The Meaning and Etymology of ‘Information’

‘Information’ can mean many things. As someone working within the philosophy of information, I have (and sometimes argue for) my select uses of the term. Nonetheless, the term is undoubtedly attached to a range of phenomena. A nice summary of this fact is found in the Wikipedia entry on information:

Information as a concept has many meanings. The concept of information is closely related to notions of constraint, communication, control, data, form, instruction, knowledge, meaning, mental stimulus, pattern, perception, and representation. In its most restricted technical meaning, information is an ordered sequence of symbols.

The French mathematician Rene Thom neatly captured this polysemantic nature, by calling ‘information’ a ‘semantic chameleon’, something that changes itself easily to correspond to the environment.

The etymology of ‘information’ is interesting. Again from Wikipedia:

The English word was apparently derived from the Latin accusative form (informationem) of the nominative (informatio): this noun is in its turn derived from the verb “informare” (to inform) in the sense of “to give form to the mind”, “to discipline”, “instruct”, “teach”: “Men so wise should go and inform their kings.” (1330) Inform itself comes (via French) from the Latin verb informare, to give form to, to form an idea of. Furthermore, Latin itself already contained the word informatio meaning concept or idea, but the extent to which this may have influenced the development of the word information in English is unclear.

Why this one term is so variously used is an interesting question, and one for which an answer is, and is likely to remain, elusive. Is a grand unified theory of information even possible? Claude Shannon, the father of the Mathematical Theory of Communication (a.k.a Information Theory) did not think so:

The word ‘information’ has been given different meanings by various writers in the general field of information theory. It is likely that at least a number of these will prove sufficiently useful in certain applications to deserve further study and permanent recognition. It is hardly to be expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field.

In Open Problems in the Philosophy of Information, Luciano Floridi writes:

The reductionist approach holds that we can extract what is essential to understanding the concept of information and its dynamics form the wide variety of models, theories and explanations proposed. The non-reductionist argues that we are probably facing a network of logically interdependent but mutually irreducible concepts. … Both approaches, as well as any other solution in between, are confronted by the difficulty of clarifying how the various meanings of information are related, and whether some concepts of information are more central of fundamental than others and should be privileged. Waving a Wittgensteinian suggestion of family resemblance means acknowledging the problem, not solving it.

But I think that applying something like Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance could be promising. The question is not “what is information” or “what is common to the different types of information”, but rather something like “why is the word ‘information’ so widely and variously used in language”, and is a family resemblance exhibited here? It is not about searching for some one, objective thing called information. More generally, what is the array of characteristics one draws from when they attach the term ‘information’ to something.

There are three broad options:

  1. There is one or more characteristic in this array that every usage of the term ‘information’ relates to (grand unified theory of information)
  2. There is no one characteristic, but rather a family resemblance between the characteristics
  3. Neither of the above two hold. Still, there is an array of characteristics and the presence of each characteristic in this array can be explained via some means (e.g. etymology, linguistic convention, origins and applicability within areas such as science, technology and philosophy, etc)

At any rate, information is a polysemantic concept and favours a pluralistic interpretation rather than the rigid and unduly restrictive confines of a monistic interpretation. But although information is a flexible term, this flexibility is not unbounded. Indeed, any appeal to the notion of information should accord with intuitions and justify itself through argument and application.

1 thought on “The Meaning and Etymology of ‘Information’”

  1. I have been writing a book and struggling with the concept of information overload for over 12 years. At the core of my quest has been understanding how my mind learns,processes, and synthesis this stuff we call information. This blog was very enlightening! I love the quote ” information a symantic chameleon. ”

    The irony is before I read this, I was processing the idea that “information overload” as we use it today may be caused by using symantics to loosely. Nueroscience teaches us how we speak and write correlates to how we think. Conversly, our writing and speaking reflect our thinking processes. Consequently, pluralistic usage can cause scattered processing in our brains producing a sense of overwhelm in grasping for meaning.

    The points presented here require more thought on my part. Thank you for a fresh perspective.

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