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Re: [ontolog-forum] Practical Semantic Primitives

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Gary Berg-Cross <gbergcross@xxxxxxxxx>
Date: Mon, 12 Aug 2013 14:08:31 -0400
Message-id: <CAMhe4f0gjtZz5QeBjU6pas1noVMbA70hzkkr-ruPq3rZ2emFiQ@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>

Discussing primitives in terms of communication and conversation does provide a language frame including the more cognitive idea of speaker's/agent's intentions.

Bruce>A “good speaker” would clarify their intention very carefully – and a “good listener” would form from all available clues their best interpretation of that intention.


Bruce> My guiding instinct in this – as regards “primitives” or any other kind of system built on word-categories with presumed meanings  – is that they will always fail, and tend to “lock up” because of implicit (“unconscious”) factors inherent in their definition.

I think we agree that an approach to semantic primitives build on word categories is not adequate.

I might not agree with some of the term-concepts you used about speaker and listen "as One" or in Resonance or Parsing meaning from the object of a communication act   etc.  Metaphors like parsing, suggesting processing of a language object may not be a good model for what is going on in human communication which I think is more interpretive and includes the idea of constructing meaning as a interpretation.

The constructionist stance is harder to appreciate at first, but it seems a better fit for our understanding of how a child comes to “know” the world.  It is more like Piaget’s philosophy that what passes for reality (and hence our knowledge of it and our language about it) is better understood as a socially constructed model.

This view is more prevalent in the social rather than physical sciences.  Sociologists like to talk about how  people construct  their knowledge within culturally situated environment and the practices that go on there. 

This is a nod towards a Use model, such as John Sowa mentioned and is a more humble and flexible approach. It is less objective,  which may bother some, since it has the taste that we are not generally talking about universally true knowledge when we talk about what human understand.  We are mostly talking about some practical approximation.

This is even true in our formal models which are based on axioms that we construct and assemble.  It may be as etymologically  human-centric as a cultural appreciation of a dance which is constrained by our species bodily mechanics. and the suite of  cultural ideas about dance developed over time.  The latter may change the environmental interactions we an engage in.  So dance and experiences can change over time. Our children may use the term "smart phone" more than "Louse" so it becomes a stable term.


Gary Berg-Cross, Ph.D.  
SOCoP Executive Secretary
Knowledge Strategies    
Potomac, MD

On Mon, Aug 12, 2013 at 12:10 PM, Bruce Schuman <bruceschuman@xxxxxxx> wrote:

Thank you, Gary.


I am doing what I can to clarify this perhaps confusing notion of “distinction” as I understand it – wanting to define it in a very primal or basic way indeed – and then, on the basis of that definition, build a very fluently adaptive kind of interpreter – a “shape-shifter”, so to speak – where the particulars are entirely shaped by immediate intent.  A “good speaker” would clarify their intention very carefully – and a “good listener” would form from all available clues their best interpretation of that intention.


My guiding instinct in this – as regards “primitives” or any other kind of system built on word-categories with presumed meanings  – is that they will always fail, and tend to “lock up” because of implicit (“unconscious”) factors inherent in their definition.


For me – the guiding phrase for an illuminated solution is “ad hoc top-down stipulation” – or maybe “ad hoc top-down decomposition”. 


By that phrase, I mean to offer the speaker the absolute unrestricted freedom to parse their meaning to the nth degree exactly as they intend – while skillfully drawing from the shared/common pool of meanings to help ensure that the listener can grasp the intended meaning.  Colin Cherry cites the thought that speaker and listener “are one”.  Maybe this goes to the “communion” aspects of “communication”.  There is a feedback/confirmation relationship set up between speaker and listener, where both parties can test and confirm the accuracy of the received meaning – and when it’s working, the relationship tends to become “resonant”.   That process might be what is meant by the concept of “games” as it has been mentioned in this forum.


