How semantic is the semantic web?

Just read this article thanks to a colleague: I share pretty much everything it says about the SW, so I though it wouldn't be too bad to pass it on to the next reader. Basically, it is about some very fundamental issues: what do we mean by semantics? Does a computer have semantics? If not, what's the point of the name 'Semantic Web'? I think that it's quite un-controversial the fact that the choice of the name 'semantic' web is controversial.

I guess that many of the people originally supporting the SW vision didn't really have the time to worry about this sort of questions, as they had different background, or maybe were just so excited about the grandiose idea an intelligent world wide web interconnected at the data level. Quite understandable, but as the idea is now reaching out to the larger public and maybe connecting to the more bottom-up Web2.0 movement, I think that it'd be great to re-think the foundations of the initial vision. Also with some rigorous clarification about the terms we use. The article of Chiara Carlino reaches an interesting conclusion:

So-called semantic web technologies provide the machine with data, like chinese symbols, and with a detailed set of instructions for handling them, in the form of ontologies. The computer simply follows the instructions, as the person in the chinese room does, and returns us useful informations, avoiding us the task of processing a big set of data on our own. These technologies have in fact nothing to do with semantics, because they never refer to anything in the real world: they never have any meaning, except in the mind of those expressing their knowledge in a machine-readable language, the mind of those preparing chinese symbols for the person in the chinese room. The person in the room – the machine – never ever gets this meaning. Such technologies, eventually, deal not much with semantics, but with knowledge, and its automatic processing through informatics. It seems therefore misleading and unfitting to keep on pointing with the word semantic a not semantic at all technology. It looks quite necessary to find out a new term, capable of hitting the core of this technology without giving rise to misunderstandings.

The article was also posted on the w3c SW mailing list some time ago, and generated an interesting discussion. But then, if we have to throw away the overrated 'semantic web' term, how should we call it instead? Without any doubt, this research strand has generated lots of interesting results, both theoretical and practical. Mmm maybe, mainly practical - see the many prototypes, ontologies and standards for manipulating 'knowledge'. So, continues the author, what people are doing is not really dealing with 'semantics', but building very complex systems and infrastructures for dealing with 'knowledge structures':

There is a word who seems to serve this purpose, and that is epistematics. Its root – epistéme – points out its strict connection with knowledge; nonetheless, it is not a theoric study, not an epistemology: it is rather an automatic processing of knowledge. The term informatic has been created to point out the automatic processing of informations: similarly the term epistematic is pretty fitting in pointing out the automatic processing of knowledge that the technologies we are speaking about make possible. The terms also reminds informatics, and this is pretty fitting as well, as this processing happens thanks to informatics. Eventually, the current – though not much used – meaning of epistematic is perfectly coherent with the technologies we’d like to point out with it: epistematic, in fact, means deductive, and one of the most advanced features of these technologies is exactly the chance to process knowledge deductively, using automatic reasoners who build into software the deductive rules of formal logics. The formerly so-called semantic web looks now like a new science, not bounded (and narrowed) anymore to the world of web, as the semantic web term suggested: epistematics is a real evolution of informatics, evolving from raw informations processing to structured knowledge processing. Epistematic technologies are those technologies allowing the automatic processing, performed through informatic instruments, of knowledge, expressed in a machine- accessible language, so that the machine can process it, according to a subset of first order logic rules, and thus extract new knowledge.

I like the term epistematics - and even more I like the fact that the 'web' is just a possible extension to it, not a core part of its meaning. Semantic technologies, based on various groundbreaking works the AI pioneers did some twenty or thirty years ago (mainly, in knowledge representation), have been used much before the web. Now, is the advent of the web making such a big difference to them? They used to write knowledge-based systems in KIF - now they do them in OWL - we change the language but aren't the functionalities we are looking for the same? They used to harvest big companies' databases and intranets to build up a knowledge base - now we also harvest the web - is that enough to claim the emergence of a new science, with new problems and methods? Or is it maybe just a different application of a well-known technology?

I must confess, the more I think about such issues, the more I feel they're difficult and intricate. For sure the web is evolving fast - and the amount of available structured information is evolving fast too. Making sense of all this requires a huge amount of clarity of thought. And presumably, this clarity of thought will eventually drive to some clarity of expression. Wittgenstein wasn't the first one claiming it, but for sure he did it well: language plays tricks on us. Better, with his words:

Click Here

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

Cite this blog post:

Michele Pasin. How semantic is the semantic web?. Blog post on Published on Jan. 13, 2008.

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See also:


paper  Fitting Personal Interpretation with the Semantic Web: lessons learned from Pliny

Digital Humanities Quarterly, Jan 2017. Volume 11 Number 1


paper  Fitting Personal Interpretations with the Semantic Web

Digital Humanities 2013, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Jul 2013.


paper  Semantic Web Approaches in Digital History: an Introduction

Lecture slides from the Course on digital history, part of the master in Digital Humanities at King's College, London., Oct 2011.


paper  AquaLog: An ontology-driven question answering system for organizational semantic intranets

Journal of Web Semantics, Sep 2007. Vol. 5, 2, (72-105), Elsevier

paper  PhiloSURFical: browse Wittgensteinʼs Tractatus with the Semantic Web

Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Information - Proceedings of the 30th International Ludwig Wittgenstein Symposium, Kirchberg, Austria, Aug 2007. pp. 319-335

paper  Supporting Philosophers’ Work through the Semantic Web: Ontological Issues

Fifth International Workshop on Ontologies and Semantic Web for E-Learning (SWEL-07), held in conjunction with AIED-07, Marina Del Rey, California, USA, Jul 2007.


paper  A Task Based Approach to Support Situating Learning for the Semantic Web

International Workshop on Applications of Semantic Web Technologies for E-Learning (SWEL-06), held in conjunction with Adaptive Hypermedia 2006, Dublin, Ireland, Jun 2006.

paper  Paving the way towards the e-humanities: a Semantic Web approach to support the learning of philosophy

Poster paper presented at the 3rd European Semantic Web Conference (ESWC-06), Budva, Montenegro, Jun 2006.


paper  Semantic Learning Narratives

International Workshop on Applications of Semantic Web Technologies for E-Learning (SWEL-05), held in conjunction with KCAP-05, Banff, Canada, Oct 2005.

paper  AquaLog A Ontology-portable Question Answering interface for the Semantic Web

2nd European Semantic Web Conference (ESWC05), Heraklion, Crete, Greece, May 2005. pp. 546-562