Q&A: Meaning Symbol Sign and Mind (Part 1)

On one of my recent posts, a commentor named “psycho” asked me some very good questions. I decided I needed to respond in more detail than just a single comment reply. I respond in pieces below, so just for context, here is psycho’s entire original comment.

But if you take more meanings, and put them together to get yet another meaning. Don’t you feel like those meanings were again like symbols creating a new meaning?

In my understanding, every bit of information is a symbol – what is represented by the invididual neurons in the brain. And if you take all related bits (that is neurons, symbols), and look at it as a whole, what you get is meaning.

The sentence is a symbol, and it is made of word-symbols. And the list of word-symbols makes a meaning. Which, when given a name (or feeling), becomes a symbol, that can be further involved in other meanings.

I’ll respond to each paragraph in a separate post, in order to get all of my thoughts down in a reasonably readable fashion. Here is part one.

Construction of Symbols

But if you take more meanings, and put them together to get yet another meaning. Don’t you feel like those meanings were again like symbols creating a new meaning?

I try to make a very strong statement of the difference between symbols, signs and their “meanings”. Perhaps I’m being too analytical, but it allows my to think about certain types of information events in a way I find useful in my profession as a data modeller. So let me try to summarize here the distinctions I make, then I’ll try to answer this question.

First, in my writings, I separate the thing represented by a symbol from the thing used as the representation. The thing represented I call the “concept” or “meaning”. The thing which is used to represent the concept I have termed “the sign”.  A symbol is the combination of the two. In fact, a specific symbol is a discrete object (or other physical manifestation) built for the express purpose of representing something else. That specific symbol has a specific meaning to someone who acts as the interpreter of that symbol.

As I have come to learn as I continue reading in this subject area, this is a somewhat ideosyncratic terminology compared to the formal terms that have grown out of semiology and linguistics. To that I say, “so be it!” as I would have  a lot of re-writing to do to make my notions conform. I think my notions are comparable, in any case, and don’t feel I need to be bogged down by the earlier vocabulary, if I can make myself clear. You can get a feel for some of my basic premises by poking around some of my permanent pages, such as the one on Syntactic Media and the Structure of Meaning.

There is obviously a lot of nuance to describing a specific symbol, and divining its specific meaning can be a difficult thing, as my recurring theme concerning “context” should indicate. However, within my descriptive scheme, whatever the meaning is, it is not a symbol. Can a symbol have several meanings? Certainly. But within a specific context at a specific time, a specific symbol will tend to have a single specific meaning, and the meaning is not so fluid.

How do you express a more complex or different idea, then? It is through the combination of SIGNS which each may represent individual POTENTIAL concepts that I am able to express my thoughts to you. By agreement (and education) we are both aware of the potential meanings that a specific word might carry. Take for example this word (sign):

blue

When I show you that word in this context, what I want you to recognize is that by itself, I am merely describing its “sign”-ness. Those four letters in that combination form a word. That word when placed into context with other words may represent several different and distinct ideas. But by itself, it is all just potential. When you read that word above, you cannot tell if I’m going to mean one of the colors we both might be able to see, or if I might be about to tell you about an emotional state, or if I might describe the nature of the content of a comedian’s act I just saw…

While I can use that sign when I describe to you any of those specific meanings, in and of itself, absent of other symbols or context, it is just a sign with all of those ambiguous, potential meanings, but in the context of our discussion, it has no specific meaning.

It has a form, obviously, and it has been constructed following rules which

Photo of an Actual Stop Sign In Its Normal Context

you and I now tacitly understand. Just as a stop sign has been constructed following rules we have been trained to recognize.

Imagine now a warehouse at the Department of Transportation where a pile of new stop signs has been delivered. Imagine they are laid flat and stacked on a pallet, just waiting to be installed on a corner near you.

While they lay in that stack, they certainly have substance, and they each have the potential to mean something, but until they are placed into a proper context (at a corner by a road) their meaning is just as ambiguous as the word sign above. If you were driving a fork lift through the warehouse and came upon the pallet, would you interpret the sign right then as applying to you? Probably not! Could you say, just be looking at an individual instance of a sign, exactly which cars on which road it is intended to stop? No, of course not.

