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Computational Linguistics and the Humanist

Computational Linguistics and the Humanist

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Published by Bill Benzon
I co-authored this piece with David Hays. It was published in 1976 in what was then Computers and the Humanities and is a review of the computational linguistics literature. At the end we imagined Project Prospero, a computer simulation of the human mind with which we could simulate reading a literary text. It wasn't possible to do such a thing then, and it still isn't, but as a way of thinking about literature it's a thought-experiment worth resurrecting.
I co-authored this piece with David Hays. It was published in 1976 in what was then Computers and the Humanities and is a review of the computational linguistics literature. At the end we imagined Project Prospero, a computer simulation of the human mind with which we could simulate reading a literary text. It wasn't possible to do such a thing then, and it still isn't, but as a way of thinking about literature it's a thought-experiment worth resurrecting.

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Published by: Bill Benzon on Feb 03, 2012
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Co~pu'ter~
""d
the
Human.itie~,
Vol..10,l'P.265-274.,PERG,AMONPRESS,1.976.
Pdnted.
in
the
U.S.A.
ComputationalLinguisticsandtheHumanist
.!
t
WILLIAM.BENZONAND
DAVID
G.HAYS
WHENLINGUISTSexaminethelanguage-processing'activitiesofscholarswhopreferto
call
themselves"humanists,"thechiefproducttheyfindisalmostineVitablyaconcordance,thatis,analphabetizedlistofcharacterstrings,me-relytheoutsideoflanguage.Fromthelinguists'pomtofview,theinteriorisseparatedfromthosecharacterstringsbywhattheycalldualityofpatterning.But
it
is
in
theinteriorthatthetheoreticallyrichandintellectuallysatisfyingproblems,forbothhuman-istsandlinguists,aretobefound
e,
Computationallinguisticshasplungedintotheinterior.Syntaxliesthere,andhasbeenexploredratherthoroughly.The
key
tothenextdooris
semantics,
butifthatkeyisto'workwemustknow
in
advancesomethingofthetreasure-somefundamentaltheoreticalproblems,
in
lessciencesdel'homme-
thatliesbehindthedoor.Westart
with.
aconsiderationofthenature
of
computationalIfnguisticsfollowed
by
aconsidera-tionofhowtoformulateproblems
in
theanalysisofliterarytextssothatthetechniquescanbefruitfullyemployed.Afterthatcancomeareviewof'currentwork
in
semanticsanddiscourseanalysisandinspeechunderstanding,Inconclusionabriefsketchcanshowhowthatworkmightbeused
in
startingaIong-termShakespeareproject..
What
isComputationalLinguistics?Chomskyearnedeverlastingcreditbybringingthestudy
of
naturallanguageintoconjunctionwiththestudyofmathematics(abstractalgebra,recursivefunctiontheory),aconjunction
that
hasmadepos-siblepowerfulmodelsofnaturallanguage,withoutwhichcomputatlonallinguisticswouldhavenoguidanceinconstructingalgorithms..Algorithms-feasibleprescriptionsforsolvingproblems-arethesubstanceofcomputation.Chomskyhasalsog~venusthedistinctionbetweencompetenceandperformance..Howeverobscuretheexpositionofthatdistinctionmaybe(seeHockett1968.;73-79),
thereis
deepsigaifl-canoein
it.
Todescribe
all
assembledbicycleisonething;todescribetheassemblyofbicyclesisanother.Theassemblermustknowwhatis
in
theblueprint(competence),butfurtherneedstheskill
to
takethepartsinorder,place
them
deftly,fastenthemneatly(performance)..Inactuality,ofcourse,
the
assembler"may
never
have
seen
theblueprint,nor
need
theperformanceofaspeaker
or
hearer'includeinanyphysicalsensethegrammarthatthelinguistoffersastheblueprintofalanguage.Thelinguistwhocharacterizescompetenceandthe
psycholinguist
whocharacterizesperformancemayhavealmostunrelatedthings
to
sayaboutthesame-language.Thecomputationallinguist.andthepsyche-linguistarebothspecialistsinIanguage
process.
