Conferences> Integrationism 2.0


Integrationism 2.0

A conference sponsored by the IAISLC and The Department of English, The University of Birmingham, held at the University of Birmingham, 21 - 23 July, 2011 Special themes: (1) Semantics for Robots: Utopian and Dystopian Visions in the Age of the ‘Language Machine’; (2) Semiology of Writing; (3) Supercategories and the Language Myth

Semantics for Robots: Utopian and Dystopian Visions in the Age of the ‘Language Machine’

Language machines and thinking machines go back as least as far as Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna of the thirteenth century. They have been the preoccupation of philosophers, scientists, engineers, novelists, filmmakers and business managers. The language machine has been the highest hope and loveliest dream of some and the dreaded nightmare of others. Discussions of such imagined machines have ranged from asserting that they provide an infallible method of ascertaining the truth to picturing them as enslaving humanity.  What previous generations of humanity imagined, the past generation turned into reality: machine generated language. From personal business transactions conducted over the telephone or the internet via entirely programmed language to expert systems for use in law and medicine, ‘user-friendly’ natural language processing (Google’s “Do you mean...?), mechanical translation, the semantic web, spam, data-mining, computer viruses, all manner of machines (such as Global Positioning System devices) that talk to us and even digital prayer wheels praying for us on the internet so we do not have to. Often we no longer know with whom or with what we are communicating, or even if communication is taking place at all. The computer imagined as thinking machine and mechanical brain has become in reality the unthinking machine of billions of spam ‘messages’ and digital prayers offered by no one to no one. Yet we love the language machine and it seems to work incredibly well for many purposes. What makes language—and ‘the language machine’—work for us?


Roy Harris in his 1987 work The Language Machine (Duckworth) identified the idea of language as an autonomous, mechanical and self-defining system as a key component of the language myth. Harris characterized the fantasy of a language system underlying and enabling both human communicational activity and human cognition as ‘a semantics for robots, not for human beings’. This myth of the language machine has been promoted by a modern, profoundly dehumanized linguistics, but has deep roots in the Western tradition of language theorizing. The question that Harris raises is precisely what makes meaning? What makes communication possible? What makes language, including the products of the language machine, work? Contemporary sciences—including philosophy, linguistics, psychology, computer science and allied fields—assume that communication presupposes language, while Harris argues that language presupposes communication. For Harris, what makes the language machine work is the human language maker who is trying to make something happen.


This conference takes The Language Machine as its point of departure, with its vision of modern societies as in the grip of a linguistic pathology: “The society which feeds and feeds off this mythology is a society in which public communication has manifestly given up on language. The very style of presentation renounces the truth in advance. Information is a verbal spiral, in which words merely beget other words.”  The issue underlying this begetting of words is whether words mean something—in which case the language machine generates language even more than humans ever have—or whether we mean something by our words. The question “What do you mean?” makes sense to ask of a human being; does it make any sense to ask it of a machine or is the question itself a sign of a linguistic pathology?


Semiology of Writing

For integrationists, writing is not a representation of speech, nor is it somehow a derivative from, nor a secondary system in relation to, speech. Yet writing plays a central role in second-order understandings of language in modern literate societies, and in ideas about rationality and forms of reasoning. Questions of intention, meaning and technology come together in a consideration of the nature of writing and literacy. For Harris, writing is not a historically fixed and determinate mode, and from a certain point of view it may not yet have been invented:[E]very change in perspective from which the independence of writing is viewed brings with it an automatic re-evaluation of the boundary between the pictorial and the non-pictorial, together with a re-evaluation of the relationship between speech and language. This must be true not only for all past but for all future development in human communication. The independence of the scriptorial sign is now such as to guarantee our descendants’ re-evaluations in advance, irrespective of whether or not they still call their preferred forms of electronic literacy ‘writing’. From their point of view, needless to say, the ‘origin’ of writing may well turn out to be a point in the history of human sign-systems which we ourselves, in the late twentieth century, have not yet reached. And like us, they may continue to use the ancestral forms of writing without recognizing them for what they are. (The Origin of Writing, Duckworth, 1986)


Supercategories and the Language Myth

Harris has steadily broadened the theoretical range of his work, and in more recent writings has interrogated the foundations of ‘supercategories’ such as art, history, psychology, science, law, and epistemology.  The notion of the ‘language myth’, originally deployed in a series of historical and intellectual polemics against theories of language, is now understood to underlie the demarcation of autonomous realms of theoretical investigation (art, science, etc.), and to play a fundamental yet unremarked role in shaping those disciplinary formations. While Harris puts language and theories of language at the centre of his discussion of supercategories and of epistemology, he is not appealing to a Whorfian constructionism, in which linguistic categories in some sense generate social reality, nor to any version of the idea that everything is mediated through, or realized in, an identifiable steady-state entity such as ‘language’ or ‘text’ or ‘discourse’. Relevant publications include: The Necessity of Artspeak, 2003; The Linguistics of History, 2004; The Semantics of Science, 2005; Mindboggling, 2008; After Epistemology, 2009; The Great Debate about Art, 2010.


Conference committee: Michael Toolan (University of Birmingham), David Bade (Joseph Regenstein Library, University of Chicago), Christopher Hutton (The University of Hong Kong), Adrian Pablé (The University of Hong Kong).