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“Only Semantics”

April 6, 2012

Last time, I took as my subject Frege and Kant’s inversion of the language-world relationship—at least as far as order of explanation goes. Because these posts are my attempt to modularize and make suitable for the web content that I’ve already (largely) dealt with in a more extensive paper, it seems appropriate at this point that I step outside of the argument for a moment and talk a bit about what the point is. In what follows I hope to place the argument and its terms in a wider context and, in doing so, to provide an answer to that all-important question, “who cares?”

“Who cares?” is, I think, more important to the philosopher than to the scientist. There are plenty of reasons why this is the case. Not the least of which is that the fruits of philosophical labor are far more difficult for the uninitiated to enjoy. Very few people need to understand relativistic mechanics for everyone to enjoy the increased efficiency of a global positioning system. The enjoyment in developing a deeper comprehension of how we cope in and with the world in our various activities is the type of things which requires each person to reflect for themselves. What one finds in a book of science or philosophy is only information and fact once the internal struggle—that struggle which is essential and internal to philosophy’s utility—of finding the place and the relations for various terms has been completed. Learning, at its core, is more akin to subduing and killing metaphors than to internalizing facts for later regurgitation.

The question of what meaning is, where it comes from, and how it relates to the world is, after Kant and Frege, a central topic in philosophy which philosophers have come to call semantics. Facing superficial arguments about which word is more or less appropriate to a subject matter than some other, people often say that it’s just a matter of semantic and that it would be foolish to waste time arguing about appearance when more substantive matters in some debate require attention. This is a bizarre example of a piece of technical language being perverted to a use which is exactly the opposite of its meaning; if an argument about words is merely superficial, then it is precisely not a matter of semantics.

So, I’m going to spend a little time talking about science and why understanding science depends on understanding meaning.

Science and Meaning

The central problem in the philosophy of science is what criteria exist which can separate science from non-science. This is commonly referred to as the problem of demarcation and, looking to the etymology of ‘science’ we can see that the question has been central to philosophy from its foundations: ‘science’ is derived from the Latin ‘scientia’, which is translated as knowledge. As difficult as it is to say in any exact terms where modern philosophy begins—some draw the line at Descartes, others at Hobbes—it is clear that thinkers from this time put the study of knowledge, epistemology, at the center of their studies. This fact is reflected in the means by which they are commonly grouped: prior to the critical philosophy, modern philosophers were by and large either empiricists or rationalists. The question for them was what separates knowledge from non-knowledge.

The question of demarcation as one encounters it in the philosophy of science can be taken to be separable from this broader notion as the question of what separates scientific knowledge from other varieties of knowledge (whatever those might be). That this distinction doesn’t hold water is simple enough to show: if we supposed that it were, we’d be assuming that there are differences in kind between knowledge-making practices. Supposing this true, what are we to say in those cases (however rare) in which spheres of knowledge are in disagreement? It simply won’t do to say that x and ~x are both true in their respective spheres. That way lies an untenable relativism. Either there’s been some problem of interpretation such that x is systematically different between the spheres of knowledge-making practice in question or we will have to appeal to some higher criteria of knowledge. And, if such a higher set of criteria exist, it is unclear why we keep around such flawed epistemological spheres as science and whatever else we suppose fills an analogous role with respect to knowledge.

The situation, then, is this: studying science to try and determine what it is that makes some beliefs good and others bad is a good practice because of how decidable the cases of success are, but the conclusions that we might draw about knowledge apply more generally. When studying the problem of demarcation from a historical perspective with an eye towards the sciences, we are bringing modern tools to bear on the epistemological problems of Descartes and Hume. But, if we’re interested in those problems, it would be foolish to ignore the work of Kant. Kant’s move was to shift the focus from questions of successful representation (but how can I know that the chair that I sit on is really here at all?) to questions of the meaning of our terms (well, obviously this chair is here because whatever it is that I mean by chair, this is one of them…).

That’s enough about the importance of semantics. If you’re interested in seeing how semantics has been important in the philosophy of science, try to read Thomas Kuhn’s work as a response to the rationalist/empiricist debates of the 17th and 18th centuries. Also: go read some Paul Feyerabend if you’d like to see an even more radical critique than I’ve offered (because of the brevity of the post rather than any disagreement I have with him on the matter) of the notion that science constitutes a natural kind.

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