Foreseeing Problems with Engineering Optimized Academic Languages

I want to share some thoughts I recently had about the possibility of literally engineering languages optimized for academic research, and what consequences we might expect to follow from implementing the use of such languages as academically standard. The thought came to me in an example packaged with the intellectual accouterments of my own area of expertise (or at least area of academic focus), the philosophy of time, but the point generalizes (I think). Philosophy of time, perhaps especially as it exists within the Anglo-American or ‘Analytic’ tradition, requires key distinctions like the distinction between ‘time’ and ‘tense’ in order to get off the ground. Not all natural languages have developed in a way that allows one to make this distinction, however, and as a consequence some languages turn out to be more optimal for the study of such niche philosophical areas than others. Recently William Lane Craig pointed out[1] that French, for example, allows no room for the distinction between time and tense, since both ‘time’ and ‘tense’ are represented by one single word in French: ‘temps.’ He recalls that a French Graduate student in philosophy struggled to communicate his ideas to his academic peers:

“As a French speaker, he found it next to impossible to communicate to his colleagues his interest in tensed versus tenseless theories of time. Since in French the word for time and the word for tense is the same, namely, temps, he found himself quite a loss to how to communicate something like tenseless time. People didn’t even know what he was talking about!”[2]

This is (presumably) precisely why philosophy of time has been so stagnant in the French-speaking academic world.

As I was reflecting on this it occurred to me that some language might be maximally optimal for the study of philosophy in general, or for epistemology, or metaphysics. This will not sound unfamiliar to those who are well read in the continental tradition of philosophy (think of Heidegger and Hegel and their ilk who treat the German language itself as indispensable not just for their own philosophies, but for the world’s most pristine philosophy). However, what I have in mind is more radical than this. Given that some natural languages are better suited to certain intellectual pursuits, it seems entirely plausible (theoretically) that we could optimize a language for a discipline. I mean that we would literally engineer a language, from the ground up, to be optimized for a species of academic/intellectual pursuit. Presuming indefinitely many more advances to come in the worlds of cognitive science and linguistics I can see no reason why this suggestion is infeasible in principle (in fact, we need only presume a few more leaps and bounds forward in these areas, so we could even dispense with the ‘indefinitely many more advances to come’ optimism). Imagine having an artificial language which we specially constructed to be optimized for the study of philosophy, or for the study of psychology, or chemistry, or even linguistics itself. What would the academic world look like if we were to do this? If people in these fields all used a highly specialized language (not just technical vocabulary) then how good would it be for academia in general? Would there be such a thing as a maximally optimized language for a discipline (is there a ceiling to how optimized these languages might be, or would some disciplines have ceilings while others did not – and presuming that at least a few had ‘ceilings,’ would some be lower than others, and could we infer anything interesting from that)? Interesting questions.

I can, it is true, imagine such a project being an academic boon in certain respects, but I can just easily (perhaps more easily) imagine it being academically detrimental in other respects. For instance, if somebody who studies chemistry is (potentially) a brilliant chemist, but is no good at all with linguistics, wouldn’t they be disadvantaged if it became academically necessary for them to learn a new language to study in their chosen field? How many gifted prodigies would we disadvantage compared to the polymaths we would be advantaging? Moreover, we already have a problem with academic overspecialization and intellectual insulation; academics aren’t always good at keeping up with what is going on around them in other fields (political science, physics, social science, philosophy, musicology etc.), and it seems as though encouraging academics to speak in literally idiosyncratic languages optimized for, but peculiar to, their own fields, would only exacerbate this problem.

I can imagine specially engineered academic languages causing even deeper academic divisions. Imagine, for instance, that a political science student writes a thesis on how the specialized language of biology – say – were subliminally charged with a left/right-wing political ideology, or imagine that a gender-studies major writes a thesis on how the specialized language of physics is inherently and structurally sexist.[3] Such criticisms, which would be sure to come, would create not academic rapprochement but alienation and perhaps, in the worst case, even antagonism. In the end it isn’t clear to me just how helpful developing and implementing such specialized artificial languages would really be, and I suspect (for many of the reasons I’ve alluded to) that the payoff wouldn’t be worth the cost.

[1] William Lane Craig, “The Passage of Time,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-passage-of-time

[2] William Lane Craig, “The Passage of Time,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-passage-of-time

[3] For fun, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mg0CZZUFyeo

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