Author Archives: Tianyi Cheng

Beautiful and Sublime

Tianyi Cheng

It is easy for us to treat sculpture as fine art. However, facing a “sculpture” in CAD (Computer-aided design) work, we found it is hard for us to appreciate it as deeply as admire a real sculpture (on site, not through pictures). Hegel gave us a central claim of genuine beauty, which is the freedom and richness of spirit or Idea. He claims that beauty is found only in works of art that are freely created to bring before our minds what it is to be free spirit (Houlgate, 2014). In this sense, if CAD designer and sculpturer use similarly lofty purpose to create their works, they can express similar spirit and arouse our similar emotion. But it seems that things don’t happen like that. In addition, Hegel regards music and poetry as “more perfect art” than sculpture. He views poetry as the “most unrestricted of the arts” (Aesthetics, 2: 626). Because music and poetry, unlike sculpture, are not highly dependent on the materials that they are inscribed on. Hegel thinks they reflect the richer spiritual freedom. Using this logic, CAD work can even be viewed as higher art than sculpture, because they are not restricted on certain screen and can be watched beyond space and time. Digital age makes this claim of aesthetic like a paradox.

A CAD "sculpture"

                     A CAD “sculpture”

A real sculpture

                  A real sculpture

We can’t give a convincing explanation of our aesthetic consciousness with merely focusing on the content that artists want to express. Things similar in form can be distinct in kind. Kant applies “subjective universal” judgments to aesthetic. There are “beautiful” and “sublime”. He judges something as “beautiful” by noticing one’s well-designed form that reflects a purpose. In this sense, if the CAD work and the sculpture look identical and are created with same conceptions, we can say these two works are similarly purposive, in other words, similarly beautiful. But we might still feel that the CAD work lacks something. Kant’s another judgment is “sublime”. In Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant applied the sublime aesthetic to nature. The natural sublime removed the original intent of the author or artist as a factor in judging the “aesthetic power” or value of the object (Kelly, 1998). Kant thinks the sublime aesthetic has an unintended effect on its audiences. I think this concept is similar to L Winner’s “unintentional side-effects” that are carried by medium (Winner, 1997). Also, Kant’s emphasis on the value of natural object is similar to what McLuhan wrote in 1955: “The new media are not bridges between man and nature; they are nature…” (Czitrom, 1985) I think audiences of the CAD work lose the feeling of “sublime” which is carried by certain natural object, or certain media. Neil Postman’s reinterpretation of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is that “embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to value one thing over another.” (Postman, 1993). When we watch sculptures, we not merely consciously interpret them (we act on them). At the same time, the special functionality of the medium (stone, metal, plaster or screen) also take effects (We are acted on by them).

What causes the loss of “sublime”? Both the “metal” and the “screen” need a historical perspective to investigate, which is too complicated to discuss here. It is possible that from the inscription to stone or metal, we get a sense of the history, or some human experiences that thay transformed to “amplify” certain feeling. Georg Simmel believes art creations are not exclusively from artists’ insights. It is, rather, something passive and secondary, and reflects a kind of blend of artistic individuality and a given alien entity (Salem, 2012). He comments that modern art “arouse blasé attitude and superficiality” (Frisby, 1994), not merely because of the content, but more importantly, the new pattern in which they are exhibited and spread. He claims that the way of artistic productions and consumptions make arts more like collective creations rather than unique masterpieces. He also states that in this context, general genres replace the characteristic style of great masters. Indeed, CAD works reflect what Gitelman said: “matters of consensus within a community of like-minded” (Gitelman, 2008). The pre-seted applications in CAD softwares do create what Simmel calls “typical stylization of images”, which he regards as the resource to empty cliches (Frisby, 1994). This “absent presence” influences aesthetics in an significant way.

Works Cited

Aesthetics. Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975)

Chandler, D. (1995). Processes of mediation. Processes of Mediation. Np, nd Web.< http://www. aber. ac. uk/media/Documents/short/process. html.

Czitrom, D. (1985). Media and the American mind from Morse to McLuhan. México.

Frisby, D. (Ed.). (1994). Georg Simmel: critical assessments. Psychology Press.Gitelman, L. (2008). Always already new. Media, history and the data of culture.

