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Felix Malmenbeck

Student , Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, Sweden


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Where does arguing semantics get us?

[EDIT: Changed things a bit to direct the conversation towards semantics, not apes.]

SUMMARY: Who really decides what words mean?
If I say humans are animals, and my friend says they're not, we're probably just relying on separate definitions of the word "animals". Who are we to say that one definition is more correct that the other?
What authorities can we appeal to? Do definitions become more or less correct by virtue of their usefulness, or by majority opinion, or by some other virtue?

The issue came up recently in an article by Vasko Kohlmayer: "Is Richard Dawkins an ape?"

In this article, Kohlmayer asserts that "Richard Dawkins is certainly is no African ape.", and proceeds to list traits that he thinks separates humans from apes.
[He actually goes a bit further than that, posing it as an argument as evolution, but that's not what I intend for this discussion to be about.]

It's not difficult to come up with counter-arguments, and indeed the discussion went on in the comments section:

"Humans are apes because A."
"No they're not because B."
"B is irrelevant."
"It's just as valid as A, because C."
"No, it's not, because D."

Several arguments were put forth, some appealing to taxonomical definitions, others appealing to authority, some appealing to emotion, some appealing to semantic relativism and some simply amounting to "I don't agree."

What I'd like to understand is... Do such discussions actually get us anywhere?
Even if one side were to convince the other, would we actually be better off as a species? When can one definition ever be said to be more "correct" than others?


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    Mar 23 2012: My own thoughts on the matter:

    Language is many things: A tool for communicating concepts, a tool for eliciting emotions, a toy to amuse oneself with...

    When one moves into the field of assigning labels to things, however, and when one uses those definitions to formulate arguments, I feel that one needs to emphasize the first role - a tool for communicating concepts - and the main merit of a definition becomes clarity.

    At this point, referring to some authority becomes useful.
    "X says W is defined as D. Please bear this in mind when considering my arguments."

    If you wish to use a definition that is widely disagreed with, and the concept it describes is central to your argument, it's a good idea to acknowledge common definitions and explain how yours differs.
    "X says W is defined as D. Y says W is defined as E. In my argument, I shall be defining W as F. Please bear this in mind when considering my arguments."

    It also becomes important to keep this in mind when quoting people as a part of your argument:
    If you define W as F, and you find a scientific paper linking W to X, you can't always assume that the paper says there's a link between F and X; you must ask yourself: "Are we using the same definition of W?"

    If you do this, people may still argue over whether or not it's a good definition by whatever virtue, but at least anybody wishing to analyze your argument will have the ability to do so, because whatever definition they prefer, they can "translate" your argument using the "key" you've provided.
    This allows the conversation to move on to the argument itself, without getting bogged down too much in semantics*.

    *Not to say that semantics aren't INTERESTING, because I think they are (otherwise I wouldn't have started this thread); it's just that sometimes you want to keep discussions separate, and it's seldome appropriate to use semantics as an argument for or against a theory in, say, evolutionary biology or cosmology.

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