RecognizingthisSimilarity,GeorgeMiIlerhasurged
thatpsychollngulstics
shouldadoptcomputationasitsleadingtheoretical'metaphor(1974).Computa-tionallinguisticswouldreadilyacceptthehonor,butitcannotyetentirelyeliminatethehabitofmodelingperformancebywritinganalgorithm
(say,
aparser;seeGrishman1976)that
makes
useofacompetencegrammar.Thishabithasreachedtheleveloftransformationalgrammar(seeFriedmanI97!).
It
isnot,however,theonlymethodknown.ThealgorithmandthegrammararewoventogetherdifferentlyinaseriesofstudiesinitiatedbyWilliam
A,
Woods,Jr..(foragoodstatement,seeKaplan1973).'Ofcourse,tryingtofigureouthowthebrain
WUltamBenzon.isa
Ph.D.
candidateinEnglishliteratureandDavidG.
Ha.ys
i~
aprofessoroftinguistics,botnatthe
Stare
Unfll~1"8jty_
t)t
NewYilrk,
B:Uffalo.·
26S
 
266
BENZONAND
HAYS
processeslanguageisquitedifferentfromprogram-mingdigitalcomputerstoprocesslanguage.
All
theneurologicalandpsychologicalevidenceindicatesthatthebrain
is
quiteadifferentcomputingmachinefromthedigitalcomputer.Butthelinkbetweencomputationallinguisticsandthegeneral.purposeelectronicdigitalcomputeris,
in
the
language
ofphilosophy,
a
matterofchanceorcontingency,notofnecessity.Wewritealgorithmsforthatkindofcomputerbecausethat
is
thekindwehaveto
work
with.Nothingforbidsustodevisealgorithmsforadifferentkindofcomputer,suchasthehumanbrain,andeventogobeyondthattothesimulationofthatdifferentkindofcomputeronadigitalcomputer.Ifcomputationalpsycholinguisticsemerges
asa
subspecialty,the
psycholinguist
willberesponsibleforperformingtheexperimentsfromwhichamodelofhumanspeechprocessingcanbederived,andthecomputationallinguistwillberesponsibleforprovidingthecomputational
proce-
dures
to
beused
:in
simula
ring
tha
t
model.Grammar
has
beenmuchstudied
oflate,
butfor
all
itspopularity,11remainsaratherdrysubject.Thewordsofatextarelinkedtogetherbyafewverywidelyuseddevices:wordorder,affixes,func-tionwordssuchasprepositionsandconjunctions,andcontoursofstressandpitch.(Inwritingpunc-tuationpartiallysuppliesthemissingcontours.)Furtherdevicesofamorecomplexkind,calledtransformations,matchdifferentgrammaticalpat-ternssothatthecontentofawholesentence,forexampleasarelativeclause,canbewoventightlyintoanothersentence.Tolearnhowmodernlinguisticsorganizesthesematerialsintoelaboratetheories,thescholarneedonlyturntooneofthemanyrecenttextbooks:to
Iearn
howcomputationallinguisticsmakesprocessesTuningrammaticalways,hecanconsulttheworkscitedabove.Computationallinguistshaverathercompletelyexploitedtheleadsdiscoveredaboutfifteenyearsago·Sheil(1976)showsthatwithinabroadbasicclassofgrammaticalprocessorsanychoicemustbemadeonextrinsicgrounds,sinceintrinsicallytheyaremuchofamuehness,Butitisthehopeforprogress
in
semanticsthatlinguistsarepresentlymoreexcitedabout.Humanisticscholarship,whichhaspaidlittleattentiontotheferment
in
grammar,maynowdrawclosertocomputationallinguistics,fortherealbusinessofthescholarisfardeeperintolanguageandthoughtthancanbereachedwithanalysesofwordorderandprepositions.
By
readingandbyborrowingfromIinguistcolleagues,thescholarcanobtainnowwhatheneedsinthewayof.grarnmaticaltools;
if
tiletoolsarenotquitegoodenough,hecancollaboratewithacomputationallinguistwhoknowsthetechnologyandrefinethetools
a
bit.
