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Re: Some TAG review of "Cool URIs for the Semantic Web"

From: Pat Hayes <phayes@ihmc.us>
Date: Mon, 24 Sep 2007 15:48:19 -0500
Message-Id: <p0623090ec31dced91cb8@[]>
To: John Cowan <cowan@ccil.org>
Cc: Technical Architecture Group WG <www-tag@w3.org>

>Pat Hayes scripsit:

>  > Then let us be honest about this. When I am thinking of unicorns,
>>  there is in fact nothing I am thinking *about*.
>That is exactly right.  There is no *thing* you are thinking about.
>>  There are concepts of unicorns, thoughts of unicorns, and so on; and
>>  even (if one is willing to stretch ones ontology this far, which in
>>  fact I am, though many are not) *possible* unicorns; but there are
>>  no unicorns.
>So far so good, although I think you can make a case that there are
>no possible unicorns: that at most, it is possible that there might
>exist something we'd call a unicorn, but unicorns-as-we-know-them can't
>possibly exist.  But that is neither there nor here.
>>  It is impossible to talk *about* unicorns. The use of unicorn-talk
>>  (as Quine might have put it) is either non-referential, or must be
>>  understood as referring to something else.
>Now I think this inference is entirely unwarranted.  You can't *point* to
>unicorns, either physically or verbally, so there are no *references* to
>unicorns.  But unicorns are a perfectly legitimate subject matter; I could
>discourse about them for quite a while.

Perhaps we are talking past each other. As I understand what it means 
to "talk about" something, you just contradicted yourself. To talk 
*about* something involves referring to it, at least. (It may involve 
a lot more.) So if your talk does not refer, it cannot be about 

Perhaps, as you say, this is a bad pun on "about". But my original 
point was being made in response to a referential usage. The TAG want 
us to distinguish URIs on the basis of what it is that they refer to: 
they want to analyze a matter of URI usage by appealing to 
ontological differences between the kinds of thing they 'identify' 
(which TimBL and Dan Connolly at least have affirmed means exactly 
'refers to' or 'names'.) And they want this to be done even in cases 
where (we are all, I think, agreed) there is in fact nothing to be 
identified or named, when the name fails to refer altogether. And my 
point was that this seems like a bad strategy, because it tries to 
answer a legitimate question by referring to properties of something 
that might not even exist.

>  By the same token, I could also
>talk about my or your or So-and-so's thoughts or concepts of unicorns,
>but then I would say different things from what I would say when I talked
>of unicorns, as it were, themselves.  (Die Einhorn-an-und-fuer-sich?
>Probably not.)

Of course we can talk on various topics. But it would be a mistake, I 
suggest, to seek to legitimize or analyze such talk by appealing to a 
natural history of unicorn-referents, when we are all agreed that 
there are no unicorns to study.

>At most this is a bad pun on "about".  _The Hobbit_, for example, is about
>Bilbo Baggins, although there is no Bilbo Baggins for it to be about.

Seems to me then that it is not about anything, in the referential 
sense. Like most fiction.

>Nor is it about Tolkien, or Tolkien's mind, though there are other books
>that are about those subjects.  I don't find this at all paradoxical.
>>  >Not at all.  The referent of the word "unicorn" is unicorns.
>>  No, it is not, since (as you have agreed) there are no unicorns to be
>>  such referents. You really cannot have it both ways.
>Yes, that was sloppy of me.  I should have said that when I use (as
>opposed to mention) the word "unicorn", my subject matter is unicorns.

So subject matter can be less real than referents? That makes sense, I agree.

>  > In order to talk about unicorns, you have to admit them into some kind
>>  of at least logical existence.
>You woefully underestimate the reach of the imagination.  I can make
>even square circles my subject matter, though they don't exist in
>*any* possible world, never mind this one (as Carnap said when
>Smullyan showed him a card trick).

I actually think that you can't, in fact. You can make noises which 
suggest that, but you can't actually make any sensible utterances 
about square circles. "There are no square circles" is not about 
square circles.

>>  . What you are referring to by the use of "unicorn" might be possible
>>  unicorns, or ideas of unicorns, or legendary unicorns, or unicorns in
>>  an imaginary world: but most assuredly not unicorns.
>I think I'll stick to saying that my subject matter is unicorns, and
>that the word "unicorn" doesn't refer.

I agree that is a mutually acceptable form of words :-)

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Received on Monday, 24 September 2007 20:48:40 UTC

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