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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 25 2012: Arguing semantics may or may not be important depending on the context. I=Semantics is the study of meaning. Thus, if we want to ignore everything about a discussion because it is semantics we might be veering into unintelligibility. ANything goes. In the Dawkins case, some discussions on semantics were too stupid "he is no African ape because he was not born in Africa," versus "he is an African ape because the species originated in Africa." Others were not stupid because the meaning of ape was important for the contextual problem: evolution and our relationship with the rest of life. So. Give me the context and then I can decide the importance of a discussion on semantics. But let us not make it just about semantics as in "who defines this word?" or "ape according to what definition." Context means a lot. Context is important for proper semantics. So, if we are talking about evolution versus stupidity ... sorry, I mean versus creationism ... then it is not a matter of definitions, but a matter of understanding. If we deviate into discussing the semantics, rather than put the word in context and thus talk about the problem, rather than about the word, then I agree, we go nowhere. So, if a friend were telling me "according to what definition," I would say, look at the context!

    Anyway, I don't think I went anywhere in the above. Did I?
    (It depends on the definition of "going anywhere" that you are using!)
    • Apr 20 2012: When discussing precise things; measurements, directions, danger. The exact meaning is very important. When it comes to subjects like music, emotion, or god; we could argue semantics all day and in the end we would really just miss the point. It also seems samantics are important when discussing subjects such as how we should "distinguish absolute-relative from objective-subjective".

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