W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > public-sw-meaning@w3.org > October 2003

Re: [Fwd: consensus and ownership]

From: pat hayes <phayes@ihmc.us>
Date: Thu, 16 Oct 2003 15:44:43 -0500
Message-Id: <p06001f03bbb46ccd044a@[192.168.0.38]>
To: "Thomas B. Passin" <tpassin@comcast.net>
Cc: public-sw-meaning@w3.org

>Graham Klyne wrote:
>>
>>This idea of meaning being based in consensus also appears in the 
>>work by Quine that I mentioned the other week [1].
>>
>>A possible difference in position would be that you talk about the 
>>meaning of a URI, where Quine's analysis suggest that it's not the 
>>individual terms but complete statements that have meaning.  (I 
>>think that's a point that Pat has been trying to press, too.)
>>
>
>I think that individual terms _do_ have meaning for people.

Sure. The issue however is whether they have a (single) meaning in 
themselves.  If they did, then in order to understand language we 
would all need to be able to access that exact single meaning. That 
isn't how words work, however (and yes, I first learned this by 
reading Quine.)  Words convey meaning to us humans, and we all use 
them to convey meanings to others. But this works, often enough and 
well enough to be useful, not because the meanings that the words 
have for speaker, and those that they have for the hearer, are 
*identical*, still less that there is a single unique such meaning; 
but rather because the people involved have enough of an overlap in 
their conceptions that the hearer is able, using the surrounding 
words and the nonlinguistic context of the conversation, to extract 
enough of the speaker's intended meaning for the communicative 
purpose which happens to be relevant at the time.

For our purposes, the key word here is "enough". There is lots of 
evidence that even in the simplest communications there are 
misalignments in meaning between the speaker and hearer concepts, but 
they do not matter. They only become visible, in fact, when people 
try to formalize their meanings with some degree of precision. If we 
insist, in a formal ontology-geekish way, on distinguishing carefully 
between, say, a building from the location of a building from a 
typical member of a set of related buildings, and a social agent from 
a legally incorporated entity from a financial institution, then the 
number of possible meanings of "I am going to the bank"  goes up from 
maybe 2 to something like 20.  But these fine ontological 
distinctions don't matter to the purposes of the communication, and 
so as long as what you have in your mind and what I have in mine 
match well enough for the task in hand (which might be just my 
telling you that I'll be back within the hour) the mismatch is 
harmless. It stops being harmless when the participants (or even one 
of them) is as literal-minded as a likely typical SW agent, 
unfortunately.

Pat Hayes

>  For example, the word "gravity" certainly has meaning for me.  It 
>may well be that my sense of its meaning comes mainly from a large 
>collection of statments that I have heard or uttered in the past - 
>along with personal experience - but nevertheless the term itself 
>carries meaning for me.
>
>Cheers,
>
>Tom P


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Received on Thursday, 16 October 2003 16:43:38 GMT

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