Semiotics, Semantics … Meaning / Teaching / Thinking Tools / Semiotics /

Science of Meaning

Thought & Talk vs. Existence, Events …

Oh, you’re just quarreling about semantics. How many times have you heard people say that? Hundreds? How many times have you said it yourself? Was ever a science held in such contempt by the general public?

Semantics is the study of meaning, especially different meanings of a word. Is meaning trivial? Does ambiguity pose no problem? Are all meanings equivalent?

(Ambiguity can solve problems! But not nearly so many as it creates.)

Different specialties mean different things by semantics: linguists, psychologists, semioticians … What I mean by semantics has been governed by Gregory Bateson and Alfred Korzybski. My start on what I have to say about it has already been up for months under the title Description vs. Thing. Bateson’s additional step will come next: in harmony with Jung, he distinguished between Creatura, the world of life, and Pleroma, the world of extensional objects. We’d be wise to follow suit.

(1999 04 30 I’ll combine the two distinctions as follows:

These days even car and burger ads talk about saving the planet. Does the planet need saving? Could we do it if we tried?

I can’t see how the planet is in any danger. The third rocky satellite out from the medium yellow star Sol has taken direct hits in the past by major asteroids and comets. Its orbit has barely wobbled. One day the star Sol with expand, swallowing the inner rocky satellites. I doubt that we’ll be around to worry about the switch to an ambient temperature of one million degrees. Mankind doesn’t have a very good chance of lasting another millennium let alone those additional hundreds of millions of years. No: any danger the planet is in is beyond our concern. The planet is mostly molten iron and nickel. A big billiard ball. A pebble we couldn’t even see from another star. One of thousands of billions in the universe.

The planet belongs in the class of Pleroma: things, objects …

What those meteor hits did do in the past was severely disrupt the biosphere: that thin skin of life which until recently was flourishing beautifully on and around the planet’s crust.
250,000 million years ago.
70,000 million years ago.

Is the biosphere in danger? Of being killed? That’s not yet in our power and may never be.
Is the biosphere in danger of being disrupted? That’s already in our power: we’ve already done it.

from 1998, relates to material developed more at Macroinformation since then than here.

Semiotics, Semantics
— Important Areas for Philosophy and Science to Overlap,
Areas Prerequisite to Responsible —

2000 08 02 This file is being revised in conjunction with my development of Existential Classification for my Macroinformation.

Language … communications … symbols … philosophy … science … All interrelate, overlap, interpenetrate.

We all speak, use symbols, believe we communicate. Few of us think we’re scientists, many of us imagine we’re philosophers. Nearly all of us think we have no problem with meaning. If we do, it’s the other guy’s fault. Meaning, truth, reality …? They’re our birthright. We’re Homo sapiens sapiens: wise man, doubly wise. (That’s one moment: the next we believe that nearly everyone but ourselves (and our cronies) are fools.)

Ah, but we and our cronies have been to school. We’re inoculated against that crap. As the man on the street we have no need for science (except to make the TV work), for philosophy (except to justify our own opinions), for semiotics (what’s that?), for semantics (Oh, you’re just arguing about semantics) … In the Americanized world everyone may have their opinion, unopposed. Few are so rude as to investigate the adequacy of the person’s CPU, the validity of their ROM, the quality of their software, the capacity of their RAM … (The latter sentence applies to open investigation: most wars of interpretation and fact are of course fought behind the enemy’s back {often without the enemy’s knowledge}.)

Many of slip between cup and lip? Hell, there’s many a slip between symbol and understanding. Understanding requires interpretation. The result is what we commonly call meaning. In the ideal situation the meaning sent is the meaning received. In practice the meaning sent and the meaning received are seldom identical: never completely identical. (Of course the man on the street is likely to believe that there’s no interpretation involved. He gets his meaning direct. “Literal” meaning is the right one: meaning he only sees one — the one he wants to see. As Warren McCullough said, the man who believes he doesn’t need an epistemology already has one: a bad one.)

(Literal “really” means please take my metaphor seriously, please accord it respect.)

All these things I discuss again and again here at my home page. These things are now the core of my Macroinformation Project. Things set up above I cannot overemphasize: science and philosophy are not unrelated, they loosen their relationship at their mutual peril; semiotics and semantics are primary common ground for both science and philosophy; confidence about meaning is premature without some expertise in all four; the signal sent is not necessarily the same as the signal received …

Does that latter sound familiar? I mean it to echo Korzybski’s “the map is not the territory.” That in turn is echoed in Bateson’s related point that Creatura is not Pleroma: the “world” or “universe” of living things is not mutually analogous with the physical universe. Where I continue Korzybski’s and Bateson’s work is in emphasizing and expanding on their emphasis upon classification: typing. “God” is not the same kind of a “thing” as is a spoon. Neither is the same kind of a “thing” as is an organic creature such as a boy or a frog. I call this concern Existential Classification. I see it as little understood in what I see of the science, philosophy, semiotics, and semantics of others. These points have been imagined in my fiction for decades. Over the last several years I have expressed them in expository prose, most particularly in this Thinking Tools directory, and more recently, with what I intend to be greater coordination, in my Macroinformation Project. (As that project matures, I expect to find more time to complete and coordinate this directory.)

I next construct a logical tree of major sets and sub-sets of existence.


Being (Existence)

Pleroma (the physical universe)

Creatura (universe of life)

Sentiens (universe of sentience)

Pathologica (universe of symbols gone astray)

Persona (universe of Homo sapiens)

The order reflects my thinking and is of course subject to review. That thinking follows not only Korzybski and Bateson but also Prigogine: I follow his assumption that time is infinite. I now duplicate this file, modifying it only slightly, and continue it as Existential Sets.

