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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: Interesting, I have wondered about the same myself... while I was a law student there were many different definitions given by different authors of the same thing and you had to break them down and use lenguage in a somewhat technical way to descifer which is really describing reality or at least seems closer. I think definitions should be taken care of carefully, you see... if newton described gravity as "its that thing, when you fall..." maybe his folks would understand him but it would have no greater significance, the point is to describe things (with words) in a scientific way and try to prove that the words you are using are actually those that attach to what is really happening.
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      Mar 23 2012: Indeed, a rigorous, universal description gravity as a vector function carried more explanatory power than "It's that thing, when you fall" ... and yet, I sometimes find myself describing gravity in terms closer to the latter description than the former.

      I suppose there are really two different things to consider:
      WHAT is the definition in use?
      HOW is it being used? [Is it to be taken literally? Is it to be applied universally? etc.]

      Certainly, Newton meant for his description to be taken quite literally and universally, and so it was, and that's both what makes it so useful and what's allowed scientists to falsify it.

      Descriptions like "It's that thing when you fall" are certainly not meant to be taken too seriously; they're over-simplified descriptions that we give to children or use in extremely casual conversations.
      Problems don't start to arise until somebody gets it into their head to apply it more broadly than intended, and start using it in arguments without explaining what they really mean.

      The article I liked to in the original post seems a prime example. Below is my (admittedly rather subjective) summary of said article:

      The author takes a quote by a person, D, who's using a particular who's using a particular definition of the word "ape".
      He argues against that definition by setting up his own definition of an ape, without addressing the definition that D is using.

      He concludes:
      D says humans are apes. I've shown that they're not. Therefore, D is wrong about evolution.

      What he SHOULD have concluded was:
      D uses a particular definition of apes. I use a different one.
      D claims that humans are apes by his definition. I have not addressed that claim, but just so you know, according to my definition, they're not.

      In the end, because the article focuses too much on the words being used and not enough on what's being conveyed by them, it ends up having little value to the subject it's meant to address. [At least in my opinion.]

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