Houlgate, Stephen. 2014. “Hegel’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Kelly, Michael (ed). 1998. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Volumes 1 and 4. NY: Oxford University Press. P326

Salem, A. (2012). Simmel on the Autonomy of Social Forms. Sociologija. Mintis ir veiksmas2(31), 1392-3358. P19

Language Game and Artificial Intelligence

Here is the definition of “time” on Wikipedia: “Time is a dimension in which events can be ordered from the past through the present into the future.” This definition is unsatisfying. “Dimension” is so ambiguous that make us associate time with one axis on Cartesian coordinate system (Although time and space are now regarded as interwoven). What’s more, the concepts of “past”, “present” and “future” seem based on the concept of liner mode of time, which creates a circular definition. The official SI definition of the second is: “The second is the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.” However, it still compares the concept of time with another physical object. In addition, every time when we are asked ”what is the time?” We check the clock or cellphone. But they are all analog machines, which assigns numbers and symbols to “time”. All of the aforementioned definitions and activities are highly like metaphors, even though they are used as seriously as physical terms or as common as everyday language. This example indicates that metaphor is primarily conceptual, conventional and part of the ordinary system of thought and language (Geeraerts, Dirven & Taylor, 2006).

The French originated the meter in the 1790s as one/ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole along a meridian through Paris.  It is realistically represented by the distance between two marks on an iron bar kept in Paris.

The French originated the meter in the 1790s as one/ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole along a meridian through Paris. It is realistically represented by the distance between two marks on an iron bar kept in Paris.

        Some scientific definitions are pointed out by Ludwig Wittgenstein to discuss “language games”. The standard meter bar in Paris was the criterion of meter. All other rulers are adjusted by this criterion. But Wittgenstein said there was no analytical way to verify that the standard meter bar itself was one meter long. He asserts that “one meter” is a part of a language game (Gert, 2002). As a language game, it is supposed to have a rule, which is language grammar. Wittgenstein seemly shares Chomsky’s idea that language rules are pre-given, and can only be obtained by the activity of using, not by accepting grammar instruction before learning words. Similarly, the concept of “time” and “meter” are defined by everyday usage. It is not necessary to think about their essence.

Theodore becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system, which promises to be an intuitive entity in its own right, individual to each user. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet "Samantha," a bright, female voice. As her needs and desires grow, in tandem with his own, their friendship deepens into an love for each other.

Theodore becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system, which promises to be an intuitive entity in its own right, individual to each user. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet “Samantha,” a bright, female voice. As her needs and desires grow, in tandem with his own, their friendship deepens into an love for each other. Her-Trailer

        Wittgenstein views rules of language game as the fundamental rules of our social life. He puts language on a primary position that is the core of our form of existence. I don’t think it is by coincidence that “Turing Test” focuses on Intelligence’s ability of using language. Turing proposed top-level verbal behavior, is a sufficient test for the presence of real intelligence (Clark, 2001). I saw the movie her couples of weeks ago, which I believe, reflects some insights similar to both Wittgenstein and Turing’s ideas. Although audiences discuss about whether the Operation System (OS) in this movie can really feel “herself”, “she” by no means can pass “Turing Test” and prove “her” intelligence. And conversation is the main method that “she” shows off “her” intelligence in this movie. What is interesting, I found that the OS’s language development follows what Wittgenstein calls as “language game”. “She” did not obtain too complicated rules of human conversation at the beginning, although she was coded to have potential capacity and great memory. The main character, the user of this OS, taught her by simply talking with “her”, rather than teaching “her” grammar or rules of usage. Certain computers and robots that can learn from users and self-evolve have been created. Maybe in not distant future, we can really start playing language games with our computers. But Turing didn’t tell us how deep the conversation is enough to label a machine has intelligence? As human being’s capacity of language is pre-given, does this mean AI cannot evolve faster than us in language although they have much better thought process? Last but not least, as Wittgenstein says, “Speaking of language is part of a form of life”(Wittgenstein, 1958), can a machine really learn language without understanding our emotion and morality?

Works Cited

Clark, A. (2001). Mindware: An introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science (pp. 7-19). New York: Oxford University Press. P21

Geeraerts, D., Dirven, R & Taylor, R, J. (2006). Cognitive linguistics Research. Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. P186

Gert, Heather J. “The Standard Meter by Any Name is Still a Meter Long,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. LXV, no. 1, July, 2002, pp. 50-68.

Wittgenstein, L., & Cumming, M. (1958). Philosophical investigations (Vol. 255). Oxford: Blackwell.

Why can we call Readymades “Art”?

