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

John Cowan cowan at locke.ccil.org
Wed Sep 30 19:31:15 BST 1998

W. Eliot Kimber 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.]

Okay, I'll try to stick to I-sentences (e.g. "I think ...", "I believe
...", etc.), and I'll shut up after this too.

> 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.

I doubt I can do that either.  Common acceptation is, to my mind,
sui generis: it cannot be reduced to talk of specific individuals.

> 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.

No, I am saying "I want a universally intelligible FPI, but there is no
useful authority to catalog the entry, so I am forced to use an ad-hoc
authority (such as myself) or to forgo FPIs."


I don't know *how* I know it, I just do.  As a Theodore Sturgeon
character once said in a related connection, "How does your head
know your arm isn't dead?"  :-)

> 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.

This is always a possibility: that what I mean by "red" is what you
mean by "green".  Trying to use terms in the Real World eventually cures all
such problems, although not necessarily immediately.

> 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.

In particular cases it may be dangerous.  But in fact we acquire
almost all of our language (barring specialized vocabulary) before
we know what a definition is, never mind how to apply one.

> 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
> Spencertown.

I think we have incurably different definitions of what "authority"
and "authoritative" mean.  For me, an authority is something that
is *generally* agreed upon as authoritative: what the authority
says is so (within its scope) is so *because* it says so. The Duden
dictionary is an authority for (pre-1997) German orthography; there is
no authority for English orthography.

> If a thing can be named it can be defined, therefore all names resolve to
> definitions of some sort.

I don't believe this is true.  "Socrates" is a name with a well-understood
referent, but *defining* Socrates, in the sense of specifying
sufficient properties to distinguish him from Isocrates, is a
non-trivial job, and (IMHO) you need not be able to define
Socrates (in this sense) to know who he is.  Kripke's "Naming and
Necessity" is heavy sledding, but puts this point with far
greater thoroughness.

> >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.

But it is not, under my definitions, authoritative.  At most it says
what other maps say and what other people say, none of whom are
authoritative either.
> 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.

Just so.  What I would like is an FPI which encodes that understanding.

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

Under the theory of ad-hoc authority (every man his own FPI-maker),
it seems we have to give them all equal weight, and the notion of
*the* Spencertown gets lost in a welter of random opinions, informed
or otherwise.

> 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...".

It seems to me that you can be a perfectly good molecular biologist
without being able to define "life", or equally a good snail
biologist.  I cannot define "information" or "computing" in a
perfectly satisfactory way, but I think I understand something
about those subjects.

Is there a useful tutorial about biblocs?  I would like to
understand them further.

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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