For me – the basic “cut” or distinction – the “ultimate primitive” – is the prime algebraic definition of distinction – the Dedekind Cut – the point at which rational numbers intersect the continuum.  On that basis, in a purely algebraic way, I am trying to build up a model of semantic dimensionality that is “absolutely fluent” (“continuously variable in all dimensions”).  On this basis, I think we can define the fundamental dimensionality of “similarity” (and thus create a genus/taxon), and the fundamental dimensionality of “difference” (thus creating subtypes within that taxon).


If we are talking about “faceted classification” – as per Ranganathan (as I understand it) – what we are hoping for is absolutely fluent ways to decompose or interpret higher-level categories into their particulars.  Unlike a rigid top-down taxonomy, faceted classification offers multiple alternative ways to decompose the higher-level meanings into specifics, depending on purpose or intent.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faceted_classification


What I am trying to do – by refining the concept of “distinction” to its absolute rock-bottom minimalist algebraic meaning, and then building up every possible word meaning from there through an ascending algebraic hierarchy composed of nested distinctions (“similarities and differences”) is create a way that is so absolutely fluent that every dimension of difference can be freely stipulated by the speaker, exactly as desired, to a highly refined and almost-continuously-variable degree.


Thus, my general approach to a so-called universal semantic ontology is to begin by asserting that this is only possible (as I understand it) within the framework of intentional stipulation (where there no rigid adherence to some common/shared pool of meanings – a huge international dictionary --  but rather, that pool is understood as suggestive).


This approach, I think, can work in a private context, where a communicating individual is fully authorized to freely assign meaning under their own intentions.  This, I think – is what people are doing all the time.  They say what they want, intending meaning as they want, stipulating meaning as they intend, howsoever they wish.


This becomes much more problematic, however, when we are trying to define a robust pool of shared meanings that everyone can depend on – in every context, for every purpose, in every situation.  That kind of universality might (?) be impossible – because exact word-meaning is always local/ad hoc – and cannot  be rigidly bound to a common/shared agreement – like the Dewey Decimal System – or for another rock-solid example that seems to work, the Periodic Table of the Elements in chemistry.


On that theme – if there is some hope to solve the problem of universalizing widely shared meaning, my initial/experimental thought might involve some kind of “dimensional negotiation” on a large scale.  I think we could do this on a small or personal scale today.  But setting up a widely shared pool of “all meanings for all people for all occasions” seems very problematic – and maybe crazy.  Or – maybe a huge empirical project involving thousands or millions of “word senses” could somehow do a very good statistical/probabilistic interpretation.  A kind of “parser for all seasons” with very good first approximations….


But for me, trying to render this idea coherent at all, at a minimalist scale – I just want to get the algebraic process defined clearly from the ground up – following the principles of “conceptual relativity”, more or less as JS outlines them in Chapter 7 of Conceptual Structures.


Thanks to all for the very interesting themes emerging here.  Library science is very relevant and suggestive.

From: ontolog-forum-bounces@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:ontolog-forum-bounces@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx] On Behalf Of Gary Berg-Cross
Sent: Monday, August 12, 2013 7:32 AM

To: [ontolog-forum]
Subject: Re: [ontolog-forum] Practical Semantic Primitives


Some of this discussion has involved the idea of composition/construction/building of primitive "concepts"  into more complex concepts.


Bruce, for exampe said


 > As regards the ???atoms/molecules??? analogy ??? for me, the right approach

>is to look for a ???fundamental particle???.  Even atoms are composite

>structures.  If we are going to take a bottom-up approach to constructing

>every possible cognitive unit, we need to build these units from something

>truly fundamental.


One point here is that this composition is anything but simple or obvious. 


 We often fall back on some ideas we consider foundational like ideas of Constituent Parts into Wholes like words in a sentence. 

We fall very naturally into a Katz and Fodor type of additive semantic feature model like (Male) + (Human) +(Mature) = Man.


 Even this structure semantics appraoch turn out to be pretty challenging and just a small area of what seems to be involved in semantic processes composing a new concept out of a starter set of primitives. After all what does + in such a model mean?



Gary Berg-Cross, Ph.D.  


SOCoP Executive Secretary

Knowledge Strategies    

Potomac, MD


On Sat, Aug 10, 2013 at 2:06 PM, Bruce Schuman <bruceschuman@xxxxxxx> wrote:

Thanks to all for the comments and the replies.


