think it's a nice metaphor for them too... they get to be einstein!). they cannot believe there is not a truth 'out there' in the universe to be discovered (i think a lot of philosophers might consider themselves atheists, but i'm just saying... gott might würfle). Their theories work a lot better than older classical models of language, but just try telling a philosopher that reference isn't deterministic, that language doesn't have to have a strict dependence on the world, that the odds determining how a word is used depend on the odds that another word was used two weeks ago and so on..., that vagueness isn't a problem that needs to be solved. you'll get a funny look and a bad grade.

now imagine a contemporary university physics professor who not only doesn't teach quantum physics, but doesn't believe in it. if you told them that light is both a particle and a wave (a very post-structuralist move, by the way!), they would give you a funny look and a bad grade, but then they also might get fired for being 50 years behind the times (unless they had tenure, in which case they might just be ridiculed in the literature and discussed angrily in the cafeteria and department meetings... i don't know how these things work.)

granted, from my understanding, there are more outlandish theories out there (like string theory) that aren't widely accepted or taught in most physics courses. to continue the analogy, i'm not saying philosophy classes should start teaching all the craziest semiotics they can get their hands on. i'm also not saying there's no value to studying analytic philosophy. it's smart, it's interesting, and it maps out a lot of the territory of philosophy of language and shows where the problems are. i'm just saying that philosophy departments and classes exclude out of hand, for no apparent reason other than the fact that it would force them to rethink 100 years of their own research, a huge branch of thought about the same questions they claim to be asking.

some quest for knowledge, huh?


New Version of the Keats Machine

Hey folks! I've got a new version of the keats machine online for you to try. This one uses the entire poem as its word bank, and allows you to create your own poems with the scrambled lines. It's still not 100% done, but it's probably 75-80.

Please, go on and check it out, and leave your comments here.

The New Keats Machine

(It's the 2nd link from the top)



I would like to formally second cristi's post about our birthday. It's awesome! One year and 106 posts later... Just genius!

We love you guys. Keep reading and we'll keep writing. Actually, if you stopped reading we'd probably keep writing anyway.

To Invented Usage and blog for all seasons and a waste of time for all reasons!

happy birthday to us!

laughing in the face of the ridiculously high blog infant mortality rate, Invented Usage is celebrating its first birthday today!

we'd like to thank our approximately 11 faithful readers and 20 daily random readers who've given us the motivation to keep going through midterms, finals, writers block and many other obstacles that keep lesser blogs down.

in addition, we invite you to visit our May 2005 archives and remember the days when Scott and I were scratching out a foothold for the current dynasty and posting almost every day--sometimes twice a day! May 2005 is a classic vintage; it's got fights we picked with older and more qualified bloggers, prose poetry, the original 'like' posts, the conversation that led to our name in the first place, and a link to kittenwars.com. worth a look, indeed!

thank you again! please commence the singing of 'the birthday song' loudly into your screens at 20:00 EST, 5/9/06.


semantics and the body

I LOVE this book. Semantics and the Body by Horst Ruthrof is the missing link between post-structuralism and linguistics that I've been waiting for.

The author briefly summarizes the history of philosophy of language before really delving into the nitty-gritty of why traditional formal semantics can't handle essential things like negation and metaphor. It's clear he knows his stuff.

While he doesn't buy post-structuralism hook, line and sinker, he does make an important move that is clearly based on literary theory. Instead of beginning with 'normal' language or 'positive' statements and considering meatphor and negation as marginal phenomena that can be described later (as linguists do), he begins with these as things a philosophy of language must account for, and goes on from there.

Ruthrof does buy the claim that everything is textual. That is, in opposition to Lakoff et al., he doesn't think there's some realm of unmediated physical experience that we code into language via metaphor. He believes the body has an essential place in a theory of language because it is a mechanism for interacting with and encoding various perceptual sign systems. It is these non-verbal modes of signification that make ALL linguistic expressions meaningful.

Metaphor, then, simply highlights the play (and the slippage) between the various systems. There is a continuum from metaphor to literal speech that we must negotiate (with varying degrees of uncertainty) every day. This is a pretty elegant theory. It buys a lot of things (for example) a theory of metaphor that meshes with a theory of literal language, without a lot of the explanatory baggage that Lakoff needs to pull along (does each individual's experience shape their metaphorical domains? what is the role of historical change in moving from 'live' to 'dead' metaphors?).

Pay attention, philosophers of language: these divisions (literal/figurative; live/dead; negative/positive) are not as clear cut as formalism would like them to be. Admitting that is the first step toward getting help.