So this is the distinction between the sign and the meaning of a symbol. The sign is a physical construct. When placed into a recognized context, it represents a specific meaning. In that context, the sign will only carry that one specific meaning. If I make another instance of the sign and put it in a different context, while the signs may look the same, they will not mean the same, and hence I will have made two different symbols.

Just to be perfectly clear on the metaphor I’m presenting, here is a “pile” of signs (words) which I could use in a context to express meaning:

blue

blue blue

blue blue blue blue

Now let me use some of them and you will see that given a context (which in this case consists of other word signs and some typcal interpretations) I express different meanings (the thoughts in your head when you read them together):

once in a blue moon

blue mood

blue sky project

blue eyes crying in the rain

But make no mistake, while i have now expressed several different ideas to you using the same sign in different contexts, they are each, technically, NOT THE SAME SIGN AT ALL! Rather they are four examples of a type of sign, just as each of the stop signs on that pallet at the DoT are examples of a type of sign, but each is uniquely, physically its own sign! This subtlety is I think where a lot of people’s thinking goes awry, leading to conflation and confusion of the set of all instances of a sign with all of the concepts which the SET of signs represents.

To make this easier to see, consider the instance of the word (sign) “blue” above which I have colored red. That is a specific example of the “blue” sign, and it has a specific, concrete meaning which is entirely different from the word (sign) “blue” above which I have colored green.  The fact that both phrases have included a word (sign) of “blue” is almost coincidental, and does not actually change or alter the individual meanings of the two phrases on their own.

Finally, since I have belabored my nit-picking a bit, if I were to re-word your initial statement slightly to use the terminology I prefer on this site, It would change to:

But if you take more [signs], and put them together to get yet another meaning. Don’t you feel like those [signs] were again like symbols creating a new meaning?

And to this question, it should be clear, that my answer is “Yes, precisely: when you put other signs together, you create new meaning”.

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Context and Chomsky’s Colorless Green Ideas

Language is code. The speaker chooses the terms, sequence and intonations of their speech with the hope that the listener shares enough of the same human experience to recognize the intended meaning. Conversation is a negotiation as much as anything else. In conversation, the participants can adjust the selection of terms and details until they all reach an understanding of what is being said. This is the practical meaning of “context”, then.

Many years ago, in an effort to make a point about how syntax is different from semantics, Noam Chomsky once proposed the following sentence as an example of a grammatically correct sentence that had no discernible meaning:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

In the context within which Chomsky was writing this sentence, reflective of common cultural experience of these terms among a broad community of American society, he made the claim that the sentence had no meaning. Since that time, other scholars have suggested that there may be contexts in which this construction of terms may actually be meaningful.

Here’s a quote from the english language version of Wikipedia from August 1, 2005:

This phrase can have legitimate meaning to English-Spanish bilinguals, for whom there are double-entendres about the word “green” (meaning “newly-formed”) and “sleep” (used as a verb of non-experience). An equivalent sentence [in the context understood by these English-Spanish bilinguals] would be “Newly formed, bland ideas are unexpressible in an infuriating way.”

This little example provides an excellent case study of the role context plays in communication. Never mind the fact that the sentence was first defined in a context for which it held no meaning. Since the moment of its invention, other contexts have either been recognized or constructed around the sentence in which it holds meaning.

The notion of “context” as that mileiu which drives the interpretation of a sentence such as this is the same notion that explains how the meaning of any coded message must be interpretted. This would include messages encoded in the data structures of computer systems. Data within a omputer system is constructed within and in order to support specific information recordation and transmittal of things important to a specific context. This context is the tacit agreement between the software developers and the business community on what the “typical interpretation” of those computer symbols should be.

The importance of context to the understanding of the data integration problem cannot be understated (which is why I keep coming back to it on this blog). While many theorists recognize the role context plays, and many pundits have written about the failures of computer systems when context has been ignored or mishandled, practitioners continue to develop and deploy applications with little explicit attention to context.

All computer applications written in business today are written from some point of view. This point of view establishes the context of the system. Most developers would agree with these statements. The trick is to define a system which allows the context of the system to change and evolve over time, as the business community learns and invents it. It must be a balancing act between excluding the software equivalent of Chomsky’s meaningless statement, and allowing the software to adapt as the context shifts to allow real meaning to be applied to those structures.

