Archive for January, 2013

Meaning books

2013-01-14 1 comment

A few years ago I got interested in “knowledge representation” (which might more accurately but less catchily be called “information expression”) and this got me interested in the mechanics of semantics. I thought I knew pretty well how names, expressions, and statements got their meaning in programming languages and mathematical formalisms, but didn’t understand so well how meaning works in open-ended systems such as scientific discourse and the Internet, so did a bit of research. Below are some books that I thought interesting enough to buy. (I looked at lots of articles, too, see my Pinboard page.)

If I were to wait until I had something to say about all these books, that would be forever, so I’m just offering an unannotated list, in the spirit of Phil Agre’s somewhat longer list.

Jon Barwise and Jerry Seligman.
Information Flow: The Logic of Distributed Systems.
Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Philippe Besnard and Anthony Hunter.
Elements of Argumentation.
MIT Press, 2008.

David Boersma.
Pragmatism and Reference.
MIT Press, 2009.

Radu J. Bogdan.
Predicative Minds: The Social Ontogeny of Propositional Thinking.
MIT Press, 2009.

Bob Carpenter.
Type-logical Semantics.
MIT Press, 1997.

Martha I. Gibson.
From Naming to Saying: The Unity of the Proposition.
Wiley, 2004.

Paul Horwich.
Truth, Meaning, Reality.
Oxford University Press, 2010.

Jeffrey C. King.
The Nature and Structure of Content.
Oxford University Press, 2007.

Saul Kripke.
Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.
Harvard University Press, 1982.

Willard V. Quine.
Theories and Things.
Harvard University Press, 1981.

Scott Soames.
Philosophy of Language.
Princeton University Press, 2010.

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Preston C. Hammer

I was cleaning out a file drawer this summer and came across some manuscripts that Preston Hammer thrust at me when I met him in about 1976. I remembered this conversation well; I was happy to encounter someone who cared about programming languages and foundations of mathematics as much as I did, and was impressed with his forceful manner and unorthodox opinions. So when I looked through the papers I thought: Nowadays there’s an Internet! Maybe I can learn a bit more about this odd fellow. I started doing some searches, and collected the fruit of what became an obsession for a day or two on a web page.

He led an interesting life. He did numerical programming at Los Alamos in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, and started the computer science departments at University of Wisconsin and Penn State. I think he was frustrated that his training in (continuous) mathematics didn’t prepare him for the computational tasks he was faced with, and in his research he focused on trying to resolve the differences between discrete and continuous mathematics. He cared strongly about pragmatic education in mathematics and computation, to the extent that he came into conflict with the mathematicians he had to work with.

Anachronistically, somebody created a LinkedIn profile and web site for him, but I can’t tell who.

The amount of detail I easily found on this man, who died six or seven years before the Web started to happen, was remarkable. Dates and places of birth and death, campus newspaper stories from the 1960s, unflattering mentions in oral histories. Nothing very compromising or personal, but this research experience made me think about the information trails we all leave behind and how easy they are to follow. Public information is much more public now than it was when Hammer was alive.

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