The New Ghosts in the Machine: 'Pragmatist' AI and the Conceptual Perils of Anthropomorphic Description


  • Phillip Brooker University of Liverpool
  • William Dutton University of Liverpool
  • Michael Mair University of Liverpool



Algorithms are becoming interwoven with increasingly many aspects of our affairs. That process of interweaving has brought with it a language laden with anthropomorphic descriptions of the technologies involved, which variously hint at "humanesque" or "conscious-like" activity occurring within or behind their operations. Indeed, the term "Artificial Intelligence" (AI) seems to refer to a quality that is thought to be largely human; namely, intelligence. However, while anthropomorphic descriptions may be useful or harmless, when taken at face value they generate a false picture of algorithms as well as of our own thinking and reasoning practices by treating them as analogues of one another rather than as distinct. Focusing on the algorithm, and what it is misleadingly said to be and to be like, in this article we outline three "perspicuous representations" (Wittgenstein 1953: §122) of AI in specific contexts. Drawing on Wes Sharrock's ethnomethodological and Wittgensteinian work, our aim is to demonstrate that by attending to the particular, occasioned and locally accountable, not to say highly specified, usages of language that accompany the "New AI" in particular, we can avoid being haunted by the new task performing ghosts currently being discursively conjured up in our algorithmic machines.