> Dear All,
> I am very grateful to Linas for his comments on our mental concepts
> of chairs and tables. He knows that it is 'something more' than what
> has been said in the discourse. I am not so sure. There have been
> many acts of what I call primordial speech situations in which
> chairs and tables have been pointed out to me. For me, such things
> are props that make up an extension of the speech situation. The act
> of ostentation make them part of the communication. If I had a dog
> it wouldn't know what a chair is. It would not even have noticed it
> had been part of such a speech situation. I recall discussions with
> people (not with dogs, though) in which we attempted, for instance,
> to negotiate if barstools with a back rest should be referred to as
> stools ("Could you bring two more stools over, please?"). Does the
> result of such speech situations and negotiations mould my mental
> concept? I think it does. Does each of us have the same (perhaps
> innate) concept of a chair (as Fodor sees it)? Rather unlikely. Does
> everybody have their individual concepts? If yes, how do we
> understand each other, except by assuming that meaning is in the
> discourse and not in our heads?
Dear Wolfgang and interested parties,
I have not read and digested the entirety of this thread because there aren't enough hours in each day, so please forgive me if I am going over old ground (I am assuming here that others do have the time to read this stuff :-)). Certainly, most of what I have read, I have read with great interest.
You say you recall conversations in which you were trying to discuss whether a given object was, in actual fact, a chair or a stool. I expect you also recall discussions with people in which you negotiated the meaning of a word, or negotiated the word to use for a particularly abstract concept, for the purpose of carrying out a single conversation.
It seems to me that a very plausible alternative to the options you provide above is that the very purpose of (symbolic) language is to allow us to transmit information between unlike domains (your head and my head). Your mental description of the thing we refer to as chair in our conversation will never precisely match mine, or anybody elses, because our experiences (and our wiring, perhaps) may be quite different. If you had to communicate directly with everybody in their native currency of thought therefore, you would have an awful lot of negotiation to do. So instead we each learn a single (albeit rather dynamic) mapping - that between our thoughts and a common language (in the present case some version of English) - in which the terms are well enough grounded (in historic discourse, through colocation with events, gestures and other terms) that we can be relatively confident that the meaning evoked in my head is *effectively* equivalent to that evoked in yours; effective in the sense of allowing us to benefit from the conversation.
This is *not* to say that the meaning of these terms in and of themselves is absolute, or even existent. Rather, meaning exists in the mind of the speaker, and the listener, and in the language insomuch as it has a speaker and a listener and (hopefully) a useful overlap in their individual understandings. To suggest that meaning is absolute in the discourse naked of the participants, or in the history of all discourse, is not a necessary step. You might say there is some "mean" meaning, or least common denominator of meaning contained therein, or that it represents "effective meaning" when it has ramifications within the individuals reading it. To say that a chair or a table is exactly what people say it is, no less, is to imply that the communication between speaker and listener is perfect, and perfectly reproducable. This is analagous to saying that a property has an intrinsic value, rather than just a market price or a sale price (except that with communicable concepts we are dealing with something more qualitative perhaps - though some might say it is simply something of much higher dimensionality). In the case of table and chair this is probably a fair simplification of the truth (the buyer's offer readily matches with the seller's expectations), in the case of the kinds of elusive concepts being discussed in this thread say, it is not very useful at all (I think what we're negotiating over is a classic sportscar, you think it is a heap of junk).
As far as this pertains to natural language processing: once a computer begins to communicate intent (to request data say), and understand and act on users intent, as expressed in a common natural language... then I would hazard that there is an exchange of meaning taking place, and that the conversation is successfully encoding that meaning. To analyse corpora for patterns and clusters of words might be a necessary step in getting us there (by way of familiarising machines with the common currency, and its surface usage), but it is not a practice which, by itself, courts meaning (bring human interpreters of those patterns into the equation though, a la corpus linguistics, and it does).
If we do not agree over this interpretation, I would suggest that the most likely problem is that we have not settled on our currency. I note that terms like "meaning" and even "corpus linguistics", at present, seem to be particularly heterogeneous in the minds of the participants (despite seeming superficially consistent in the corpus!) Indeed, some of these terms are ill-defined (not neatly mapped) within the minds of individual participants (like me). I expect that if we were to resolve some of these differences by building an open-source glossary say, and refining its granularity until everybody here could more or less agree with it (although some would certainly have to sacrafice some of the specific mappings they had grown to love, in favour of new terms), then what we would be left with would be our genuine disagreements... which we could then set about trying to resolve through rather more precise (and perhaps not so verbose) discussion.
Justin Washtell University of Leeds