Frank Ramsey

constant escape

winter withered, warm
Frank Ramsey was, from what I gather, a strikingly promising logician and thinker who operated in the Cambridge environment and dealt frequently with Keynes, Wittgenstein and Russell. He died at 26 years old, with much potential left unrealized. At least, that is the image that historians paint of his legacy. That, and his ability to "grind through the tractatus line by line" alongside Wittgenstein.

Just came across this logico-linguistic process of his called Ramsification, in which elements of a sentence are "existentially quantized" and expressed in logical or mathematical terms. Here is a an explanation of it, one whose examples I happen to find a bit unclear, but whose message I think gets across.

Ramsey/Lewis Method of Defining Terms
Let's say we want to explain what the different parts of a car are. Suppose we have a theory that says how the different parts of a car interact with each other, and with things our audience already understands, like air and gasoline. The theory might look something like this:
Car Theory: ...and the carburetor mixes gasoline and air and sends the mixture to the ignition chamber, which in turn...and that makes the wheels turn.
The bold terms are names for parts of the car, with which our audience may not be familiar. The italicized terms are names for things and phenomena we'll suppose our audience already understands.
Now, given this Car Theory, how might we go about explaining to people what a carburetor and an ignition chamber and the rest are? We can't just define a carburetor as something that interacts with the ignition chamber in such-and-such ways, because our audience doesn't yet know what an ignition chamber is.

What we can do is the following. First, we transform our Car Theory into an existentially quantified sentence, quantifying out all the bold terms our audience doesn't yet understand.

x1 x2 (...and x1 mixes gasoline and air and sends the mixture to x2, which in turn...and that makes the wheels turn.)
This is called the Ramsey Sentence for our Car Theory (after the philosopher and mathematician Frank Ramsey).
Next we can define what it is to be a carburetor and an ignition chamber as follows:

A carburetor = an x1 such that x2 (...and x1 mixes gasoline and air and sends the mixture to x2, which in turn...and that makes the wheels turn.)
An ignition chamber = an x2 such that x1 (...and x1 mixes gasoline and air and sends the mixture to x2, which in turn...and that makes the wheels turn.)
In this way, we explain what a carburetor is, in terms of how it interacts with ignition chambers and with other things, without presupposing that our audience already knows what an ignition chamber is. In the same way, we explain what an ignition chamber is, in terms of how it interacts with carburetors and with other things, without presupposing that our audience already knows what a carburetor is.
In addition, we've explained what a carburetor and an ignition chamber are in terms of the causal roles they play, as specified in our Car Theory. Any pair of things which play the appropriate causal roles count as a carburetor and an ignition chamber. The details of their physical construction are not important. In other words, carburetors are multiply realizable. To be a carburetor, it doesn't matter what you're made out of; only that you do the right job. (The same goes for ignition chambers.)

So this method of defining terms gives us the two benefits that we relied on Turing Machines for, earlier. It lets us:

  1. define things like carburetors in terms of how they interact with other things, like ignition chambers, without presupposing that the notion of an ignition chamber is already understood
  2. define carburetors in such a way that they can be realized by different physical mechanisms
How might we apply this method of defining terms to the mind? Well, suppose we have a theory about how our various mental states are causally related to each other, and to input and output:
Mental Theory: ...and pain is caused by pin pricks, and pain causes worry and the emission of loud noises, and worry in turn causes brow-wrinkling...
As before, the bold terms are names for mental states with which our audience may not be familiar. The italicized terms are names for various sorts of sensory stimulation, and behavioral output, which we'll suppose our audience already understands.
Now, we take the Ramsey Sentence for our Mental Theory:

x1 x2 (...and x1 is caused by pin pricks, and x1 causes x2 and the emission of loud noises, and x2 in turn causes brow-wrinkling...)
Next we define what it is to be in pain, and to be worried, as follows:
A person is in pain = x1 x2 (...and x1 is caused by pin pricks, and x1 causes x2 and the emission of loud noises, and x2 in turn causes brow-wrinkling...) & the person has x1.
A person is worried = x1 x2 (...and x1 is caused by pin pricks, and x1 causes x2 and the emission of loud noises, and x2 in turn causes brow-wrinkling...) & the person has x2.
The functionalist thinks that all of our mental states can be defined in this way. Anything which has states which play those causal roles counts as having a mind, and whenever it's in the first of those states, it's in pain, and when it's in the second of those states, it's worried. It does not matter what the intrinsic make-up of those states is. In humans, they are certain kinds of brain states. In Martians, they would likely be different sorts of states. In an appropriately-programmed computer, they would be electronic states. These would be different physical realizations of the same causal roles. The functionalist identifies our mental states with the causal roles. How those roles are realized is not important.