Just to restate this point again -- my use of the word "primitive" has probably been confusing -- since for almost everybody it means something like "a list of words".


"Aristotle's primitives, which he called categories, include Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Time, Position, State, Activity, and Passivity. These are ultimate primitives to which all other concepts are supposed to be reducible."  http://originresearch.com/sd/sd4.cfm   Many others use the term “primitive” in similar ways, looking for some “best” or “correct” list of words.


What I have meant by the term “primitive” might be better stated as something like “fundamental algebraic distinction”.  For me – all words – including “primitives” – are composite abstract units with implicit/nested dimensional decomposition, and the word is the “name” for that composite abstract unit, assembled from distinctions.


It might be totally true that “everybody knows what ‘tree’ means” (item 23 on the Swadesh list) – but if we need to distinguish “tree” from “not-tree” for some reason, we might have to get precise.


“Consider a tree. It has no sharp boundaries between parts; yet words divide the tree into trunk, roots, branches, bark, twigs, leaves, buds, knots, flowers, seeds, fruit, and even finer subparts such as veins in the leaves and pistils in the flowers. Even the boundary between the tree and the environment may be indistinct: the tree may have started as a sprout from the root of another tree and may still share a root system with its parents and siblings; insects and animals may be living in the tree; a vine may be climbing up the trunk, moss may be on the bark, fungus may be growing on a dead branch, and bacteria in root nodules may be supplying nutrients.”  http://originresearch.com/sd/sd4.cfm




I did take a close look at the "Swadesh List” -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swadesh_list -- and yes it is interesting, and seems a reasonable stab at "a basic common human vocabulary".  In the USA, it would be reasonable to expect that the Democrats and the Republics and the Tea Party and the Progressives would probably be comfortable with this pool of common meanings.  This is the basis of how we can talk to each other at all.  But throw a big complex messy abstract word like "Obamacare" into that list -- and you've immediately got a firefight -- and a huge splintered division over what the word means.  Without a precise “stipulation” of its meaning, any conversation immediately becomes hopelessly fragmented –- and maybe dangerous.  When conversations are necessarily constrained by psychological bandwidth and time limits, the use of broad abstractions in a public context is very problematic.


As I was reading through the Swadesh list, I was reminded of a constraint mentioned by Smith and Medin (1981) in their important book "Categories and Concepts" -- where at the beginning, they clarify the meaning of the broad term "concept" to generally mean what they call "object concepts" -- things that can be named simply, the kind of things that fit into taxonomies.  They are not talking about "concept" as the term might be popularly used (just about anything anyone could think of) -- but in a narrower way that reduces the complexity.


On the Swadesh list, the verbs don’t start until item 54.  Most everything listed before that are basic objects, or the basic dimensions that describe objects.




John: I agree that the search for good distinctions and defining terms is useful.  But the world is a continuum, and the range of "games" that people play with words is open ended and constantly varying.  The common features among the games are fuzzy, rough, and squishy approximations, not primitives in a mathematical sense.


Bruce: This thought that “the world is a continuum” is basic to any understanding of concept formation – and is connected to the essentially ad hoc nature of most word usage.


“Concepts are inventions of the human mind used to construct a model of the world. They package reality into discrete units for further processing, they support powerful mechanisms for doing logic, and they are indispensable for precise, extended chains of reasoning. But concepts and percepts cannot form a perfect model of the world, -- they are abstractions that select features that are important for one purpose, but they ignore details and complexities that may be just as important for some other purpose. Leech (1974) noted that "bony structured" concepts form an imperfect match to a fuzzy world. People make black and white distinctions when the world consists of a continuum of shadings.”  http://originresearch.com/sd/sd4.cfm


The mystery is – why do we choose to parse experience as we do?  The answer has something to do with motivation – what is our point, what are we trying to accomplish? As a “continuum”, the “world” or “reality” could be parsed in an infinite number of alternative ways – but “for some reason” – we pick some particular way.


