Ownership of Names (was Re: Public identifiers and topic maps)

John Cowan cowan at locke.ccil.org
Tue Sep 29 18:23:56 BST 1998

W. Eliot Kimber wrote:

> I don't buy it. How do you know that there's this part of Austerlitz called
> "Spencertown"?

By consensus.

> The fact that people call it that must be written down
> somewhere reasonably authoritative (I could even use your posts on the
> subject at the authority--they're certainly reliably addressible by
> reference to the XML Dev archive) or else there is some person who is that
> authority (it could be John himself).

I am certainly no authority on this subject.  I know what other people
mean to refer to when they refer to Spencertown, that's all.  But this
is not even a definition: it's circular, like "By 'Socrates', I mean
the person I intend to call 'Socrates'".

I could *make* myself into a fiat authority, but the actions of a 
pure fiat authority are arbitrary, and I do not wish to be arbitrary.

> There must be a map somewhere that
> describes what Spencertown is, or at least what the concensus of it is.

The various maps and so on are not authoritative either.  A map *describes*,
it does not constitute an authority.

> If there's no existing authority, then any authority will do.

It is certainly true that an authority can arise by consensus: the
Internet Assigned Numbers Authority has only the support of consensus,
at least outside the U.S., but is a genuine authority.

> This type of thing, a thing for which there is no well-defined authority
> (because the boundaries of the thing are defined only by common usage and
> opinion, not by some governing authority) is an interesting case because,
> in a very real sense, every person may have a different definition of what
> they think the thing is.

In Humpty-Dumpty principle, yes.  In fact, those who talk of Spencertown
know what they are talking about, and those who don't, don't care.

> That's why I stress that the topic is the *idea*
> of Spencertown.

Then I still don't understand what an "idea" is.  When I assert:
"The Spencertown Country Store has a bulletin-board describing events
happening in Spencertown and nearby areas", I am talking about *Spencertown*,
not about some mental construct in someone's head.  My reference may be
vague, but it is a reference to something in the physical world.

> You have your understanding of what it is, other people
> have theirs. Because the thing is not defined, there can be no single
> definition of it.

But I can discuss, contra Socrates, what I cannot define.

> Therefore, the topic "Spencertown" is *your opinion* (or
> someone else's opinion) about what Spencertown is.  At best, your authority
> is the list of people who share your definition of Spencertown ("everybody
> just knows it--well who's 'everybody'?").

But I have no *definition* of Spencertown, and neither do they.  That does
not mean that it (the referent of "Spencertown") exists only in our minds,
like the concept "justice".
> So if you, in the creation of a topic, want to point to the topic "Baby
> Boomers", you're going to have to define what that topic means to you, if
> only by writing a paragraph or two outlining *your definition* of what the
> Baby Boom is.

Biologists can study living organisms without being able to define "life".

<anecdote>Sir Peter Medawar, the English biologist, once attended a
discussion on that very topic.  After several hours of wrangling, he
closed the discussion as follows:  <mot>I think we can all tell the
difference between a live horse and a dead one, and I suggest that
we cease to beat the latter.</mot></anecdote>

> Maybe this is what Steve and John are looking for: an algorithm for saying
> "This name is a query over all topics that include this name".  So if I say:
> -//All Possible Topics//TOPIC baby boom//EN
No, that would be too mechanical.  After all, in the namespace
"-//Imp of the Perverse, Inc.", the topic "baby boom" could refer to
the contents of used diapers.  Despite the coincidence of names,
these two topics just don't belong together.

> But there's still a problem, I think. Because if I just point to the
> "public topic" named "baby boomer" where did I get that name from to know
> to use it? There must be something I can point to that is the place or
> places I came to understand both that there is a thing called "baby boomer"
> and that most people at least recognize the term, if not agree on what it
> means.

Not necessarily.  The man in the street, to repeat an example of Saul
Kripke's, may know that Feynman is (was) a great physicist, without knowing
a single parameter which would distinguish him from Gell-Mann.  Some people,
in fact, "know" Einstein as the inventor of the atomic bomb.  Does that
mean that when they refer to Einstein, they refer to nobody, since the
atomic bomb had no single "inventor"?

> So let me stress my key point again: there is no such thing as a "public
> topic" with no resource.

Perhaps not.  But there may not be an authoritative report.  If you
want to know how to spell "Freund", you can look in an authoritative
German dictionary, since the German language has such things, or you
can consult common acceptation.  But if you want to know how to spell
"friend", you have a problem.  You can go to an English dictionary, but the
makers of the dictionary explicitly disclaim authoritativeness, and tell
you that they report the common practice of writers and publishers.
They, if asked, will tell you that they spell words according to one
or more dictionaries!  Repeat loop.  It's a good thing for English
readers and writers that the loops generally converge quickly
(a so-called "Hartree-Fock solution").

In short:

	Some names have no authoritative definitions;
	Those names nevertheless have referents, defined by common
	It is not adequate to say that if there is no authoritative
		authority, that a fiat authority will do.

John Cowan	http://www.ccil.org/~cowan		cowan at ccil.org
	You tollerday donsk?  N.  You tolkatiff scowegian?  Nn.
	You spigotty anglease?  Nnn.  You phonio saxo?  Nnnn.
		Clear all so!  'Tis a Jute.... (Finnegans Wake 16.5)

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