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live meaning and dead languages

From: Jeremy Carroll <jeremy@topquadrant.com>
Date: Thu, 5 Feb 2009 22:34:16 -0800
To: <semantic-web@w3.org>
Message-ID: <001901c98824$ef23a2a0$cd6ae7e0$@com>

One of the occasional defects of people in SW is a tendency to arm chair philosophizing.

I will indulge.

A book I've been reading this week, had the following, rather over-egged, paragraph:

"By language, I mean the dance of signs, the continuous process of symbolic exchange between people, the humming communication network of which the human life world consists. I mean also to invoke the vast strange and multi-dimensional world of linguistic mean-ing -- and I am hyphenating mean-ing, like be-ing, because <em>mean-ing is a process too</em>. We need to make this point because for so long European intellectuals studied only dead languages -- Latin, Greek and Hebrew -- and failed to grasp the way the transactions of life are carried out and the life world is produced and formed by the <em>motion</em> of living language." [1]

In terms of meaning on the web, I see that the web as a place where the life world is produced, by active extensions of our linguistic apparatus. I hence have an aversion to techniques and technologies that somehow pretend that meaning on the web, and in particular the semantic web, should or could be made static and somehow lifeless. So, I have difficulty seeing the meaning of any URI as univocal or fixed or even particularly well-defined. This leads to some hesitation concerning systems of definitions and axioms built on top of such univocity.

I think this worry becomes more so as axioms and systems of axioms become more complicated. (I just about see similarities between OWL2 and the Shorter Latin Primer I had at high school).

A term which is too tightly nailed down in its relationship to other terms has been dug into an early grave. Having fixed its meaning, as our world moves on, the term will become useless.

The trick, in natural language, is that the meaning of terms is somewhat loose, and moves with the times, while still having some limits.
This looseness of definition gives rise to some misunderstandings (aka interoperability failures), but not too many, we hope.

So I wonder, as some people try to describe some part of their world with great precision, using the latest and greatest formal techniques, just how long that way of describing the world will last. Maybe there is a role in such precision in allowing us to be clear about differences of opinion --- but it doesn't seem to me to be a good foundation for building knowledge.

Perhaps fortunately, I am an engineer not a philosopher!


[1] Don Cupitt, 2001, Emptiness and Brightness,  p95
Received on Friday, 6 February 2009 06:35:00 UTC

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