Some Thoughts on Semantics

by Kurt Cagle

My father is a student of semantics, and he was the one to first get me interested in it. His own interest came when he went to university, around the time that such seminal figures as S.I. Hayakawa, Noam Chomsky and Marshal McLuhan were challenging the boundaries of what we mean by meaning. Hayakawa, linguist and protege of the great Korzybski, examined the way that language is both shaped by and shapes our thoughts, our interactions, even the underpinnings of what we call civilization. Chomsky is perhaps known today more as an impassioned speaker against the rise of corporatism, but at the time he was doing ground-breaking work exploring the origins of language and the process of learning how to speak, write and thing. McLuhan, on the other hand, challenged our assumptions about the various media of communication, and is perhaps most known for the statement, "The Medium is the message".

Curiously, none of these three were "engineers" in the sense that we think of the term today, nor were they programmers. Their questions revolved around the issues of how humans deal with communication, with turning musical grunts, trills, coughs and clicks into abstract concepts and ideas that could be both contained within ones own head and passed along to others.

Fifty years have passed since the heyday of this generation of semanticists ... McLuhan and Hayakawa both passed away years ago, Chomsky celebrates his eightieth birthday next year (he was born December 7, 1928). The world has changed in ways both subtle and profound since then, but one of the most significant is the fact that semantics has gone from being a branch of philosophy to being a branch of computing. Oh, surely not, you may protest - there are many things far more important than this - computers in general, the evolution of aircraft, the space programs, biotechnology ... all must be more important than the shift of an obscure part of philosophy into an obscure part of programming.


Josh Peters
2007-03-22 14:23:13
Kurt, perhaps you can help me with a stumbling block I have with regards to interest in the Semantic Web. Where are the dictionaries/references? One thing that keeps me from grasping the usefulness today of the semantic web is I don't know where to find a lookup of URI => terms.

As a sample project, let's assume I want to make a mapping of "The Cat in the Hat" into RDF. How do I get started? Where do I find the correct and corresponding URI for the word "cat"? Where do we start in mapping the semantic relationships in this work? I could create URIs for all of the words myself and be happy with my effort, but that effort is not all that useful to the rest of the world unless my terms are reusable. How would one get going?

2007-03-22 20:42:58
Link systems for creating inferences are already in use as investigative tools for police forces world wide. Discovery tools that troll OSI (open source intelligence) databases looking for patterns of activity that warrant further investigation are coming online now.

It's a bit late to worry about the whether or not. There were as many reasons to sponsor the Semantic Web as there are investigative agencies easily, and that train has already left the station.

A fun thing to think about is what is the equivalent of a radar detector to the investigative acts of these bots: IOW, how to disguise activity and how to detect investigations, and would such anti-policing software be legal to create or own? Certainly, one can devise anti-semantic patterns.

Radar guns are the genesis of radar detectors.

Dave Brondsema
2007-03-27 07:52:14
Josh, lists many RDF ontologies in a nice searchable, browsable way (although I have found them to be slow in updating with new ontologies). is another great place to start, listing the most popular namespaces. Finally, for general things like "cat", using Wordnet is a popular option. See for that.
2007-06-30 12:08:01
Is there any more information about RDF besides these links Dave? I've just got in touch with this subject and it seems to be interesting.
2007-11-12 05:39:22
joey,Where are you?
Zdravko Mis
2007-12-09 14:25:44
Very interesting. My friend studies philosophy and agrees completely.
Zdravko Mis