The Relativity of ‘Meaning’


DR. W. ROSS ASHBY1 has made the interesting assertion that the meaning of a message carrying information depends on the context of the message. Thus, if someone sends A of two possible telegrams, A, “How we wish you were here” and B, “The weather is fine”, the meaning of the message is different from that of the same message chosen from three messages A, B and a third one, C, “Do come and join us”. This may well be true in a coding system as usable in mechanical information transfer, but it is not true of ordinary human assertions, messages and speech, except possibly in a few odd cases. If a radio message is sent, “The flowers are blooming”, and it is the expected message instructing a submarine commander to release a torpedo, it is arbitrary that this particular sentence was prearranged as the message. It could have been a bell sounding, or a man blowing his nose that was the message. If I wish to convey the information that the cat is on the mat, in English, it is not arbitrary what message I use. As the corollary of this, it would be absurd to say that one of the possible meanings of the English sentence, “The flowers are blooming”, is that it is an order to fire torpedos. It is similarly absurd to say, as Ashby does, that one of the possible meanings of “How we wish you were here” in English is “We wish to be cordial but do not require your company”. The meaning of a simple assertion does not change when the speaker is a liar.

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    Ashby, W. R., Nature, 187, 532 (1960).

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WILLIAMSON, J. The Relativity of ‘Meaning’. Nature 188, 605–606 (1960).

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