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In July 2020 the MIT Technology Review announced the development of a new language generator A.I. called GPT-3 and produced by OpenAI, a research lab founded by Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. Because of its vast neural network, GPT-3 performs much better than its predecessors being able to write short stories, songs, press releases, technical manuals, computer code, but also imitate established writers, and translate to and from a variety of languages. GPT-3 even wrote an informative article about itself that one would not be able to guess it wasn’t written by a human.

Here’s an example of GPT-3 creative writing: “When you can look into the mirror and see a poem looking back at you. When you can hear music in the play of silence. When you can create a writing that leaves people stunned. When you can laugh and weep as you think and breathe and bleed and eat and sleep. When you can dream with the quill in your fingers, then perhaps you will be a poet, a Poet, an Uber Poet.”

GPT-3 is good at synthesizing vast amounts of data and generating text on demand, but is also erroneous at times, and even racist and sexist. Having been trained on a dataset of half a trillion words, GPT-3 is able to identify an array of linguistic patterns but doesn’t understand what the words really mean and also lacks a general sense of purpose and meaning.

Given its versatility but also shortcomings, it remains to be seen how GPT-3 is going to be used by both academia and the business world to develop applications.  

To Trust or Not to Trust

Dr. Curtis Dozier from Vassar College wrote an article in August 2016 titled Hillary Clinton and the Rhetoric of Trust, essentially claiming that, when it comes to establishing trust, we hold women accountable to standards that weren’t designed for them.

I respectfully disagree. Assessing trust is no different for women than it is for men. Credibility has two dimensions, expertise (competence) and trustworthiness. While competence can be easily proven by a track record of achievements, trustworthiness comes down to demonstrating honesty, reliability and fairness.

Dozier, who teaches Classical Rhetoric and Presidential Campaigns, uses Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a framework of analysis to assess political candidates’ use of rhetorical devices founded in Antiquity. Dozier claims that, since during Aristotle’s time women didn’t participate in politics, Aristotle’s views on what makes a good persuader must have been skewed in favor of men. In fact, the persuasion techniques proposed by Aristotle in his Rhetoric (logos / logical argument, ethos / the credibility of the speaker, and pathos / emotional appeals) have been used successfully in all aspects of life ever since, and are not limited to politics.

When it comes to establishing trust, Dozier points out to one constituent of trustworthiness in particular – courage, which in ancient Greece was firmly associated with men (or manliness). The word Aristotle used for courage was andreia which also meant man, a position that, Dozier thought, put women at a disadvantage. The author fails to mention however that female courage wasn’t alien to ancient Greeks, after all they had a Goddess of War, Athena, who was also the Goddess of Wisdom. Granted, that’s mythology, but it does tell us something about the Greek psyche.

When it comes to wisdom, Dozier explains that “Aristotle did not discuss sophia, “wisdom”, in concrete terms, but a fragment of Euripides declares that “a woman-hearted spirit is not a part of a wise (sophos) man” (Erechtheus fr. 53.33 Austin).” Again, the author fails to mention that, after all, in Greek mythology there is a Goddess of Wisdom, Athena.

Dozier also claims that “We expect our politicians to use his [Aristotle] techniques, because that’s what they’ve always done and it’s what we’re used to hearing.” I respectfully disagree: I believe that politicians (and not only) continue to use these persuasion techniques simply because they work.

The article did not go far enough, in my opinion, to analyze the extent to which the speaker’s likeability influences his / her perceived credibility (there is extensive research on this topic). Ordinarily, likeable communicators are perceived as more credible than the unlikeable ones – that is why charisma is so important in politics. There are scales for measuring both the speaker’s credibility and likeability.

For the Love of Language

Wittgenstein Linguistics - CopyAnyone preoccupied with language would find Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations of interest.

In his famous Philosophical Investigations, conducted throughout the 1940s, Wittgenstein explored the concepts of meaning, understanding, proposition, logic, and consciousness, among other things. By analyzing linguistic forms of expression, Wittgenstein set to understand the essence of language, its function, and its structure, and to answer the question “What is language?” Wittgenstein was interested in the logic of language, exactness, regularity and contradictions. Logic presents the order of possibilities, he argued.

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” (p. 47).

“The fundamental fact here is that we lay down rules, a technique for a game, and that then when we follow the rules, things do not turn out as we had assumed. That we are therefore as it were entangled in our own rules. This entanglement in our own rules is what we want to understand” (p. 50).

“Language is a labyrinth of paths,” Wittgenstein argued (p. 82).

“If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also in judgments” (p. 88).

Wittgenstein also theorized that it’s human agreement that decides what is true and what is false in any particular language. He also explored more complicated matters like what happens in translation, and how do words refer to sensations? Is our vocabulary inadequate? He then pondered about the extent to which our sensations are private (p. 89). Later in the book Wittgenstein questioned what emotions are outside language, and what experiencing meaning versus experiencing a mental image is.

About lies, he had this to say: “Lying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other one” (p. 90).

“Is thinking a kind of speaking?” the philosopher asked (p. 107). Is talking to oneself (internal speech) a private language?

“When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought” (p. 107). Wittgenstein argued that “The thoughts are already there and we merely look for their expression” (p. 108). To think and to mean are different, he explained, because meaning is not a mental activity (p. 172). Later in the book he expounded that “The mind seems able to give a word meaning” (p. 184).

Wittgenstein was intrigued by the mental processes involved in linguistic expression, and questioned whether talking without thinking was possible, and if so, what that entailed. “Speech with and without thought is to be compared with the playing of a piece of music with and without thought” (p. 109).

How do individuals communicate their mental images to others, and what methods of representation are available to communicate and exert influence? Wittgenstein was preoccupied with questions like these.

“Grammar tells what kind of object anything is,” he argued (p. 116).

“The purpose of language is to express thoughts,” he added (p. 139). And “Language is an instrument. Its concepts are instruments.” (p. 151)

“Words are also deeds,” (p. 146) and “To have an opinion is a state” (p. 151).

“A proposition, and hence in another sense a thought, can be the ‘expression’ of a belief, hope, expectation, etc. But believing is not thinking,” he clarified (p. 152).

In psychology he thought that “Here explanation of our thinking demands a feeling” (p. 156).

However, “Talking (whether out loud or silently) and thinking are not concepts of the same kind; even though they are in closest connection,” he concluded (p. 217).

Wittgenstein also stressed just how seeing and interpreting are different from one another, and emphasized the importance of context in understanding human experience. “Do I really see something different each time, or do I only interpret what I see in a different way? I am inclined to say the former.” “To interpret is to think, to do something; seeing is a state,” Wittgenstein argued (p. 212).

Excerpts from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations published in translation by Macmillan in 1953 (250 pages).