Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Connectivism, Peirce, and All That

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 04, 2011

I was asked:

You drew a black box, and typed the words Black Box over it. You then started to talk about that more when I typed in the IM something about C.S. Peirce's triads, to which you responded vocally: "I'm trying to get away from that" (or words very much like that).
I really need to understand why you are trying to get away from Peircian representations of the triadic relation between the signs and symbols we use for things in our knowledge bases.

Off the top of my head (so my wording may not be precise, recollections not exact, etc)

From where I sit, the picture from word to object is fraught with difficulties.

- there is the case where the object does not exist, and yet the word continues to have meaning. For example, 'brakeless trains are dangerous', to borrow from Russell. The whole area of counterfactuals in general. Which, if we follow the inferential trail, would have us believing with David K. Lewis that possible worlds are real. So *minimally* the meaning of the word, with respect to the object, must take place with respect to a theory or theoretical tradition.

- there is the case of indeterminacy of translation. The meaning of the word, with respect to the object, may be for one person very different from that of another person. Quine: the word 'gavagai' may refer to the rabbit itself, or the rabbit-stage of adulthood, or something else. Our inferences regarding meaning must be based on 'analytic hypotheses', which are themselves tentative.

- the skeptical argument. Inferences based on words are underdetermined with respect to the reference of those words. Nelson Goodman, for example - the extension of 'green' is the same as 'grue', yet the next instance of an object is 'green' but not 'grue'. Therefore the meaning of 'green' and 'grue' are different, despite being established through the exact same set of experiences and/or objects in the world. This argument is similar to the private language argument as depicted by Kripke in his account of Wittgenstein's thesis of 'meaning is use'.

And so on..

So, the approach to meaning I have adopted and understand to be a better way of thinking about it:

- the meaning of the word does not lie in anything distinct from actual instances of the word (by analogy: the colour 'red' does not lie in anything distinct from instances of the colour 'red'; the quantity '1' does not lie in anything other than instances of the quantity '1').

- these instances occur in two separate environments, a personal environment, composed of neurons and connections, thoughts, perceptions, etc., and a public environment, composed of people, artifacts, architecture, other objects in the world, utterances, radio transmissions, etc.

- in each of these environments, instances of the word are embedded in a network of non-meaningful entities. In a person, thoughts (beliefs, memories, knowledge of, etc) the word are contained in a network of neurons, no one of which (or identifiable set of which) comprises the word itself or the meaning of the word. Similarly, in the public environment, instances of a word appear in a wider network of non-meaningful entities (marks on paper, audio waves, digital data).

- our perception of the word itself, and of the meaning of the word (for that's what it is) is a form of pattern-recognition. Meaning is emergent from a substrate of non-meaningful, but connected, entities. In the personal environment, the meaning of the word is the perception of the word as an emergent phenomenon; in the social environment, the meaning of the word is the use of the word. (Thus, conversely, any emergent phenomenon, any artifact that is used, can have meaning, but again, the meaning is nothing more than the perception and use of that artifact). There is not a 'stands for' relationship; words are 9as they could say in database theory) 'content-addressable'.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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