So far, we have seen that the meaning of a word is composed of two parts.  First, there is a semantic part which consists of exemplars that seek to set the range of things the word can be applied to.  Semantics is part of language as system (“grammar”).

People (in their so-called “mental lexicons”) or in dictionaries can seek to capture the exemplars through images, paradigmatic examples, a list of features, some type of definition, or any combination of these.  Even a definition that seems to capture the essence of something does not.  Images, features, examples, or definitions can only capture a more or less well-bounded range of possibilities.

For example, while a definition like “a bachelor is an unmarried male” seems pretty definitive, the Pope is an unmarried male, but not often referred to as a “bachelor”.  For words like “democracy” and “sausage” all bets are off about their semantics being rigidly definitive in the sense of defining necessary and sufficient conditions for something being a democracy or a sausage.

Second, there are situational meanings. These are the meanings people actually give to a word in situations of use, based on their semantics and the specific demands and features of the situation.  By the way, over time, situational meanings can change the range of possible applications for a word and, thus, its semantics.

The principle of sufficient reason determines how people make situational meanings.  They have to judge whether a thing or event, in an actual situation of use, is sufficiently like the exemplars in the word’s semantic meaning to merit applying the word.  How such judgements are made is a complex issue best left for later.

As we have said, lots of misery and grief comes from all this—witness poor Cain.  For an example, consider the word “sausage”.  You can readily think of all sorts of exemplars.  Or you can just say that sausage is ground up meat parts, together with other ingredients, usually stuffed inside a casing of some sort.  This is a semantic meaning for “sausage”.

Now, at the food store you have to confront applications of the word “sausage” on packages, ads, and in your own talk and decisions.  And alas there are lots and lots of different things in sausage.  All sorts of animal body parts, some of which many people (and some government agencies) don’t consider “meat”.  Here are just a few of the things other that can be in sausage: animal fat, rusk, bread crumbs, cereal, water, polyphosphates, soya, colors, preservatives, sulphites, nitrates, antioxidants, flavor enhancers (e.g., monosodium glutamate), and, of course, a wide variety of contaminates.

Government regulations define meat in such a way that pork sausage, for example, can contain up to 30% fat and 25% connective tissue and lots of ingredients that no one thinks are meat and still count both as “meat” and “sausage”.  On the other hand, some consumers would beg to disagree.

So, consumers, producers, supermarkets, economic markets, government agencies, courts, health groups, and others discuss, contest, and negotiate over what can be said to be “sausage” in actual situations.  Consumers do not want sausage to be so “pure” that it is too expensive to buy.  Producers want it not so “impure” that consumers die from eating it (because then they can’t buy it), but not so expensive that they cannot make a good profit.  Supermarkets want to keep their customers, but not go broke.  Courts are asked things like: “Just how many rat droppings can sausage have in it and not count as sausage any more”?  And people from different cooking cultures have different opinions about what can or cannot be in “real” sausage.

It’s all a mess.  All sorts of people, institutions, interests, and groups get involved and help move situational meanings in different directions through their talk, arguments, actions, interactions, purchases, and cooking.  Semantics settles nothing on its own here.  Things change.  Some people win and some people lose and this changes, too, across time.  Situational meaning is social and cultural and contestable and practical, even if people share the same semantics or language.

As far as I know no one has gone to war over what is in sausage (but somewhere they probably have).  However, plenty of people have killed, maimed, and gone to war over what “sacrifice”, “democracy”, “Christianity”, “Islam”, “white”, “black”, “fair”, “just”, “liberal”, “kin”, “family”, “God”, “honor”, “pure”, “male”, “female”, “reason”, “religion”, “science”, and many many other such words—all as messy as sausage—mean at the point of application to the world.

How do people settle arguments over exemplars and sufficient likeness other than through hate, war, intolerance, and withdrawing into meaning-ghettos?  Can two people with different exemplars for words and different ideas about what constitutes sufficient likeness really communicate with and understand each other?  How does this change across time and societies?  How can we, as activists, make things better and not worse (for example, make them worse by imposing our own values and politics on other people, even in the name of what we take to be good and moral and politically correct)?  Think about, for instance, the signs on bathroom doors and the fights over what they mean in terms of who can and cannot enter.



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March 29th, 2018

The Interpreter System (7)

Let’s return to our diagram of a human being (or, “an enviro-human system”).  I want now to look just at […]

March 27th, 2018

Joint Actor Systems (6)

The diagram I used in the last post is misleading in that it makes things look more contained and bounded […]

March 26th, 2018

A Human Being (5)

Last time, we raised the question: “What is ‘Jim”?” (substitute your own name for “Jim” here).  We think of ourselves […]

March 25th, 2018

Jim and Identities/Discourses (4)

When we make a choice, who is making the choice?  We have already seen that there are lots of things […]

March 10th, 2018

Alternates (3)

When we make a choice about ourselves often that choice is vastly undetermined by the information we have available.  Say […]

March 7th, 2018

Flourishing (2)

It makes little sense to see a human being (or any other animal) as an individual making free choices.  In […]

February 25th, 2018

Free Will (1)

Note that the question of free will simply does not arise for animals.  We think that, even for intelligent species, […]

October 29th, 2017

The Principle of Charity

October 8th, 2017

Character Education

Recently, the College of Education at Arizona State University—where I work— received funding from the Kern Family Foundation to make […]

June 15th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 6 (The End)

What killed people’s sense of mattering was the growth of very high levels of inequality.  What caused such high levels […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 5

Many of us tend to think of history as a march forward and upward. So, we tend to interpret the […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 4

The Catholic Church declined in three stages. The same was true for many other institutions.  “The Sixties” (roughly from 1963 […]

June 12th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 3

Today, we have among the highest levels of inequality we have ever had.  Drug addiction, environmental degradation, flows of climate […]

June 11th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 2

The British economist John Maynard Keynes and “Keynesian Economics” were foundational to the Bretton Woods Agreement and to the world […]

June 10th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 1

Though neo-liberalism is the “usual suspect” for the miseries of our institutions and society, it is not nearly as relevant […]

May 30th, 2017

Main Points from My New Book

Teaching, Learning, Literary in our High-Risk, High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human (Teachers College Press, 2017). Ignorance We humans […]

April 17th, 2017

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 10 The End

Neither love nor liking is necessary for the sorts of critical discussions among different frameworks that might lead to shared […]

April 15th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 9 Interpretation

Goodwill.  What could possibly encourage people in a fractured and inequitable world to have goodwill?  I, for one, do not […]

April 14th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 8 An Example

I want now to give an example of two different frameworks that certainly appear incommensurable.  My purpose here is make […]

April 12th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 7 Discussion

We are at a critical juncture now in our attempt to understand why frameworks can cause us humans such grief.  […]