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

W. Eliot Kimber eliot at dns.isogen.com
Tue Sep 29 19:19:22 BST 1998

At 12:22 PM 9/29/98 -0400, John Cowan wrote:
[NOTE: this will be last post on this thread, as it's clear to me that John
and I are not communicating, probably because we have divergent definitions
of some key concepts. However, I feel I must answer John's note, at least
in an attempt to make my side of the argument clear.]

>W. Eliot Kimber wrote:
>> I don't buy it. How do you know that there's this part of Austerlitz called
>> "Spencertown"?
>By consensus.

Consensus of whom? If you can define the set of people who share an
understanding of what "Spencertown" is then you have served to define it,
because I can interrogate those people and get them to tell me what they
think the boundaries of Spencertown are.  From that I will have *a*
definition of what Spencertown is that is *as authoritative as it is
possible for such a definition to be* given that there is no formal
authority providing a definition. I don't see the problem with this. 

You seem to be saying "I want an authority, but there can be no authority,
so the problem is unsolvable, but I must have solution" and I'm saying
"there is an authority, so there is no problem."  The choice seems obvious
to me.

>> 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.  

HOW DO YOU FRIGGIN' KNOW IT? If you know it, you must get the knowledge
from somewhere. The source of that knowledge is the authority. If you can't
name the authority (even if that authority is your neighbor or what you
read in the paper or the intersection of all the opinions you've gotten),
then you are lying when you say you know what other people mean. You may
know what you *think* other people mean.  I got into a big argument with my
friends over whether any of us were or were not baby boomers. It became
clear that none of us shared a common definition of what a baby boomer was.
 The phrase "I know what other people mean by..." is either a lie or a
dangerous assumption, because opinion on most things is usually much less
consistent than one might think.

                                                            But this
>is not even a definition: it's circular, like "By 'Socrates', I mean
>the person I intend to call 'Socrates'".

It's not circular at all.  If I ask you to define Spencertown for me, you
can define its boundaries on a map, possibly with the caveat that there is
difference of opinion about the exact borders, but you can define it.
Therefore, saying that "Spencertown is what John defines it to be" is just
an indirection that is resolved by making you tell us your definition.  If
you said "Spencertown is Spencertown", it's nonsense.  You may not know how
you got your notion of what Spencertown is, but you have a notion and can
communicate it in absolute terms by reference to an authority, such as a
map of Austerlitz within which you can address the region you call

Or maybe "Spencertown" is a state of mind, or a way of life. You can still
enumerate the characteristics of those that distinquish Spencertown from
other such things.

If a thing can be named it can be defined, therefore all names resolve to
definitions of some sort. It is the job of the resolver to judge the
authoritativeness of the definition they get and the job of the namer to
choose mappings that are appropriately authoritative (or as authoritative
as they're capable of making them at the time).  There cannot be an
absolute authority for everything, or even for most things. 

>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.

But a given map will either match or not match *your* understanding of what
Spencertown is, and therefore you can use it a fixed reference point to
define what Spencertown is, for you.

>> 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.

Nonsense. If I move to Austerlitz and someone tells me "you should really
live in Spencertown", the first thing I have to do is ask them what
Spencertown is, at which point I'll get their definition of it.  I might
accept their definition at face value or I might say "by what authority to
do you use that definition?" and they might say "everybody knows that's
what Spencertown is", at which point I say fine.  But the next time I ask
somebody what Spencertown is, I'll compare their answer to the previous one
to see if they're similar. If they're not, I have to start choosing.

Thus, every person who has an idea of what Spencertown is is an
authority--the question is, how much weight do you give them?  

>> 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.


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

No they cannot. There is a difference between defining what something *is*
and defining what a name *refers to*.  That's what this whole discussion
has been about. They must define the term "life" to mean something so that
they can distinguish things that are living from things that are not
living. That doesn't mean that they have an *absolute* definition of what
life is, it simply means that they've said "when I use the term 'life', I
mean things that exhibit the following properties...".  


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

Look, if there's an accepted authority, then you use it. If there's not,
then you say what your opinion is and why, and let readers judge for
themselves whether your opinion is a good one.  I don't see how it can be
otherwise.  If there is no existing authority for something then there is
nothing to be pointed to as an absolute authority so there's no point
worrying about the lack of one. Either your opinion will become the
authority (because other people agree with you and say so) or a better
authority will emerge from common usage.



<Address HyTime=bibloc>
W. Eliot Kimber, Senior Consulting SGML Engineer
ISOGEN International Corp.
2200 N. Lamar St., Suite 230, Dallas, TX 75202.  214.953.0004

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