Having
grammaticaltools.tilescholarcanlooksomewhatfurthertoseehisownworklaidout.Computing
IesSciencesde"Homme:
LiteraryTextsLiterarytheoryandpracticalcriticismoccurinauniverseofdiscoursewhichisquitedifferentfromthatofcomputationallinguistics.So,forthatmatter,dobiologicaltheoryandpracticalmedicine;thebiologistandphysicianusetexts,buttheywouldnotsaythattheyarestudentsoflanguage.Althoughliteratureconsists
of
text,theoryandcriticisminliteraryscholarshiparegenerallynotaboutlanguage.Literarycriticsareinterestedinthegeneraltheoryofliterarymeaningand
in
themeaningoftexts,buttheirnotionofmeaninghaslittleincommon
with
whatlinguisticsemanticistshavetakentostudying.Tosaywhatcriticismisaboutis
all
tooeasy:
It
isaboutideas.Theproblemistoconnectupwhatcriticismstudieswithwhatsemanticistsanalyze.Theproblemisnottobetakenlightly.Thoughliterarytheoreticiansandcriticsarequiteexperi-encedinthinkingaboutmeaning,thatthinking
is.
quitedifferent
in
texturefromthemodelsofmean-ingcurrentlyimplementedoncomputers.Itisunlikelythattheliterarycriticwouldeven-recognizecognitivenetworktheory(themostwidelyimple-mentedcomputationalsemanticsdiscussedbelow)asatheoryofmeaning.Nor,forthatmatter,wouldthecomputationallinguistknowwhattodowith,forexample,E.D.Hirsch's
ValidityinInterpretation
Or
OctaviaPaz'sverydifferent
TheBowandtheLyre.
ThemethodsofscientificinquiryandhumanisticInquiryarequitedifferent,bothinpurposeandintechnique,Totalkofsimulatingaformalmodelofliteraryperformanceisto
talk
ofarapprochementbetweentheTwoCultures,scienceandhumanism.Thethemeisaworthy
ODe,
andtheproblemisdeep.Itisnotamatterofsolvingtheproblembeforegoingon.Rather
it
isamatterofbeingawareofwhatisbeingattemptedandhavingaplaceinone'smindforconsiderationofsuchfundamentalquestions,even
if
thatplaceseemstobequiteadistancefromdevelopingthetheory,creatingthealgorithms,andwritingtheprograms.Humanistsrarelydiscuss
in
anexplicit
f0Im
such
 
COMPUTATIONALLINGUISTICSANDTHEHUMANIST
questionsas"Whatisman'splaceintheschemeofthings?"or"Whatisthemeaningoflife?",issueswhichimplicitlyanimate
all
humanisticinquiry.And,although
they
arenotquestionsofthesortwhichscienceisequippedtoanswer,thereis,.nevertheless,acloselyrelatedquestionwhichmyscientifictheoryofmanwillhavetodeal
with
jf
it
istobeausefultheory:"What
is
thenatureofthehumannervoussystemthat
it
cansupportself-awareness?"Sciencecannotreasonablybeexpectedto(attemptto)expound
the
meaningoflife,butitcanbeexpectedto(attemptto)explain
how
individualsofthespecies
homosapienssapiens
cometoposesuchquestionsandarepronetosuicide
in
theabsenceofasatisfactoryanswer.Suchconsiderationsareanecessarypartofanyattempttocreateatheoryofliteraturewhichissuitableforprogramming,andwhichisatthesametimepowerfulenoughtoyieldcompellingresults.
Man
isself-aware.Traditionalliterarytopics,suchasirony,thelyric
'I'
intersubjectivity,themasksorfacesproblem
in
dramatictheory,allentaildiscus-sionsofself-awareness.Atleastonecriticalschoolhasmadeself-awarenessoneofthecentralpointsofdebate,
onlythey
talkabout
it
undertheguiseof'deconstructingthesubject'(MackseyandDonato1970).Consequently,itseemslikelythatanyattempttodevelopacomputablemodelofliterarytexts
will
havetoinclude
.3
simulationof
self-
awareness
if
it
aspirestodeepresults.
