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Re: [ontolog-forum] Wittgenstein and the pictures

To: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Christopher Menzel <cmenzel@xxxxxxxx>
Date: Wed, 30 Jul 2008 13:53:40 -0500
Message-id: <DA3952CB-D09D-48C4-89F4-BC7EE0EA7C47@xxxxxxxx>
On Jul 30, 2008, at 11:38 AM, Len Yabloko wrote:
> Chris,
> Thank you for clarifications and references about Wittgenstein's  
> theory.    (01)

Sure thing.    (02)

> While I can't argue (due to lack of expertize in mathematical logic)  
> about its theoretical applications, it seems to me that summarily  
> writing off his work is a bit premature.    (03)

My "write off" here is hardly premature.  As I note, it is the upshot  
of 80+ years of extensive analysis and discussion.    (04)

> Firstly due to the lack of any viable alternative theory of meaning  
> and information (please correct me if I am wrong).    (05)

Well, ok. :-)  First of all, a more or less niggling point is that W's  
picture theory is a theory in name only; it can't really be called a  
"theory" in any meaningful, scientific sense of the word.  It is  
little more than a series of (admittedly, philosophically rich and  
evocative) aphorisms.  More substantively, though, there is, to say  
the least, hardly a lack of alternatives.  Indeed, to say a bit more  
than the least, with respect, saying there are no viable alternatives  
to W's picture theory is a bit like saying there are no viable  
alternatives to Aristotelian physics.  The theory of meaning is  
perhaps the single most important topic in philosophy and linguistics  
(and among the more important topics in artificial intelligence) in  
the last 50 years.  The literature on is vast, indeed overwhelmingly  
so.  Somewhat randomly and off the top of my head: There is, to begin  
with, so-called "Tarskian" semantics for first-order predicate logic  
and the influential Davidsonian project of using that semantics as a  
basis for a theory of meaning.  There is possible world semantics for  
intensional logics and the extensive program of Montague grammar built  
upon possible world semantics, which was the dominant program in  
natural language semantics among linguists well into the 90s and is  
still influential.  Among alternatives to Montague grammar are the  
file-change semantics of Irene Heim and the more or less equivalent  
discourse representation theory of Hans Kamp.  Some sense of the  
landscape here can be found in Porter and Partee, _Formal Semantics:  
The Essential Readings_, Blackwell, 2002.    (06)

Additionally, there are less formal, more philosophical theories of  
meaning as well.  Notably, possible world semantics spawned a huge and  
influential literature on naming and reference that, in particular,  
breathed new life into Mill's view that (in contrast to Frege) the  
meaning of a name is exhausted by its referent.  Equally important are  
theories arising from W's own later work focusing on use and developed  
more rigorously by the likes of Austin and Searle.  There's also  
important work that's been done on metaphor, conceptual roles,  
propositional attitudes, mental spaces, languages of thought, etc  
etc.  For the lay of the land here, see e.g., Martinich, _The  
Philosophy of Language_, Oxford UP, 2006.    (07)

>> The general consensus among philosophers and linguists is that W's  
>> so-called "picture theory of meaning" (based on the passages above)  
>> is utterly untenable as a general semantic theory.
> Secondly calling his work "picture theory of meaning" does not do  
> justice,    (08)

Eh?  It's just a standard label for the theory of meaning in the  
Tractatus.  And a quite accurate one, as it is practically lifted from  
the pages themselves.    (09)

> even given what you call "general consensus" (are you referring to  
> mathematicians, philosophers or computer scientists?)    (010)

Yes. :-)  And linguists.    (011)

> I came across a very different characterization of his work as  
> theory of "language as use" (perhaps another consensus).  Despite  
> all these stamps put on his work over 80 years his main thesis of  
> what I called "application as context" remain very viable.    (012)

I'd bet a fair sum that W himself would not recognize "application as  
context" as his thesis.  At best, it's going to be a theory that is  
perhaps *inspired* by W with only the vaguest family resemblances to  
anything he actually said.  And are you sure you're talking about the  
Tractatus here?  Your reference to language as use sounds much more  
like the W of the Philosophical Investigations.    (013)

> Here is an example that supports this point of view:
> This book is an extension of the discussions presented in Blair's  
> 1990 book Language and Representation in Information Retrieval,  
> which was selected as the "Best Information Science Book of the  
> Year" by the American Society for Information Science
> http://www.springer.com/computer/book/978-1-4020-4112-9    (014)

I'm sure it's a fine book.  I'm equally sure that it's quite a stretch  
to think it is anything more than loosely connected to W's work.   
Indeed, this *must* be the case, as W had the bulk of his ideas in the  
Investigations worked before there was even such a thing as  
information retrieval.    (015)

-chris    (016)

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