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

From: Pat Hayes <phayes@ihmc.us>
Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2007 16:40:14 -0500
Message-Id: <p06230908c31f28f9eae5@[]>
To: "Marc de Graauw" <marc@marcdegraauw.com>
Cc: "'John Cowan'" <cowan@ccil.org>, "'Technical Architecture Group WG'" <www-tag@w3.org>

>Pat Hayes
>| >| Then let us be honest about this. When I am thinking of unicorns,
>| >| there is in fact nothing I am 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. 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.
>| >
>| >If this is true, it would force us to say: "If we use the phrase
>| >{the North Korean A-bomb | the Higgs boson particle |
>| >extra-terrestial life } we do not know whether we are talking about
>| >something or not; we may find out in the future
>| >whether we were or not."
>| Quite. And surely this is correct. In the past people spoke at length
>| about phlogiston. We now know they weren't talking about it, however,
>| because it wasn't there.
>Pat, you take "about" in a much too referential way.

Indeed, I take it to have a referential import. To speak about 
something is to speak de re, of the thing. If there is no thing, such 
talk is impossible, speaking strictly. (Or perhaps just false, like 
all fiction. I take it you don't actually *believe* Tolkein, right?)

>As Frege pointed out, words
>can have sense and reference, and you take "about" to mean "has a referent".

Quite. I think that is the usual way the word is used in informal 
English, in fact. In order to be about something, there has to be 
something for it to be about. (It can be quite meaningful and still 
not be about anything, of course.)

>"Bilbo Baggins" has a sense but no reference

Really? Im not sure this is a reasonable claim. What could the 
Fregean sense of a proper name be? But even if it does make sense, I 
don't see that it is relevant. I'm certainly not talking about the 
sense of "Bilbo Baggins" when discussing Tolkein with people.

BTW, I think the only coherent way to describe names like "Bilbo 
Baggins" is to say that they DO refer, but that what they refer to is 
fictional (and therefore very under-determined, i.e. they are all 
highly ambiguous.)

>, but it's a perfectly legitimate
>question to ask what you know *about* Bilbo, such as his being Frodo's uncle

Its an understandable form of words, but we all know that it depends 
on our all agreeing to 'live in' the fantasy Tolkein world and speak 
'of' it as though it were real. And we also know that since in fact 
is not real, that there is nothing to be actually known about Bilbo 
Baggins, strictly speaking. For example, do you think that he has a 
corn on his left foot? Is there a fact of the matter?

>And one thing you know *about* Bilbo is that he has no referent.

I know about "Bilbo" that it has no referent. Even if it did, I 
wouldn't expect Bilbo himself to have a referent.

>"I know nothing about Bilbo" is simply false (assuming you know 
>something about
>Tolkien's works).

It would be misleading in normal conversation, but I routinely apply 
such a filter to talk of gods, for example. I know nothing about Thor 
or Yaweh or Allah, because they do not exist.

>Exactly like we can find out that two words with different senses ("morning
>star" and "evening star") have the same referent (Venus, the thing) 
>it's just as
>fine to find out about phlogiston that is has no referent.

I don't think the cases are analogous. Of course one thing can have 
several names.

>As long as
>"phlogistion" has a sense, then when you say "phlogiston has no referent", you
>are talking about phlogiston, and as Quine showed, you are not committed to
>phlogiston's existence through making this utterance.

I think you have Quine somewhat twisted here. He argues that you are 
not committed to phlogiston's existence by saying "Phlogiston does 
not exist", contra an attempted reductio argument to the effect that 
to assume that empty names are meaningless is self-defeating. I think 
Quine's point is that the above-quoted sentence is NOT about 
phlogiston, as a way of replying to that reductio argument; and yet 
it is still meaningful (and indeed true). It does not have to be 
'about' the entity whose existence it denies, in order to be 

But in any case, all this philosophical wrestling is kind of beside 
the original point at the root of this thread, since that *was* about 
a referential usage: we were being asked to think about the 
non-information resources in order to decide what to do about the 
URIs which are used to refer to them, and that is what I was 
objecting to. I really do not know how to decide if Bilbo Baggins is 
an information resource. I think in fact he probably is, since he can 
be entirely represented by some transmittable text, viz. the totality 
of Tolkein's writings which mention him. Which I am sure is not what 
the TAG intended, but I'm following their own definitions ...  :-)

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Received on Tuesday, 25 September 2007 21:40:31 UTC

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