Monday, August 6, 2012

In Defense Of Semantics, Or: Until You Can Say What You Mean, You Cannot Mean What You Say

Semantics matters.  In a debate, it is all that matters.  What matters when you’re talking with someone is what you mean by what you say, and what the other person takes you to mean by it.  That’s what communication is.  If I could just project my thoughts into your head all at once, my choice of words and the order in which I arrange them wouldn’t matter.  Words wouldn’t matter.  But I’m not a dolphin, so I have to use language if I want to communicate.

Language is a social behavior in which symbols such as sounds or gestures are agreed by participants to denote entities in the world.  The symbols are arranged according to structural guidelines of temporal progression to denote larger concepts in an organized way.  Thus, an image of a concept is projected from the mind of the speaker into the world for listeners to observe and replicate in their own minds.  This process is called communication.

The success of the project of language depends on two things: syntax and semantics.  Syntax, the rules by which symbols are organized to denote more complex concepts, is ultimately a servant of semantics.  It allows for the communication of thoughts far deeper and more intricate than the mere vocabluary.  But it has no purpose whatsoever in the absence of semantics.

In natural language, “semantics” is a set of correspondences, some between symbols and the things they denote, and others among entire sentences.  For instance, the relationship between the sentences “math is exciting and challenging” and “math is challenging” is one of semantic entailment, because the meaning of one entails the meaning of the other.  Suppose I formulate the following sentence and speak it aloud: “Oma cabeca djorglesnuff.”  Even if you know all the rules of the syntax I’m employing, my utterance will be completely useless as communication until I explain somehow that by “oma” I mean “cats”, by “cabeca” i mean “eat”, and by “djorglesnuff” I mean “mice”.  Only then can you understand what I’m trying to say, and respond with something equally meaningful that moves the discussion forward.  You can identify my declarative sentence as a specific claim.  “My oma,” you might say to me, “does not cabecca djorglesnuff.  I think you’re wrong to say they do.”

And here we’re at a point where the two of us might start “arguing semantics”, because the next thing I say is, “I didn’t mean that all oma cabecca djorglesnuff.  I only meant that some oma cabecca djorglesnuff.”  “Ah,” you say to me, “then you’re correct, but you should have specified that when you were explaining what you meant by ‘oma cabecca djorglesnuff’ in the first place.”  And you are perfectly right to call me out on that.

Why?  Because the sentence “some cats eat mice” entails the truth of different sentences than does “all cats eat mice”, and if I didn’t provide you with the tools to determine which sentences my utterances entail, then my words haven’t sufficiently meant and I’ve done a poor job of communicating.  

Consider the following conversation.
A: God exists.
B: No he doesn’t.
A: Yes he does, and I can support my claim.  Behold!

A holds up a spoon.

B: What does that have to do with God?
A: It is God.  See?  It exists.  God exists.
B: You think that God is a spoon?
A: Well... yeah.  That’s what I meant by “God”.  You’re not going to argue mere semantics with me are you?
B: You bet your boots I am.

The above two cases are perfectly legitimate grounds for substantial semantic disputes.  In both cases, one party has done a poor job of communicating, and the other rightly asked for more careful formulations of what is to be projected through language.  In the first case, the failure was a matter of ambiguity.  There were multiple propositions the speaker might have intended to convey, the distinction between the possible propositions was significant, and thus the misunderstanding was not the fault of the listener.  What the speaker actually said did mean something, but it didn’t mean as much as it should have.  What it meant was not precise enough for the purposes of the discussion at hand.  He did not mean what he said, because he did not say what he meant.

In the second case, the speaker meant by his words something outside of the standard, agreed-upon set of entities that might be denoted by them.  The reason the word “God” is mostly useless in discussions with people who are used to attending to fine conceptual distinctions is that the standard set of notions to which God might be taken to refer is very large and poorly defined; not only is there ambiguity, there is vagueness.  But in the case of a spoon, using the term “God” causes more confusion than usually comes with even that word.  The speaker did not mean what he said, because he did not say what he meant.  If A were to say “God exists,” and B were to say, “I think so too” but take “God” to mean “a porcupine”, the listener would also be making the same kind of mistake.

So you see, the more accurate and careful we are with our language, the more intricate, interesting, and useful will be our communications, and the more worthwhile will be our debates.  Clarity matters.  Precision matters.  Sensitivity to semantic distinctions is a valuable skill, as is the diligence to attend to them.  When philosophers argue semantics with you, the purpose is neither to annoy you nor to show off.  It’s to actually get somewhere with the conversation.  If we’re asking for precision and clarity, we’re doing so because we excel at identifying problems that derive from a lack of these, problems that would lead to frustrating, tiresome spirals of self-perpetuating confusion.  

There are important things to learn from people who shatter your semantic endeavors and ask you to rebuild them from the shards.  Developing the patience to face down the linguistic challenges of philosophers will lead you to wield language that is sharp and strong as the edge of a samurai blade.  And if you choose instead to dismiss such attempts at careful communication as tiresome nitpicking, do not meddle in the affairs of philosophers, nor seek what they have sought.  

If you’re too lazy to say what you mean, how are you ever to mean what you say?  And why should I believe that you do?