Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Fifty Years Ago in ETC. (Retrospect)

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Fifty Years Ago in ETC. (Retrospect)

Article excerpt

Foreword to Special Issue on Information Theory

Our readers will recall the Special Issue on Metalinguistics, ETC., IX, 161-240 (Spring 1952), which was entirely devoted to matters pertaining to those aspects of language which seem to mould the patterns of thought. The response to that issue was so encouraging that we immediately made plans for another similar attempt. The present issue is the result.

The common theme in the material we have selected is Information and Communication. What makes the recent developments in this field especially interesting to students of general semantics is that they are centered around the foundations of a mathematical theory of information and communication. To quote D. M. MacKay,

In everyday speech we say we have received Information, when we know something that we did not know before: when "what we know" has changed. If then we were able to measure "what we know," we could talk meaningfully about the amount of information we have received, in terms of the measurable change it has caused. This would be invaluable in assessing and comparing the efficiency of methods of gaining or communicating information.

Information Theory is concerned with this problem of measuring changes in knowledge. Its key is the fact that we can represent what we know by means of pictures, sentences, models or the like. When we receive information, it causes a change in the symbolic picture or representation which we would use to depict what we know. It is found that changes in representations can be measured; so "amount of information," actually in more than one sense, can be given numerical meaning.

A mathematicized science is a non-aristotelian science, because it is concerned with dynamic relations among events rather than static properties of objects, with the structure of a phenomenon rather than its "nature." Physics became non-aristotelian when Galileo substituted extensionally oriented measurement for the intensionally-oriented categorical classification of aristotelian philosophy.

The greatest triumphs of science were successful mathematizations: of statics by Archimedes, of dynamics by Galileo and Newton, of thermodynamics by Helmholtz and Gibbs, of electro-magnetic phenomena by Maxwell, of genetics by Mendel, of evolution by Haldane, Fisher, and Wright, of atomic structure by Schroedinger, Jordan, and Heisenberg.

The importance of the new theories of information and communication is in that they extend the mathematical method to include events that had long been considered beyond the scope of the exact sciences. In fact, questions like "How much does he know?" or "How much has he said?" are still considered by most people as metaphorical uses of the concept "How much?" In the mathematical theory of information and communication, these questions acquire precise meaning, that is, they indicate operationally meaningful procedures aimed at obtaining answers. True, these procedures can be applied as yet only in very circumscribed situations. It must not be supposed that the communication engineers are about to build a device which one can attach to somebody's head in order to read off the extent of his knowledge or that the meaningfulness of a political speech can soon be indicated on a scale. The applications of the new theories are much more modest. They are concentrated in the technical aspects of signal transmission an d deal mostly with the engineering problems of communication: channel capacities, coding systems, fidelity, types of modulation, etc.

But there is more to these problems than electronics. For the communication engineer is now interested not only in the signal but also in something which is carried by the signal, namely "information." Modern communication engineering stands roughly in a similar relation to physics as psychology stands in relation to physiology. …

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