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Ludwig Wittgenstein

When an Artificial Intelligence study claims to study “curiosity” as a mental process, it’s pretty safe to assume that the team behind said study is not looking to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations for inspiration.

That’s because identifying “curiosity” with a “mental process” (perhaps replicable in silicon) is the kind of superstitious thinking from which LW hopes to set us free.

In the bad old days, our story goes, people believed words were mostly like pointers, which derived their meanings from the actual objects to which they pointed.

“Horse” points to some animal, maybe not close by. Of course we would need more context to pinpoint any specific horse.

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horsing around

In the same way that “horse” points to a horse, so must “curiosity” point to some internal mental process, of which we imagine becoming subjectively aware through introspection. And maybe someday, goes the thinking, we’ll objectively observe that very mental process on a brain scan of some kind — once the science gets better.

Richard Rorty tended to identify freedom from the “words as pointers” picture as one of the hallmarks of pragmatism. Pragmatists have let go of any such “correspondence theory” of meaning.

When I say “that crow is curious about what’s in my garage gutter” I’m not extrapolating from my own experience of observing “curiosity” as a mental process, to some dubious claim about the mental state of the crow. I’m telling a story about a crow, pecking away at the detritus in my gutter, hoping for edibles. Again, “hoping” refers to no brain chemistry inside the crow.

One reason Philosophical Investigations is written aphoristically, as an overlapping series of “snapshots” or “sketches,” is its author is attempting to induce “aspect shifts” or new ways of looking, over and above presenting any new knowledge or narrative.

Gestalt switches play a role in the game of “meaning” in that we may need to see in specific ways to really understand how the game is played.

“Now I can go on!” (in the sense of continue playing) is the kind of exclamation one makes because of a sudden illumination.

Wittgenstein was suggesting we would be able to follow his example, by carrying out these investigations on our own (into the concept of “race” for example), once we were free of certain deeply entrenched biases about how language must relate to the world.

The “meaning is use” dictum, so often distilled from The Investigations, as a kind of maxim or mantra, is too often uttered at the expense of this other aspect of meaning. The Tractatus reminds us: the world is all together different depending on the point of view.

The superstitions Wittgenstein fights may fall away in an instant, should we but catch a glimpse of the same terrain, but from another angle.

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