Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A GRUMPY OLD GUY GETS HIS COMEUPPANCE

Like many other senior citizens with a conservative literary streak [whatever my politics may be], I have become dyspeptic about what I see as the descent of the young into virtual incoherence. But now comes that wonderful NEW YORKER writer, Adam Gopnik, to put me in my place. The occasion is his review article in the latest issue of several books about machine translation, artificial intelligence, and the like. Gopnik makes the familar point that even computers capable of unimaginable zillions of computations a second have difficulty with the subtleties of natural languages. All of this is pretty familiar stuff, and my mind was on automatic pilot as my eyes scanned the review, until I came to this passage, which is, I dare say, one of the most brilliant bits of literary interpretation to come down the pike in quite some time: "Kid-speak, again, is an ideal instance of compression in balance with concision. What sounds to an outsider limited and repetitive is to the knowing listener as nuanced as Henry James. When one eleven-year-old girl says to another eleven-year-old girl, "So, then, like, the teacher got all, like, all of you, I guess, are, like, going to have to do a, like, I don't know, a makeup test. So! Like, yeah ," she means: "The teacher, becoming heated" -- that's why she "got, like" rather than "said, like" -- "announced , in effect, that many of us (I suppose, as a first apprioximation, all) will, at some point in, as it were, the near future, have to take what actually amounts to, when all, is said and done, a secondary makeup test. I have indignant feelings about this -- as who among us would not? -- but I recognize their essential futility." All of this is completely clear to the knowing listener, but it's been impossible, so far, to teach a machine to, you know, like, really, like, get it." I rest my case.

4 comments:

Tom Elrod said...

That's pretty smart. It reminds me of how linguists approach African-American Vernacular English, whose speakers are NOT "illiterate." AAVE is a dialect with a logical grammar and syntax; the fact that it's different from standard American English doesn't make it less of a language. Class and race issues in this country may make people believe that speakers of AAVE are stupid or poorly educated, but it's not actually true. Language is a complicated and beautiful thing.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Absolutely. Think, for example, of the different attitudes of Americans and upper class Brits to Cockney rhyming slang. One of the things that impresses me most about the Black South African students who are supported by my charitable scholarship organization is their ability to negotiate four or five languages. And yet their university instructors think they are stupid.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

I'm not sure what counts as stupid, but I think that I've encountered a number of people who were capable of saying some number of apparently stupid things in a good number of languages. Stupid is what stupid says? A cure for stupidity lies in becoming multilingual?

Be that as it may, and speaking of stupid, not that I want to tip my cards, I thought you were going to post something about charter schools. No?

BTW, I must say that I'm enjoying these daily doses of philosophical stone; it reminds me of my days in the alternative track.

Daniel said...

A similar example: a scene in The Wire when two characters have a complete and complex conversation about a murder scene using only the word "fuck."