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Re: [ontolog-forum] What do ontologies have to do with meaning?

To: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Adam Pease <adampease@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sat, 05 Jun 2004 14:48:53 -0700
Message-id: <>
Hi Mike,
   My readings of Wittgenstein have been limited.  I need to do more.  If 
we need to go into this deeply, I may need to call on my colleague, Ian 
Niles, who did most of the day-to-day work on SUMO, and whose PhD work was 
on Wittgenstein.  But anyway, I'll make a go at this.
   My understanding is that one of Wittgenstein's critiques of metaphysics 
was that philosophers confuse language and logic and use formal terms in 
place of linguistic ones, thereby using a term out of context, and causing 
a fundamental error.  If I've understood this, I agree with his position 
completely.  One benefit of modern metaphysics that wasn't available until 
very recently was large formal theories like SUMO that provide formal 
definitions for formal terms.  Up until recently, philosophers used 
linguistic tokens to signify formal terms, but those formal terms were not 
defined axiomatically (in logic).  Readers fell easily in the past into the 
trap of imbuing those (undefined) formal terms with their normal linguistic 
   I'm confused by your terminology.  Did Wittgenstein use those particular 
phrases, "literal meaning" and "true meaning"?  If I've understood you 
correctly, I would elaborate on "true meaning" to say that the phrase 
signifies the actual meaning of the linguistic element in the context of 
communication.  In that sense, the "true meaning" of a word may be 
expressed by a term in a sufficiently detailed formal ontology.  But then 
I'm not sure what you mean by "literal meaning".
   Maybe an example would help make this a bit more concrete.    (01)

"The man bought the shirt."    (02)

Can be rendered formally in KIF and SUMO as    (03)

(exists (?M ?B ?S)
     (instance ?M MaleHuman)
     (instance ?B Buying)
     (instance ?S Clothing)
     (agent ?B ?M)
     (patient ?B ?S)))    (04)

Note that in the formal equivalent, what appear to be words are actually 
just convenient symbols for terms that are defined axiomatically in 
SUMO.  So, the true meaning of "bought" in the context of this sentence is 
Buying in SUMO <http://virtual.cvut.cz/kifb/en/concepts/_buying.html>, and 
not Death, as in the colloquialism "He bought the farm." or Communication 
as in "He bought the argument."    (05)

Does this help?    (06)

Adam    (07)

At 03:35 PM 6/5/2004 -0400, Mike Brenner wrote:
>Hi Adam,
>I am willing to accept that my question addresses linguistics,
>and I hope you will help me out by telling me what word
>the ontology community would use instead of my word
>"literal meaning".
>By "literal meaning" I mean formal, precise, unambiguous, complete
>definitions of the meaning of phrases/words. This is in contrast to
>their "true meaning" which involves mapping those literal meaning
>to multiple, partial contexts where the defintions are so
>imprecise as to be only approximately correct, somewhat ambiguous,
>and definitely incomplete.
>I suspect that I don't know the difference between the semantic
>meaning of phrases in linguistics and the semantic meaning
>of phrases in ontology.
>(My semantics mostly comes from Wittgenstein.)
>Since I want to clearly make this distinction in a way that
>is most understandable to the people working on Ontology
>tools, I would appreciate any help in correcting my vocabulary
>to normalize it to the ontology used by the ontology community.
>Adam Pease wrote:
> >    I think you may be addressing linguistics, rather than ontology.  The
> > notions of "literal" meaning only has significance in the interpretation of
> > linguistic objects.  Ontology is concerned with formal definition of
> > precise and unambiguous terms.  One way to address this issue is to map a
> > large lexicon to a formal ontology.  Words with the same meaning are
> > clustered together.  Polysemous words can appear in more than one
> > cluster.  That's what we've done in mapping the WordNet lexicon to the SUMO
> > ontology.  <http://www.ontologyportal.org>
>mike brenner wrote:
> > >I would like to become familiar with ontology tools
> > >capable of expressing more than simple "literal" meaning.
> > >
> > >I would like a "true meaning", by which I mean
> > >a clustering of information showing how the literal meaning
> > >maps to the multiple contexts. That mapping
> > >includes constraints, dependencies, and effects
> > >from partially defined and partially related chains of symbols.
> > >
> > >Thus, I don't see meaning as related to conceptual forms in
> > >the mind of the reader, but rather to physical forms which
> > >are the context in which the communication takes place.
> > >
> > >Mike Brenner
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>    (08)

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