Your comment that “the games people play are open-ended and constantly varying”, as I understand it, has something to do with immediate context of communication – everything in the situation, everything I know about you and think you know about me.  If I want to successfully communicate with you, I use words I think you will understand – based on any clues at my disposal….


But my thought about “mathematical definitions” and why they are important emerges when the conversation becomes uncertain.  Item 52 on the Swadesh list is “heart”.  Could usage of that term be confusing?  Do you/I mean the physical heart that actually pumps the blood, or some sense of emotional heart or center (“she’s got a lot of heart”), or maybe “the heart of the town”?  If we get confused on that point, somebody might have to stipulate something.  Item 93 is “hot”.  The question might immediately arise, “How hot?”  Maybe all we need to know is that somebody thinks it’s hot.  But if it matters – I’m a mechanic fixing a car, or a doctor talking to a mother about a sick baby – I might have to know exactly what is meant – and that might require a dimensional stipulation.  In this sense, “hot” is a (brief/abstract) ordinal value for a numeric quantity that might have to be specified exactly – or specified within a defined boundary value range.


So – for me, when I see this idea that there are “games” going on with word meanings, I’m thinking two things: 1) the exact meaning is context specific, and hence plastic and fluent and context-dependent, so the “game” is figuring that out, and 2) if we are unsure, or feeling some tension, we might have to “negotiate” the meaning of the word – “hot” – or “cold” – or “dry” – or indeed, many other words on the Swadesh list.  Maybe that negotiation process is a kind of “game” as we settle in to an agreement on what we are talking about (for me, generally settling on a mutually-acceptable boundary-value range).


John: Words with similar meanings are the result of common aspects of human experience.


Bruce: This is the foundation of basic communication in language – and most of these Swadesh concepts have a very limited range of possible uncertainty.  Generally, “we know what they mean”, and their meanings are not highly context-specific.


Gary: On this view the meaning is not in, or embodied in, the word symbol. Rather the personal meaning of a word-symbol is the totality of what gets activated in a cognitive agent.


John: I agree.  As Wittgenstein said, the meaning of a word is its use.


The multiple word senses are the result of the many ways that a word is used.  For each individual, each word is linked to a growing and changing network of experiences.  Word senses are classifications that some lexicographer derived from citations of word uses.


Bruce: And what I would say is – that each use of a word – regardless of how widely understood or common the word might be – is essentially stipulative.  When I use a word in an act of communication – it means what I want it to mean at that moment – and I HOPE you understand it – drawing from all cues available to you, certainly including the common pool of meanings that you and I almost certainly share.


See Lewis Carroll on Humpty Dumpty talking to Alice in Through the Looking Glass:


    "I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't - till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"

    "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.

    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."




Bruce (previously): For me – the word-symbol is a label for a composite and implicit block of distinctions and “meanings”.  For reasons of psychological economy, people use brief word-labels for complex ideas – leaving out many specific details and implications because we don’t have time for the details (“the weeds”), and we hope we can get away with skipping over them.


John: The stable words on the Swadesh list are good examples.  They're easy to recognize, they're associated with a frequently occurring experience, and they're islands of stability in the growing and changing network of associations.


Bruce: Yes.  A lot like the “concepts” discussed by Smith and Medin.


John: Nouns dominate the list of stable words on the Swadesh list.  The verb 'drink' is the most stable verb, but it's 38th in relative stability.


But note that emotional terms are absent from that list.  The word 'good' is the only evaluative term, and it's 79th in stability. People certainly use emotional and evaluative terms, but their meanings are not stable -- i.e., the ways they are used tend to change, and the word forms aren't preserved over the long term.


Bruce: Yes, these “qualitative variables” – as I might want to call them – are very problematic.  So, my approach tends to be “dimensional” – with the concept of dimension generalized to include qualitative (or “nominal” or “ordinal”) values – “good”, “bad”, “better”, “worse”, etc. – with the precise value in some particular usage entirely context-specific.


The framework to make this kind of stipulation meaningful is absolutely context-dependent.  At this level of abstraction, usage is totally local and dependent on intent.  And we might have to get into a bunch of “word games” (or “boundary-value negotiations”) to come to an agreement.




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