The Relativity of ‘Meaning’


DR. ROSS ASHBY1 is right (defining “right” as “what I think the best people think” and “best” as “tha class of people who think as I do”) in his conclusions that no message has intrinsic meaning, and the meaning defined in terms of the set of messages from which it was taken (the sender's meaning) is relatively unimportant. In most cases the message is not consciously composed by an intelligent sender ; in many cases our messages arise from non-living matter. The important meaning is the recipient-meaning and this meaning is very personal to the individual recipient (be it man, dog or computer), will vary with instant of reception and will generally decay after reception. It may be defined as the multiplex of correlates stimulated in the recipient by the input message. Even the most intelligent recipient will “know” only in part what this multiplex is. Much of it will not be accessible to his awareness, let alone his analytical senses. Even if he did “know” it, he could not convey it with any absolute certainty to a third person, for the establishment of a common language is a statistical process with a finite residual error-probability even for the most elementary conceptions ; and this indeterminacy of meaning applies equally to communications between intelligent beings and to the raw information gathered by the absorption of electromagnetic or acoustic radiation or of vapours from, or contact with, the recipient's environment.


  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Lack, David, Nature, 187, 98 (1960).

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CLARKE, G. The Relativity of ‘Meaning’. Nature 188, 606 (1960).

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