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'no' And 'NO!' - To Dick

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Posted by Aurino Souza on May 7, 2002 15:01:27 UTC

Hi Dick,

There is something I've asked you several times, in several different ways, which you have consistently failed to understand, or so it seems from my perspective. It's something which I believe is the missing link between the ideas in your paper and what everyone else has in mind, in a way. I suppose much of the misunderstanding your ideas provoke comes from your failure to rocognize or address this issue, but the issue is extremely subtle so I don't really know how to address it myself. As I said, I've tried several times with no success. I'll try once more.

When I asked you what was the difference between 'no' and 'NO!', your answer made it clear that you either don't understand what my question was or don't want to talk about it (I suspect it's the latter, but it doesn't really matter). In any case, let me try and be more accurate. I will propose a loose definition of 'meaning' as follows:

M(T) = M(t0) + M(t1) + M(t2) + ... + M(tn)

That should read as "the meaning M of a communications token T equals the sum of the meanings of sub-tokens t0 through tn". That is, I'm defining communications as an exchange of meaning, which is accomplished by building large tokens out of smaller, more fundamental ones. An important point here is that any failure on the part of the receiver to know the meaning of any subtoken as intended by the transmitter will lead to misunderstanding. And while it's true that humans miscommunicate more often than they effectively communicate, when you stop to think about all the tokens whose meaning a person must know a-priori, before any attempt at communication is established, then it is almost a miracle that we can communicate at all. But I digress.

The point I'm trying to make is this: the meaning of a word is not restricted to the word itself, but it encompasses the entire circumstance in which the word is being heard or read. Pitch, timbre, volume, facial expressions, typeface, font size, context, environment, and so on and on and on, all that adds meaning to a particular instance of a word. Because of that, words seldom hold the same meaning twice. And the issue I'm trying to talk to you about is, that part of the meaning of words which is not contained in the word itself cannot be communicated by words or any other set of symbols, and the interesting thing is that in most cases that aspect of meaning is a-priori knowledge, a large portion of it falling under what we refer to as 'reality'.

In a nutshell, what's different between 'no' and 'NO!' happens to be exactly the same thing that is common between 'NO!' and 'NYET!' and 'NEIN!' and 'NON!'. There are as many ways to say 'no' as there are languages, but there's only one way to communicate whatever it is that you're communicating when you shout.

This might appear to be a little insignificant detail in linguistics, but I don't think so. The real issue here is that everything we 'know' is ultimately based on stuff we don't 'know', stuff we are not aware of but which plays an absolutely fundamental role in our understanding of anything at all. What I think that means is that knowledge, by its very nature, is limited, which to me means we should never use our knowledge as anything more than a rough guide to life. Placing too much trust in it is a recipe for self-deception. And when I say knowledge, I mean any kind of knowledge, no exceptions.

Does that make any sense? I apologize for not having time to further elaborate.



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