How Community Changes The Artist’s Conception

The Artist and the Standard Interpretation

The Artist and the Standard Interpretation

  • The Artist creates her artwork, with a particular symbolic meaning in mind.
  • The Art Dealer/Gallery Owner tries to explain what the artist had in mind.
  • The Art Critic sees something somewhat different by projecting his own notions on the work.
  • The Art Historian synthesizes what she’s heard, and unwittingly, and unbenownst guesses some of the original intent.
  • Ultimate truth is the one written by History, so over time, this final interpretation becomes the accepted meaning.

 

Context Shifting Is Easy

Today’s discussion asks that you perform a thought experiment.

Imagine that you are sitting in a room with a bunch of other people. All of your chairs face to the front of the room where there is a large desk. A young woman walks in with a stack of papers and places them on the desk. She picks up a piece of chalk from the desk, then, still standing, she turns to face all of you, smiles and begins to speak.

Right here I’m going to pause the narrative and ask that you consider the situation. Imagine it in your head for a moment. What is the context Ive described?

So what do I mean by context? Well if I were to say that our story so far is a very familiar context for most of us, one we all remember from childhood: an elementary school classroom, then here are some of the things you might expect to happen.

Having now stated a context, you, dear reader, should have images of yourselves sitting quietly in your desks while your teacher imparts some lesson. You also already know many of the basic ground rules of being in a classroom:

  • Pay attention to the teacher
  • Take notes
  • Don’t speak unless the teacher calls on you
  • Raise your hand if you have a question or comment and the teacher will call on you

Do you recognize this context? Feels familiar and confortable, right? Great! Let’s hold this thought now and count slowly to twenty while we let the memories of this context play about in our heads.

Really, start counting, or you won’t get the total effect:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

6, 7, 8, 9, 10

11, 12, 13, 14, 15

16, 17, 18, 19, 20

Now let me throw you a little curve ball and tell you that you’ve been thinking about this in the wrong way. The situation I described is not really a classroom and that woman is not a teacher. She’s an actress, presenting a one-woman show about a famous teacher. The desk is a set, the papers just props. You are not in a classroom, you are in a theater made to appear as a classroom. This is just a play and you are a member of the audience. In fact, so there’s no doubt in your mind about this, you suddenly remember you put your ticket stub in your front pocket.

Did you feel that grinding sensation in your head as you read these last few sentences? That shifting from the classroom to the theater context – you should actually be able to feel it happen in your mind. The fact that even this little bit of information has allowed you to sense a shift in context is not a trivial matter. Usually, when you switch contexts like this, it is never so palpable or apparent. We humans are switching contexts all of the time, sometimes in the same sentence. It is one of our particular talents to recognize and adjust our conceptualizations at will when the context changes.

We have just completely switched contexts and you didn’t even need to lift a finger, did you? Just by my saying “this is a play” your expectations have completely changed. Now that we’re in the “performance context” what has happened to our mutual expectations. First of all, the roles have shifted, instead of a teacher, our woman is an actress, you, dear reader, are not students you are an audience. As a member of the audience (especially an audience witnessing a play about a teacher) here are some of the different expectations you may now have:

  • If you raise your hand, you may get an usher, but the actress will not respond to you
  • While you will still sit quietly and listen, the expectation is that at the end of the performance, you will clap your hands
  • The actress will provide the audience (hopefully) with an entertainment

So, shifting contexts is easy. And thus, I end this little monologue by pointing out that really, dear reader, we aren’t in a theater either. Instead, we’re sharing a context called “reading a blog entry”. I hope you enjoyed this little exercise!

Types of Information Flow

In a previous post a week or so ago, I riffed on an example of communication between two mountain hikers suggested by Barwise and Seligman (authors of a theory of “information flow”). I made the initial distinction between information flowing within a shared context (in the example, this was the context of Morse Code and flashlight signals), and information flowing from observations of physical phenomenon.
Both types of information movement is covered by Barwise and Seligman’s theory. I propose a further classification of various examples of information flow which will become important as we discuss the operations of individuals across and within bridging contexts.