If I mentioned the word “art” to a person who lived two hundreds years ago, it was likely for her to imagine some creative images or objects. Although the word “art” has a diverse range of meanings, it was almost impossible for her to picture a urinal in her mind. However, Duchamp taught us that the word “art” can be referred to urinal. The lesson he gave us has significant difference from what other artists gave us. Most artists expanded the meaning of arts by creating new visions or sounds that have not existed before. But Duchamp made no such arduous efforts. He just brought us some readymades. For me, he made no new things, even no new concepts. What he did was pointing out that how far the word “art” can lead us to. People agreed with the idea that urinal can be art because they had already shared the similar concepts. It seems that we have some socially priori concept of art. Duchamp just pointed out this concept as a teacher use stones to teach students count number. One support for this argument can be the fact that there must be many artists who signed on ordinary things before, but none of those things were taken seriously as art. One reason might be at old times, our language was not so inclusive with such “high concept”.  Duchamp made us aware of the new meanings that we have already added to the word “art”– Art can be defined by a collective sense that it belongs to a word we have come to know as “art”.

Fountain was selected in 2004 as "the most influential artwork of the 20th century" by 500 renowned artists and historians.

Fountain was selected in 2004 as “the most influential artwork of the 20th century” by 500 renowned artists and historians.

Why a person with knowledge of modern art can “understand” Duchamp’s fountain, and audiences without same cultivation feel shocked, giving the same vision of an ordinary urinal? It seems like that modern society equip us with some “underlying knowledge” of the word “art”. Further, why some audiences can accept Duchamp’s fountain when they saw it at the first time, even though they didn’t see similar artwork before. Did Duchamp indicate a “general grammar” in the art circle, which have existed for a while but was implicit before? I think Duchamp also showed one principle of language that it is “the arbitrariness” of the signs. He paired what he ran into with the meaning of the word “art” (Pinker 83). Duchamp was like a critic of modern language and made a special notation to the word “art” in modern context. Some layers of different syntactical structure lie behind the phrase “Duchamp’s urinal”. Many other phrases have ambiguous meanings and the meanings change with time dramatically. Similar complicated phenomenon might exist with the words ”Rock”, “Technology” and “language” itself. How did human add new meaning to these words? Do they follow certain rules? If we can find grammatical rules that generate infinite set of sentences (Searle 3), will the grammatical rules catch up with the change of language? I believe the question can be related to one basic question of language: how do we acquire the system? (Radford 1) This question maybe can go further beyond the scale of psycholinguistic. The study of cognitive development of human maybe can have sociolinguistics approach.

According to Andrew Radford, sociolinguistics is the study of the relationship between language use and the structure of society. (Radford 14) Can we also view the relationship from another side? How about considering the structure of language and the society? Maybe we can not only take into account such factors as the social backgrounds of both the speaker and the addresses, but the ‘’language background’’ and the society. When I was an exchange student in Korea, my professor mentioned why Koreans and Japanese frequently nod their heads when listerning to others while Chinese don’t nod heads often. She said it might be accounted for the order of sentence pattern. Japanese and Korean language share almost same grammars. To get Japanese, the bit of information would say the order is “head-last” (Pinker 111). But Chinese is similar to English, a “head-first” language.  She thought that Japanese and Koreans need to nod head to tell speaker that they are following and waiting for the “head” (I failed to find highly related literate). If this idea makes sense, can we say that syntactical structure even have an impact on social phenomenon and culture. Similar idea is held by William C. Hannas, a linguist who speaks 12 languages and works as a senior officer at the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a federal agency in Washington. In a polemical new book, ”The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity” (University of Pennsylvania Press), Mr. Hannas blames the writing systems of China, Japan and Korea for what he says is East Asia’s failure to make significant scientific and technological breakthroughs compared to Western nations (Eakin).

I don’t know whether these ideas are plausible or not. But considering the legal system and many other social mechanisms, which are set up with language. We cannot say syntactical structure have no impact in broader scale. Maybe it is even a mistake to view society as the background of language, especially considering human’s natural capacity of language.


Eakin, Emily. “Writing As a Block For Asians”. The New York Times. Web.29 January 29, 2014.

Pinker, Steven. “How Language Works.” Excerpt from: Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company, 1994: 83-123.

Radford, Atkinson, Britain, Clahsen and Spencer. Linguistics: an introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Searle, John. “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.