Common-Sense vs. Scientific Functionalism
Where does the theory that the functionalist uses to define our mental states come from?
  • The common-sense functionalist says that the theory is an a prioritheory, made up of platitudes about our mental states that everyone who has the concepts of pain, belief, and so on, tacitly knows, or at least, is in a position to recognize as true. (This is also sometimes called analytic functionalism. Block simply calls it "Functionalism.")

  • The scientific functionalist says that the theory is an a posteriori theory, which we only learn as a result of scientific investigation of how our minds work (the sort of investigation they do in cognitive science labs). (This is also sometimes called empirical functionalism. Block calls it "Psycho-functionalism.")
Note that not every causal fact about a mental state has to enter into the functionalist's definition of pain. Different carburetors can have causal properties which play no role in making them carburetors: my carburetor might shimmy a bit, while yours whistles. These facts are irrelevant to their being carburetors. In just the same way, our mental states might have some causal properties which play no role in making them the mental states they are.
It is a very difficult matter to know which of a mental state's causal properties ought to enter into the definition of that mental state, and which are merely accidental.
No idea who Lewis is, though.

I guess my interest lies in how this can connect to the philosophic/semiotic obstacles of structuralism/post-structuralism. Is this an "analytic" means of approaching the "continental" problem of differance? Can't say I'm all that familiar with Derrida, but differance seems to denote the tendency for the meaning of one thing to be predicated/dependent on the meanings of many other things, if not every other thing. This is a problem if one is trying to pin down the meaning of something, because it not only demands that one has already pinned down the meaning of everything else, but it also seems to involve a constant reshuffling of the deck. That is, every time you become more familiar with a thing, the meanings of all other things change.

Anyone here with knowledge of poetry or linguistics: can the dimensions of metonymy and metaphor be converted to a mathematical syntax? Is metonymy just the dimension of sequence (like melody) and metaphor the dimension of parallel (like harmony)? What would the mathematical expression of this be? And how robustly could this mathematical expression capture the the nuance of language as a whole?

There was a New Yorker article on him that somebody forwarded me, which is where I first learned about him, but here is the audio of it:

 

suspendedreason

Well-known member
Continental's difference, does, I think, posit that semiotic meaning is constituted by its distance from other members of the system. This is in direct contrast to a kind of "positivist" conception of meaning. My take would be that meaning is something between these: that it is both the correspondence between world and sign, as well as the coherence between signs, that coordinates the meaning of a message. But I'd also imagine there are plenty of continentals who wouldn't disagree.

Unfortunately, the analytic project to formalize language (which Ramsey's mathematical "translation" of meaning stands as an extreme example of) failed, for reasons that seem obvious in retrospect. The meaning of utterances vary widely even between native speakers, depending on the speaker's subcultural background but also on situational context, theory of mind inferences about the listener, etc. And words are inherently, intractably "polysemous." The semantic stability a project like Ramsey's (or Russell's) required is nowhere to be found in real language usage. Conceptual analysis, the old analytic philosophy of deducing the "constituting criteria" of a word, has been abandoned as a philosophical project, more or less, and been replaced by conceptual engineering (which apparently was what Carnap was up to in the first place; go figure...). I wrote an introduction to the history of the analytic project, and the new "engineering language" project that has replaced it, that might interest you.
 

constant escape

winter withered, warm
I like how you frame it, tie it together. I hadn't thought of continental/analytic semiotics like that - but I would tend to agree that, generally, both poles need to be pushed as if they alone were correct, in order for the (actually correct?) balance to be reached. Although we can also argue that this "actually correct" balance is always on the horizon, no?

Only a few paragraphs into your piece, and already I'm interested. Your off-the-bat point on the necessary and sufficient boundaries/qualifications for a concept is insightful, something that I struggle with greatly. There seem to be wonderfully elaborate (or horribly complicated) circuits of reification at play, circuits that seem to weave in and out of our conscious readings of things. That is, once we study/name a thing, we shift gears and begin catering/appealing to the labels/categories we impose onto the thing, as if they were the thing.

This could be a stretch, but one that may perhaps yield interesting thoughts: if we frame language as a system, what would be its environment? What would a cybernetics of semiotics entail? I feel like much of the discourse around semiotics implicitly involves dynamics that can be read cybernetically, but has anyone taken an explicitly cybernetic approach to semiotics? That is, how language can be figured as a system in an environment, or how language can be figured as the environment for smaller systems, such as disciplines, etc?
 
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