Types of Flows

Symbols are created within a context for various reasons. There’s a difference between generic information flow and symbollic communication.
Let’s consider a single event whereby information has flowed and been recognized by a person. There are three possible scenarios which may have occurred.

1. Observation/Perception: the person experiences some physical sensation; the conditions of some physical perception leads the person within the context of that perception (and his mental state) to recognize the sensation as significant. In this case, the person recognizes that something has occurred that was important enough to become consciously aware of it’s occurrence. This is new information, but is not necessarily symbollic information.

2. Inference/Deduction: A person within the mental state corresponding to a particular context applies a set of “rules of thumb” over a set of observations (of the first type, likely, but not necessarily exclusively). Drawing on logical inference defined by his current context, he draws a conclusion which follows from these observations to generate new information. This is new information in the sense that without the context to define the rules of inference, those particular perceptions would not have resulted in the “knowledge” of the inference conclusion. They would remain (or they would dissipate) uninterpretted and unrelated forever.

3. Interpretation/Translation: This is the only type of information flow that happens using exclusively symbollic mechanisms. In this type of flow, the person receiving the flow recognizes not only the physical event, but also that the observed phenomenon is symbollic: in other words, that some other person has applied additional meaning to the phenomenon (created a symbol or symbols from the physical media by attaching an additional concept to it). In this type of flow, the perceiving person doesn’t simply register the fact of the physical event, but also recognizes that the physical phenomenon satisfies some context-driven rules of material selection and construction indicating that some other person intentionally constructed it. From this knowledge, the perceiver concludes, assuming they are familiar with the encoding paradigm of the sender’s context, that there is an intended, additional message (meaning) associated with the event. The perceiving party is said to share the context of the sending party if they are also able to interpret/translate the perceived physical sign to recognize the concepts placed there by the sender. In this scenario, the person recieving the message is NOT creating new information. All of the information of this flow was first realized and generated by the message’s sender. (This will be an important detail later as we apply this trichotomy to the operation of software.)

In all three types of information flows, as described by Barwise and Seligman, the flow is dependent on the regularities of the physical world. This regularity requirement applies from the regularity of physical phenomenon, to the reliability of the perceptual apparatus of the perceiver, all the way to the consistency of the encoding paradigm defined by the sender’s context.

Peirce’s Modes of Relationship

According to a terrific survey book on semiotics by Daniel Chandler that I’m reading now, Charles Peirce defined types of signs by whether they were symbollic, iconic, or indexical. If I understand Chandler’s summary, the first two examples of information flow I’ve described are at minimum dependent on Peirce’s indexical signs, alternatively called “natural signs”, because these are the natural perception of reality independent of context. Both the iconic and symbollic signs are only recognizable within a context making both fall under my “interpretation” type of information flow.

For the most part, I will treat the iconic and symbollic signs as the same sort of thing for now.

Example Interaction Between Parent and Child Context

In a previous post, I described in general some of the relationships that could exist between and across a large organization’s sub-contexts. What follows is a short description of some actual observations of how the need for regional autonomy in the examination and collection of taxes affected the use of software data structures at the IRS.

Effect of Context on Systems and Integration Projects

July 15, 2005

Contexts lay claim to individual elements of a syntactic medium. A data structure (syntactic medium) used in more than one context by definition must contain meaningful symbols for each context. Some substructures of the data structure may be purposefully “reserved” for local definition by child contexts. In the larger, shared context, these data structures may have no meaning (see the idea of “traveller” symbols). When used by a child context, the meaning may be idiosyncratic and opaque to the broader context.

One way this might occur is through the agreement across different organizational groups that a certain structure be set aside for such uses. Two examples would include the automated systems at the IRS used respectively for tax examinations and tax collections.

Within the broad context defined by the practitioners of “Tax Examination” which the examination application supports, several child contexts have been purposefully developed corresponding to “regions” of the country. Similar organizational structure have also been defined for “Tax Collection” which the collection application supports. In both systems, portions of the syntactic media have been set aside with the express purpose of allowing the regional contexts to project additional, local meaning into the systems.

