Ambiguity, Ostention and Description

Pat Hayes' In Defence of Ambiguity, presented at IRW 2006, has been on my desktop for weeks, and I take it as the most challenging food for thought currently available about the Semantic Web. If you have not yet read it, you should now.
There is only one point on which I would argue. Pat holds that reference can be made by ostention (gesticulation showing what you are about) or description. All Pat writes thereafter about description being inherently ambiguous, I strongly agree with : disambiguation being a contextual process, the more precise the description, the more ambiguity you get, and so on.
But I would hold that ostention is as ambiguous as description, so that reference is ambiguous in nature whatever the way it's done.
Suppose I am holding a book and ask you : "Have you read this?". The reference to "this" is by ostention, since I seem to hold and show "this". But the "ostentatum" indicated by "this" is actually some copy of some edition of some book. Does "this" refer to this specific copy, which happens to be my own personal copy (maybe annotated in some way), or is the referent the particular edition of which this specific copy is a sample, or is it the abstract entity, the book independent of any physical support, of which what I am currently holding happens to be some physical avatar? Every one of those interpretations is meaningful, and only the context of the conversation might disambiguate. So even with ostention, there is ambiguity left.


  1. You can find strong support for your position in Quine. See also Indeterminacy of Translation

  2. Yes indeed. Pat Hayes follows Quine quite often, and once again in the quoted paper.

  3. Your objection is a good one, I think. And your appreciation of Pat's work is justified. I have been exploring some of these ideas with examples, as in Anatomy of a Reference, How to Identify Resources with URI, Ambiguity and Identity, and Problems Identifying Information. A while back I argued that ambiguity is inevitable due to the different viewpoints of discrete agents.

    But I am also working on a different extension of Pat's ideas. When viewed in an absolute sense, a word like 'bank' is ambiguous. But a particular utterance of the word, in a particular context, is not always ambiguous. Pat acknowledges this, but he seems to be operating from a bias towards the view of words in the absolute. I think it is the utterance in context that is fundamental and it is derived, secondary, and artificial to treat words as absolute and discrete. This requires the view that context is not external to words, but is actually an essential part of the utterance of each word. The word and the context are really one thing, not two. Somehow, a URI, and the context of the semantic web, must be one thing as well.

    I may continue this is in a future blog entry at http://kashori.com


Comments welcome