I've had an idea and I'm almost certain it might not be a novel one, so I'd like some pointers to read more about it. Maybe some philosophers/writers already explored the subject and elaborated it a lot better?

The idea is that "meaning" itself is just measurement / comparing to archetypes of ideas that we have. When we say that something is a "dog", we're saying that it matches fairly closely a shared idea of dog that we have.

Every meaning ascribed to words, phrases, expressions, metaphors and so on are just more complex examples of us comparing the concept we talk about with another concept (archetype), which need not to be a perfect representation of the concept, just a general one.

What I'm interested in reading is about an exploration of these comparisons. Are they classified in different types? Are there special characteristics to these archetypes? Are all comparisons of the same nature?

I'm mostly looking for references, but if you'd like to provide some brief explanations on author's points of view, it would be very appreciated.

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    Maybe useful : Medieval Theories of Language : "For a term to signify is for it to function as a sign, to represent or make known something beyond itself. A typical spoken term, such as ‘horse’ or ‘dog’, signifies in two ways. It signifies or makes known the concept with which it has to be correlated in order to function significatively at all, and it also signifies or makes known something external to and independent of the mind." – Mauro ALLEGRANZA May 19 '18 at 17:03
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    The place where this 'disease' is worst is social sciences, and a place where it is a front-line battle is in medicine (outcomes-based vs care/case-focussed medicine). So you might want to start from looking at those places. You can start from the history of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualitative_research – user9166 May 19 '18 at 19:56
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    These are also not as much the same thing, in science, as we think. A stark example is something like Q-Methodology, which is about discerning patterns using methods that are statistical, and yet not based on linearization, comparison or 'measurement' in the traditional sense. – user9166 May 19 '18 at 20:05
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    lol, Plato beat you..! – CriglCragl Jun 20 '18 at 20:57
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    @CriglCragl Dang... well, I guess the best thing about coming up with old ideas is that someone already did the work for you, lol. If you happen to have any particular study/book/paper on it that explores it better, feel free to add it as an answer. That's exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. – Alpha Jun 21 '18 at 12:24

Here is an example adapted from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:

Someone asks you to watch over their young children for a little while and play a game with them to keep them occupied. You teach them poker. The parent returns and exclaims, "I didn't mean that kind of game!".

When the parent said "game" they meant game, presumably, but not all games. How did they do that---how did they mean a particular thing by that word? Did they have to consciously consider poker and then exclude it? Did they have a specification in mind (eg, "child-friendly") that they didn't think it necessary to include in the sentence? And even if they did "have it in mind", how did they have it in mind?

These questions aren't easily answered. And even if you do find an answer to one of them, that answer need not apply in a similar case.

These questions also hit on the notion of a shared image or concept. What is the shared image we have in the case of game? Is there such a thing as an archetypal game? Are there features that all games have in common? Don't say "There must be, or we wouldn't call them games!", or immediately conclude "There isn't, so 'game' must be equivocal!". Just look and see, and ask yourself if you understand what somebody says when they use the word "game" in a sentence.

Even if there is an image, how does it guide us in applying the word? Imagine you are in a room filled with triangular prisms and rectangular prisms. You want to take out all the rectangular prisms. So you form an image in your head of a triangular prisms and proceed to take away everything that does not match that image (ie, all the rectangular prisms). In that case are you still thinking of rectangular prisms?

If you find these questions interesting you'll like PI. It's the deepest reflection on these issues that I know. Wittgenstein does not believe in the view you ascribe to, but he understands its motivations very well and walks the reader through all the puzzles associated with it.


It looks like a mixture of two ideas:

  1. The correspondance theory of truth, so that an idea, word or concept has an actual referent

  2. That language needs to be public for communication to be possible

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    Curious! I am more interested in the first one. Any chance you have references for those? – Alpha Jun 20 '18 at 16:25
  • @alpha: Try using google. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 22 '18 at 19:02

Novel or otherwise, I think it's wrong. Since you're apparently into programming, just consider dentotational semantics, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denotational_semantics That provides a syntax-->semantics (predicatbly called the "semantic function") from syntax into a domain (see, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_domain) of meanings. And for programs, that semantic domain's typically (continuous wrt Scott topology) functions N-->N. And these aren't physically "measurable", per se, in your sense (the measure theory meaning of "measurable" notwithstanding), and there's no notion of archetype (that I'm aware of) distinguishing one such function from another. They're just abstract meanings with no (unlike Plato's cave) physical-world manifestations that could be "measured".

Edit related to @Canyon's comment below. Programming language syntax is typically specified in BNF, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backus%E2%80%93Naur_form, or some other similar formalism. And (I'd probably say) it's pretty likely that can't be extended to typical natural languages like English, although there's arguably some debate about that, e.g., https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/32447/.

So, just for the purposes of this post, let's suppose BNF (or similar) can be used to specify the wff's comprising syntactically correct English. Then the existing machinery of Denotational Semantics (see link above) can immediately be used, without any further formalism whatsoever, to determine/"compute" the meaning of any English language sentence (via the semantic function, as briefly discussed above, and more thoroughly discussed in the links). And that supposition really ain't too much of a stretch, just for the purposes of an se post. Moreover, even if it's wrong, denotational semantics can still serve as a good "toy model" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toy_model), illustrating an approach to determining meaning "ascribed to words, phrases, expressions, metaphors and so on" (to quote the op). Indeed, that's precisely what denotational semantics already does do, with mathematical precision, for programming language syntaxes.

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    I don't fully agree -- but that is irrelevant. I see you provided some good links on applications on these ideas (the application and determination of meaning in a formal way), which really helps with my request for reference. Thank you very much! If you have any more, I will really appreciate that. – Alpha May 20 '18 at 18:31
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    @Alpha There are zillions (almost literally) of references. Domain Theory's a standard graduate cs course, and almost every teacher has compiled a good set of notes. Maybe try arxiv.org/abs/1605.05858 or www2.math.uu.se/~hamrin/dt04/DT01rev.pdf (co-author of one of my favorite textbooks books.google.com/books/about/…) And an almost-universal reference is cs.bham.ac.uk/~axj/pub/papers/handy1.pdf That's a bit math-heavier than the first two, but without knowing your background, it's hard to suggest anything. – user19423 May 23 '18 at 5:36
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    How is a mathematical field about programming languages relevant to a question about natural language? (I'm not saying it's not, but your answer needs a bit more. Especially if you're assuming, eg, that all natural language can have formal syntax.) – Canyon Jun 19 '18 at 5:03
  • @Canyon please see Edit above, which addresses your question. – user19423 Jun 20 '18 at 7:05
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    I think you still need to say more. You have ` it's pretty likely that [BNF] can't be extended to typical natural languages like English` but then just for the purposes of this post, let's suppose BNF (or similar) can be used to specify the wff's comprising syntactically correct English... And that supposition really ain't too much of a stretch, just for the purposes of an se post. It's not clear to me why anyone should grant you that supposition. – Canyon Jun 20 '18 at 19:27

You want to read "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" and "I Am a Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter. He broadly argues that understanding (being able to grasp meaning) is expressed in the ability to perform translation i.e. from a geometric expression to an algebraic function or coding a picture into a .jpeg

Also Plato, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_forms

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    How do these texts address the OP's interest in "comparing to archetypes of ideas that we have"? Some relevant quotes from the books should show that these do answer the OP's question. Regarding Plato, what dialogues in particular do you recommend? – Frank Hubeny Jun 19 '18 at 5:49
  • @FrankHubeny *edits – christo183 Jun 22 '18 at 4:18

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