McClave, Evelyn Z. “Linguistic functions of head movements in the context of speech.” Journal of Pragmatics 32.7 (2000): 855-878.

Language Movement, A “Controlled” Adoption of Discourse

The process of adoption of discourse is usually not conspicuous, but language movement can be an exception. The writing style of Chinese we are using today differs completely with what people wrote one hundred years ago. What caused the difference is the Vernacular Language Movement, which was launched during 1910’s. Many writers, poets, scholars and other cultural elite set up a radical change in the writing style of Chinese composition, which quickly won nation-wide acceptance in the 1920’s and created a lasting influence until today. Those people who leaded the movement made efforts to replace classical Chinese (wenyan) with spoken language (baihua)in all written works (Lu 2397). (Of course, humans just played as some of the multiple actors in the whole story. There are also many non-human actors that worked in certain milieu and leaded to the result.) The movement leaders were worried about the national crisis in the late 19th century and thought there were so many dross contained in traditional Chinese thought. Through the radical change of writing style, they wanted to get rid of the shackles of some old traditions. Especially, they regarded the classical Chinese as a symbol and tool of feudal hierarchy and morality. In this example, the extraneous “noise” mixed into the process of communication even becomes the central issue in the eyes of those movement leaders.

Similar intellectual protest happened in many countries. Japan, Korea and Vietnam, they all once widely utilized Chinese characters in writing system and abolished it in different periods, by different accounts, but with similar effect of weakening the influence of China.

Hunminjeongeum (1)
The picture is the imperial edict of revolution of Korean language, which was written in both Chinese and Korean. Not long after, Chinese characters disappeared in Korean written works. 

I didn’t think too much when I read these stories in my history textbook. But now I realized that these examples helped me understand the meaning of “information”, “the medium is the message.” and “mediation”. I think language is a medium in this context. (Can language be both medium and message?) People usually think they can express the same meanings through different language, as language mirrors the “reality”. However, adopting a new language is choosing a new system that implicates more. Different medium means different ways of decoding and encoding information. The message each sentence carries became slightly different, and altogether, they created new lens through which people observed the world.In Japan, Korea and Vietnam, governments themselves carried out the revolutions. And they successfully changed people’s opinions. They began to identity their own countries as totally independent nations. These notions then have other far-reaching impact. New language was spread on different physical materials. The historical and social condition gives their texts not just technical authority, but more importantly, cultural and social authority (Day 807). I don’t know whether similar radical changes have happened in western history. But at least it happened in some western writers’ imagination. Both Vaclav Havel and George Orwell emphasized how new language and symbolic system can be controlled by totalitarian and in turn serves totalitarian, in their political sarcastic novel The Memorandum and 1984. 

All above are extreme examples that showed how medium could be institutionalized. In our everyday life, the complicated process of mediation is not that clear. Even though no certain person are intentionally forcing us to believe something as Plato wants to create a just city by introducing a system of mystery, our cognitive structure is still deeply related to the medium we are posited in and not necessary to be neutral. A socially-encoded media value hierarchy always exist before any “content” is produced (Irvine 5). Language and many other media work like blood capillary which connect us together in a milieu. I think the wrong interpretation of world might trap us in prejudice and lead us to a wrong region which similar to the depiction in those sarcastic novels. How to find a “scientific” discourse? How can I know what prejudice the Spoken Chinese (Baihua) brought to me? As Floridi mentioned in Information, a good way to uncover the most fundamental nature of data is by trying to understand what it means to erase, damage, or lose them (Floridi 22). In the thought experiment of erasing spoken language (baihua) in my mind, I found it is an impossible task. I have to find some language to replace abstract concepts of “culture” or “politics”. I can’t even imagine a “white paper” as the book information pictures. I think it also indicates that we cannot create a brand new discourse of “reality” as building a castle in the air. Approaches of transmission of our epistemology have to base on current information system and should be carefully developed.

 Works Cited

Day, Ronald E. “The ‘Conduit Metaphor’ and The Nature and Politics of Information Studies.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 51.9 (2000): 805-811

Floridi, Luciano. Information. New York: Oxford UP, 2010.

Lu, Yan. “Vernacular Language Movement.” Berkshire Encyclopedia of China 5 (2009): 2397-2389

Irvine, Martin. “Media Theory and Technologies of Mediation: An Introduction.” Communication, Culture, and Technology Program, Georgetown University, Web. 14 January 2014.