In
fact,onecanreasonablyarguethatasemantictheorywhichcannotprovideamodelofself-awarenesscannotdealadequately,
in
anytypeofdiscourse,literaryornonliterary,
with
first-andsecond-personpronouns,whichdesignatethespeakerandaddresseeoftheutterance.Theideaofacomputersimulationofself-consciousnessismind-boggling,buttheredoesnotseemtobeanywayout
of
it
(exceptperhapsbynotingthedifferencebetween_asimulationanda
good
simulation).YorickWllksrecentlydefendedaconceptofmachineprivacyanalogoustotheprivacyofhumanmindsandarguesfrom
it
toamind-bodydistinctionforcomputers(1975b).WeneitheracceptnorrejectWilks'sargument,buthedidmakeit.
it
isworththinkingabout,andattemptsatliterarycomputingmustconsidersuchproblems.Atleastonemodelofself-awarenesshasbeenmade
in
aformwhich,byusingtechniquesdescribedbelow,couldbesimulatedonacomputer.Benzon(1976)givesapartialanalysisofShake-speare'ssonnet"Th'ExpenceofSpirit"whichhingesonanaccountofself-awareness.Hearguesthatpart
l67
oftheoperatingequipmentoftheadulthumannervoussystemisarepresentationincorticaltissueoftransactionsbetweencorticalandsubcorticalstructures,and
of
transactionsbetweenasemanticandasyntacticsystem,bothofwhichareLocatedinthecortex.
He
suggestsamechanismforhandlingpersonalpronounsand,indeed.makesthismecha-nismprimary;bymeansof
it
theself-representationisbootstrappedintothesystem.
While
theadequacyof
Benzon's
proposals
isan
openquestion-yethoweverwrongitbe
in
detailoreven
in
principle,
it
isclear.Clarityhelps
PLO-
grammers,andisgoodfor
talk,
too.
It
is,perhaps,theultimatereasonforbringingthecomputerintothehumanitiesat
alI.
Thecomputer,however,doesnotbringclarity;
it
onlybegsforit.Obfuscationbycomputerispos-sible,butoffensive.Toavoid
it,
manydistinctionsmusthemadesharp.Thecreativenovelistorpoetconcoctsaworldofhisown;
if
wecanunderstandhim,wecanperceivehisanswertothequestion,"Whatisman'splaceintheschemeofthings?'Languageisagoodwayoftransmittingconcoctedworldsfromonemindtoanother,forclosereadinganddelicateinterpretationarenecessarytotheachievernentofaccurateperception,andgoodinterpreterscandisagree.Butthecomputermodelatbestasimulationofthenovelistorpoetascreator,dealswiththeconcoctedworldatoneremove,a.sacontentofthoughtorcommunication.Herearetwouniversesofdiscourse,oneembeddedwithintheother;amodeloftheoutsideuniversedoesnotdeterminetheoperationoftheinternaluniverse.Benson'sanalysisof"Th'ExpeneeofSpirit,"concernedwiththesemanticstructureofthepoem,isnot
an.
interpretationofthatpoeminanyrecognizablesense.Theanalysisattemptstoexplainhowthepoemworksinthemind;
it
isnotanattempttotranslatethesignificanceofthepoemintoexpositoryprose.This
is
nottosaythatcomputersimulationcouldnotbeused
in
investigatingtheinterpretationofliterarytexts.
It
canbesoused.Butthemethodwouldhavetobeindirect.Toinvestigatepsychoanalyticinterpretationsrequiresprogrammingasimulationofapsycho-analytictheoryonacomputerandhavingthatsimulationoperateonaliterarytext.Similarinvesti-gationsarepossibleforaphenomenologicalinterpre-tivestrategy(suchasthatofGeorgesPoulet),oraMarxiststrategy.a
N6W
Criticalstrategy,aneo-structuraliststrategy,etc.Thevarioussimulationscouldevenargue
with
oneanotheronthemeritsof

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