Meaning what?

August 17 2023

Paul Grice’s 1957 paper on meaning is a favorite of mine. His style is an acquired taste, but once you get used to it, it is an absolute delight to read. For instance, his example contrasting the photograph with the drawing, while instructive, took me a long time to fully comprehend:

(1) I show Mr. X a photograph of Mr. Y displaying undue familiarity to Mrs. X.
(2) I draw a picture of Mr. Y behaving in this manner and show it to Mr. X.
I find that I want to deny that in ( I ) the photograph (or my showing it to Mr. X) meant,, anything at all; while I want to assert that in (2) the picture (or my drawing and showing it) meant something

The example, and his explanation that follows, leads him to come up with a succinct definition of non-natural meaning:

A uttered x with the intention of inducing a belief in B by means of the recognition of this intention.

Breaking down the different intentions in the definition is helpful. There are 3 distinct and inter-dependent intentions:

  1. A intends to induce a belief in B.
  2. A intends for B to recognize their intention to induce said belief.
  3. A intends for B to gain this belief by means of recognition of the first intention.

I’ve been thinking a lot of this definition of meaning in the context of ‘AI generated’ art. The usual suspects are confused why ‘AI generated’ art hasn’t taken off. The obvious answer is that it’s because we know it’s not made by a person — if we know something was solely software generated, we lose our ability to connect. But is this the same thing as saying we know that the generated art is meaningless? A work of art is not an utterance, so Grice’s definition will need to be adapted, but what needs to change?

Originally, I was going to go conclude this post nicely by going through the intentions when a person makes art. But I realize now that this would be unsatisfactory without answering the questions I just raised, and answering those would be a much longer post. I’ll come back to this one day, but revisiting the paper, and writing down the definition was fun.

How to talk about people so that you alienate them

July 15 2023

I have one year left in my PhD. It’s fascinating looking back and reading my previous two (1, 2) blog posts on the topic of my research. In addition to loosely charting my thinking on the topic over 2 years, I’m glad I wrote about my feelings on it as well. My initial fear has evolved to a healthy motivational fear — I have to figure out the next step if I want to get things done. Wanting to be done with grad school is a great motivator at the moment. There is a small part of me that’s afraid that I might have nothing to show at the end of it all, but I’ve plowed through that fear so many times at this point it’s a trace of what it used to be.

This is an evolution even from my most recent post, where I was still quoting the Litany against fear for my research. Of all things. At this moment.

So what’s new since then? Two papers, a talk at EACL that was received well by a few choice people, and most importantly, an idea for a long-term research niche. Generalization, in Language, and across languages and communication mediums. A rich vein I can harvest for years to come. If I stay in academia.


April 11 2023

This blog is called Manmade, but unless you subscribe through RSS, you wouldn’t know. Its partially from an oft-repeated Hitchens quip: ‘Religion is manmade’. However, I first recall hearing the compound in a longer context — Religion is manmade; in fact it is male-made. I’m paraphrasing for now since I can’t find the debate or talk where Hitchens said this. I’ve since heard versions of this said by many others, including Steve Jobs:

Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.

I’m thinking about this today, but in a different context than what Hitchens or Jobs ever intended (probably). All the bigotries and unjust hierarchies that surround us are manmade. The ‘traditions’ that we impose on others, even those we love are manmade. Culture is manmade — just because something is part of ‘our culture’ doesn’t make it moral. I wish it was easy for everyone to accept this truism. Until then, I’m resigned to suffering on account of the cultural obstinacy of loved ones, although I console myself with the thought (or promise to myself) that I would never impose the traditions and customs that comfort me on my children. The cycle ends with me.

Unrelated to all this, I feel…weird quoting Hitchens so often when I write here. One day I’ll write about my heroes, Hitchens (one of them), and how my thoughts and feelings with regards to him have evolved over the years.

I'd like to have a narrow, precise argument please

March 31 2023

I was reading Resident Contrarian’s recent blog post when a throwaway line at the beginning caught my attention, prompting a longer train of thought:

The most troublesome arguments to try to make are those that are both very specific and limited (and are by nature of that more or less non-controversial) …

I’ll need to re-read his post multiple times to understand his actual argument — I find that often true of him, and the rationalist community (even though he hates them). Until then, I want to address just these lines, and the sentiment behind them, which frustrates me in many aspects of my life.

Yes, specific and limited arguments are less controversial, but they’re not less interesting. I firmly believe being specific and narrow in your line of questioning or argument (or even interests) is a good thing. It usually doesn’t carry the baggage that RC is afraid of — or if it does, just state that you don’t want to generalize outright and move on.

I see this with research all the time; work on a niche subject or topic needs to be generalizable beyond the domain of analysis, or the authors will have a hard time with reviewers. You can’t just study, for instance, how Eagles fans talk about Cowboys fans online. What about other teams? What if its not online? What if its not sports? I get that a research question is always grounded in past and contemporary work, and we need to be cognizant and report that, but I think we’re overdoing it in Computational Linguistics and NLP right now. Anything and everything you do has to be generalizable, or fit into the existing work perfectly.

Not that this is a unique problem with research in my area, or research in general. Arguments online and in-person get derailed because we forget the specific circumstance or incident — it’s so much easier to generalize without actively wondering if it makes sense to generalize. I do this too, and am trying hard everyday to counter this (I suspect) deep-rooted tendency in my mind to find patterns, over-generalize, or at worst, stereotype.

I’m not happy with this post as it stands; I feel like I’m jumping between the specificity of arguments, questions, beliefs, and thoughts. That’s fine — I’ll always be thinking about this, and writing my thoughts down clarifies them for me. Maybe in a few months, I’ll revisit this topic. But today, I do want to mention and link to two comments that resonated with me, and possibly catalyzed my thinking on this topic. First, from Christopher Hitchens in this video (starting from 18 seconds in), on how to ask a question:

Here’s a piece of advice about asking a question. Try and narrow it down a bit… if you give me too much to chose from, you’re likely to get everything or nothing, and I certainly can’t give you everything…

Also, here’s Nikki Giovanni, starting at 21:10, on being parochial in her activism (the entire interview is amazing):

… because I tend to be parochial, for one thing, and I tend to care about Afro-Americans … It’s very parochial because I don’t care about my third world brothers and sisters … If I deal with my block, and you do with your block, we’ll have two good blocks.

Being parochial in one’s passions might seem like a different thing from what I was talking about earlier, but they’re not separate in my mind. I don’t think I’m overgeneralizing here to lump these two together. I think what they’re both saying succinctly describes the value of being narrow, be it in questions, arguments or interests.

Language is for writing is for thought

March 11 2023

Kate Manne, over on her lovely substack:

I write in this space in order to put ideas out there quickly, often in an unpolished form. I like the idea of sometimes making my mistakes in a relatively open forum. Unlike an article, or a book, which are years and years in the making, this substack newsletter capitalizes on my strong desire to write, sometimes quickly: to seize a few hours or even minutes here and there, and try to articulate ideas which have sometimes nagged at me for a decade or more without ever reaching fruition. By and large, I think by writing.

All my agonizing over what this blog is for, and what I should write about, and why, and someone else puts it down in better words than I ever could. Like it does for her, writing clarifies and helps me think. I don’t however, think by writing right now — I would, however, like to. I aspire for it, for its own sake.