Thought & Talk versus Existence, Events …

2000 07 30 I find most arguments that seem to have passed muster throughout history ridiculously under-informed …
But, I believe I know the solution. It’s a set of perceptions. They come under the sub-set of philosophy called semiotics. Since I associate the perceptions with the work of general semanticist Alfred Korzybski, I’ve been calling them by the name “semantics,” a sub-set of semiotics. Increasingly I realize that that’s misleading: the steps I recommend must take place before “meaning” can be responsibly encountered. In my Macroinformation Project I’ve taken to calling the set Existential Typing. It’s the order of procedure that’s important; the name of the process has no importance at all. Classify the activity as science, philosophy, semiotics, semantics … pk’s hobby horse: that’s not important. The process of classifying by existential type, that’s not just important to the investigation of meaning: I say it’s prerequisite.

Korzybski’s map/territory distinction is an example. Gregory Bateson’s Pleroma/Creatura distinction is another. My string of sets and sub-sets — (Existence) / Pleroma / Creatura / Sentiens / Pathologica / Persona … refines the distinctions.

Korzybski’s distinction is little recognized. Bateson says that psychology has found humans to be genetically incapable of making the distinction consistently. Indeed, our training encourages the confusion. The teacher asks the students to identify something portrayed in the text or on the board or via some other medium. If the picture is of George Washington, then “George Washington” is the answer. Saying “it’s a representation of George Washington,” though still “correct,” is overly nice and would be less welcome. “Representation of” is understood: the teacher strives for efficiency and wants the answer in shorthand. Great, so long as we can keep track of all the “obvious” steps left out of our shorthands. How many of us have functioning elevators between surface structure and deep structure? I don’t know that a Mozart or a Dickens could unwrap or unlayer all their elisions and transformations.

(Is that why nearly no one has understood a word I’ve said for twenty years {if not thirty-five or more years}?)

(especially by those who find the distinction “obvious”)
I mounted an argument immediately upon mounting a relevant short story. That short story was one of my first as an adult, the essay was one of the first here at my home page. [See Mental Modeling and The Model.] Here I select examples I know people have particular difficulty with.

Even so, I doubt that there are many who share my position that in the wide world the people who can actually speak, read, and write plain English wouldn’t fill a moderate size restaurant in the unlikely event that they were in the same city at the same time.

Science is not unsimilar to religion in sectarianism: the broad base of humanity might think that anyone in a white coat is a scientist, from an actor hawking cigarettes to a dental technician. The dental technician may think that the medical doctor or even the psychologist is a scientist.
I have no cronies, so my typical beliefs sweep with a very wide broom. No where do I feel more isolated

Semantics relates to the study of how we perceive and argue meaning, how our interpretations of things and artifacts may deserve respect, serve survival.

To the man in the street, one is “just arguing about semantics”: as though meaning were obvious, required no skill, made no distinctions … as though only fools would worry about it. And so it seemed at least in part to me until I encountered Gregory Bateson’s encapsulation of Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics with its distinction between map and territory. Bateson refined Korzybski’s distinctions. I continue that effort as you may see elsewhere in this folder and elsewhere in this directory (under Extension vs. Intension). I am in the midst of adding more refinements in my Macroinformation.

The aspect of philosophy-science / semiotics / semantics that commands my attention, that I labor to proselytize, concerns the proper classification of entities. What wisdom can your “meaning” contain if you can’t distinguish reliably between a physical “thing” and a non-physical “thing”? Accurate classification is prerequisite for competence in interpreting meaning. If “God” is a “spirit,” why do we persist in seeing “him” with a beard? If “justice” is something abstract, how can a court “give” it (or deny it)? The first of my several modules on the subject to be mounted at my home page was the (above linked) piece on Mental Modeling. It was first written in conjunction with my mounting an early short story, the first part of the trilogy I title The Model. The bulk of my current writing is going into Macroinformation, but I pause there to summarize late developments here, pushing the original material downward as a tail to be later reconsidered, deleted, or absorbed.

To live, one must have air. To live through the morning, one must have water as well. To get through the day, one must have food, and if it wasn’t essential during the day, shelter becomes essential before many nights have passed. To live for years one must have helpmates, allies, teammates. To live beyond one’s own time, to propagate one’s ideas, beliefs, skills, habits … one must have a mate. To live well, to live reliably, one must have a philosophy. To protect viability of the species, the philosophy had better have a halfway decent epistemology.

Human beings are only now running into obvious trouble with their air and water. Shelter and teammates and mates, we’re still very good at. But our philosophy sucks. Epistemology, if mentioned aloud, will most often be whispered as a bad word. My lawyer told me in a recent civil suit that “if the jury heard you say “epistemology,” they’d see to it that I got nothing” (“you” being of course me). (The jury never got a chance: the layer himself saw to it that I got almost nothing.)

Semantics is my field by conversion, not by formal training. My guiding lights are Gregory Bateson and Alfred Korzybski with Umberto Eco joining them more recently in my awareness.

Not belonging to any particular sect of science, philosophy, or semiotics, what I say may seem to have the accent of a hick to one academic, may be heresy to another, and may be just plain ignorant to a third. Once we’re all dead, we may have a better perspective on who may have been the furthest wrong.

Semantics is a division of semiotics. Semiotics is a division of philosophy. Korzybski

What I say may be brilliant, may be true, may be important, but it may not match the usual stuff at the universities. My view of where it fits is in Semiotics.

Today 2004 03 11 I fold three files still in draft form together: demoting them without quite throwing them out, hoping that will help me find time and ambition to edit and finish them!

@ K. 1998 06 10

Thinking Tools

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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1 Response to Semiotics, Semantics … Meaning

  1. Pingback: Systemic Reflections « Paul's Reflections

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