While all regions are contained in the larger “Examination” or “Collection” contexts, it was recognized that the sheer size of the respective activities was too great for the IRS central offices to be able to control and react to events on the ground in sufficient time. Hence, recognizing that the smaller regional authorities were in better position to diagnose and adjust their practices, the central authorities each ceded some control. What this allowed was that the regional centers could define customized codes to help them track these local issues, and that each application system would capture and store these local codes without disrupting the overall corporate effort.

Relying on the context defined and controlled by the central authorities would not be practical, and could even stifle innovation in the field. This led directly to the evolution of regional contexts. 

Even though each region shares the same application, and that 80 to 90% – even 95% – of the time, uses it in the same way, each region was permitted to set some of its own business rules. In support of these regional differences in practice, portions of the syntactic medium presented by each of the applications were defined as reserved for use by each region. Often this type of approach would be limited to classification elements or other informational symbols, as opposed to functional markers that would effect the operation of the application.

This strategy permits the activities across the regions to be rolled up into the larger context nearly seamlessly. If each region had been permitted to modify the functionality of the system, the ability to integrate would be quickly eroded, causing the regions to diverge and the regional contexts to share less and less with time. Eventually, such divergence could lead to the need for new bridging contexts, or in the worst case into the collapse of the unified activity of the broader context.

By permitting some regional variation in the meaning and usage of portions of the application systems, the IRS actually strengthened the overall viability of these applications, and mitigated the risk of cultural (and application system) divergence.

Bridging Contexts

If it’s true that every human grouping can form its own context, how can communication occur between different groups? If one group defines a set of symbols using some set of concepts and a syntactic media that is different from those of another group, as a practical matter, how can the chasm be spanned? The answer is through the development of bridging contexts.

The following figure depicts several common strategies, each with its particular benefits and drawbacks.

Three Types of Bridging Contexts

Three Types of Bridging Contexts Within One Corporate Organization

There are three basic forms of bridging contexts. First and perhaps the most common in the real world is the creation of a specific, point-to-point bridging context through discussions/negotiations between the representatives of the two specific contexts. Most organizations take this approach because it simplifies, focuses and shortens the discussion, leading to faster turn-around. All application and data interfaces that are custom-built as point-to-point connections, no matter what the actual transmission protocol or language used, fall into this category.

The second form of bridging context occurs when two groups rely on a pre-existing, parent context to act as the bridge. The parent context may push a common context down onto the previously individual contexts, or the two contexts may appeal to the parent to resolve the conflict. In either case, the result can be that the child contexts become absorbed by the parent context, thus eventually what began as a bridging context becomes the entire context. These forms of bridging contexts are often common in such situations as corporate mergers, enterprise architecture initiatives, and business process reengineering projects.

The third form of bridging context is found whenever an organization selects a third-party standard as a communications protocol. In these cases, the organization creates a bridging context between itself and the external standard, including mapping its symbols into those of the standard. Theoretically, once completed, the organization can use such a bridging context to communicate with other organizations that have likewise built bridges to the standard. In practicality, however, it is not uncommon that organizations will bias their bridging context to their own point of view. When this happens, the external standard devolves into mere syntax, and other organizations must create new, subtle bridging contexts (a la form number one) in order to communicate successfully with this organization. This was a common occurrence in the heyday of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), and still occurs today even with more modern, XML-based standards.

While proponents of standards bodies decry other approaches, it must be stated that the third form of bridging context is also the most complicated to develop, as well as requiring the longest amount of time to establish, and is often the hardest to maintain. The reason for this is that it requires so many more people to define, and for most situations, the key to its success is also its biggest drawback, namely that the context is defined externally to the organization. Thus, the interplay among the membership of the standards body creates the external context. The organization has a business activity establishes the local context. The humans involved in establishing the bridging context must be able to translate from the local context to the external standard. There is always a risk that these individuals will misunderstand the external standard and translate their local context to it incorrectly. In addition, the bridging context must be maintained constantly as changes occur both in the standard and in the internal organization. At least within the local context, it is more likely that a change will be noticed.

In addition to EDI and XML protocols, other examples of the third form of bridging context would include Semantic Web approaches, but also such mundane approaches as the use of ERP systems, or any other packaged application where a fixed syntactic media is presented.

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