Semantics: Last bastion of the small-minded

This debate was inspired by a comment of Spiritus Mundis wherein it was written that he “strongly disagrees” with my topic.

What does he mean by that?

Strongly disagreed is simply a statement of position. He is in fact, not arguing against the validity of my stance, merely suggesting that he holds another, possibly erroneous stance.

Perhaps what he really means is that he is being stubborn and pointing out his own failing in not being able to comprehend the beautiful symmetry of my logic.

Perhaps his use of the present tense signifies that he did not always hold this position, but has been thrust into it by circumstances that left him clouded as to the truth of things.
Bullshit. Clearly he thinks I am wrong, not he. That is the only interpretation that makes any sense, and any attempt to hedge out of it is merely playing word games in a deliberrate attempt to misconstrue meaning after the fact, and win a different point then the one actually presented.

I find this to be an odious tactic.

I think it’s dishonest.

For purposes of this debate let’s assume a couple of givens.

Semantics is defined as:

1.Linguistics. The study or science of meaning in language.
2.Linguistics. The study of relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent. Also called semasiology.
3.The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form: We’re basically agreed; let’s not quibble over semantics.
Next, let us not quibble about technical matters, and confine our discussion to arguing semantics in general debate. Clearly a doctor, or an engineer, or a stock trader is going to find it necessary to have precise meanings attached to words and phrases.

This is not what this is about. This is about the exchange of ideas between disparate entities, not shop-talk amongst professionals.

My thesis is as follows.

The skills necessary to communicate ideas within an honest debate should not be at issue. Two reasonably intelligent debaters can usually convey their meanings to each other and have a productive debate provided that four conditions are met:

  1. The communicator makes an honest attempt to phrase his point as succinctly and clearly as possible.

  2. The comminacatee makes an honest attempt to discern and address the intended point as best he can.

  3. Both parties are willing to address and restate any misconstruals honestly.

  4. No after the fact revisionism occurs (for example, after seeing that he’s losing a point the communicatee goes back and deliberately misconstrues earlier language in order to suggest that he was arguing a different point than he knew the comminicator to be describing. The converse would be the communicator going back and saying that wasn’t what he really meant. The worst example of this is understanding the meaning of the communicatee and deliberately twisting the words to make it seem they mean something else.

If you don’t have those four items, you don’t have an honest debate.

Most anytime it seems that a debate gets bogged down in a semantics argument, you can be pretty sure somebody’s not being honest.

Debate my meaning. Don’t play games with my words.

Interesting topic, but I’m afraid I don’t see exactly what there is to debate. Would you mind summing it up as best as possible?

What do you mean :wink:

My last sentence should do.

I strongly agree with this OP. But I would note that the phenomenon described in the OP is not that which is described in the title of the thread. The OP described someone playing semantic games as a debating technique, to avoid having to forthrightly defend the actual ideas, or to enhance a weak debating position. The title seems to describe a type of person who is petty by nature and naturally focuses on the nit-picky semantic issues as opposed to the big picture - not dishonest, just a nudnik.

We can now debate the meaning of the term “small-minded” :smiley:

Fair enough. I say it’s a good standard for general debate, so long as we have the four conditions you outlined.

However, in philosophical or technical debates, semantics may come into play. The quickest example that comes to my mind was a discussion IzzyR (Hi, Izzy! I see you on preview!) about the meaning of the term “homosexual” when applied to a person (e.g., a homosexual man). This was very relevant to the debate at hand, and was debated even though neither of us are small-minded (although I can’t speak with complete certainty about myself ;)).

So there’s my position: semantic considerations are occasionally important.


Yes, it was an interesting point. I read the thread. It fits within my thesis.

Izzy’s clarification of “homosexuality” furthered the debate. It would have been quite a different thing had he been seeking to use after the fact revisionism to disqualify valid examples disproving his thesis.

Quite true. Since you’re much better with words than I am, I’ll let you work this point into my position in your imagination.

After-the-fact semantic revisionism definitely is a tactic of last resort, and not one likely to impress anyone.

Sematic debates are also quite boring. Because then its no longer about ideas and is simply about who can be more clever with words.

That makes no sense, as semantic ideas are still ideas. When debating fine semantic points, the debate is still about ideas, the ideas that each person holds about the words and configurations thereof that were used previously in the debate. You seem to be saying that the expression of ideas is an unimportant skill. However, the debate itself can only occur between the expressions of the ideas, as the ideas themselves cannot take form and iteract with each other.

OK, I’ll shut up now.

What I meant was that I find sematics useful only up to a certain point. I like sematics untill the focus of the debate is about them.

Well, having initiated quite a few semantic arguments myself I suppose I should step up to the plate here. I don’t always do it on purpose; sometimes it is little more than correcting a person on his or her usage of a word. Sometimes it works against me, where I was the one using a word incorrectly. What are ya gonna do? :stuck_out_tongue:

But in my mind semantic arguments are crucial; the debate becomes meaningless without semantic distinction. “You know what I mean” (sometimes rephrased, cunningly, as ‘you mean what I know’) is, IMO, the worst thing a poster can say. It turns a semantic argument-- crucial to understanding a stance in aprticular debate-- into an attack, and heightens the frustration level more than necessary.

I would generally agree with the first three points; however, the interests of brevity and the interests of succinclty phrasing one’s opinion/stance don’t always form a clear position when a different person reads the same words no matter how “honest” each person is being.

Point 4 is so often referred to as “weasiling.” Though it may happen from time to time I can’t think of many debaters who use it as a tactic (who are still around) and the weasiling I’ve seen was both always called on and the “weaseler” either admitted the fact or left the debate altogether.

An important addendeum to point 4, I think, is that a particular set of comments can seem contradictory when the reader doesn’t have a clear understanding of the words used, even though the user-- in his mind-- is using them consistently.

I think semantic distinction is crucial. I think arguing semantics is necessary to furthering a complicated debate. I think that charges levied of “You’re just arguing semantics” could be responded with, “Yes; else I have no fucking clue what you’re talking about (or vice versa).” As displeasing as they may be, if one person doesn’t understand another person’s meaning, the debate itself is useless.

Yes, and I was showing the true boredom that can be had by focusing on analyzing someone’s semantics. I wasn’t really disagreeing with you. Just being sarcastic.

Basically, I was taking erl’s position that “debate becomes meaningless without semantic distinction” and construing a contradictory opinion out of your post (which you most certainly did not take) by playing with semantics.

It was really clever in my head.

But I think you make a pretty big leap when you assume that there is some obvious understanding about points 1-4, and I think there can be honest MIS-understanding, particularly item #4. What YOU perceive as a scrambling attempt to retreat from a position may in fact be poor communication or poor understanding.

As a result, I think that benefit of the doubt must always be given to the claimant of misunderstanding, unless and until it is clearly shown, over time and multpile threads, that someone has a deliberate pattern of misdirection, game-playing, denial, etc. Because how dare any of use say to a fellow doper: “I know what you really meant!” Bullshit you do. That’s way worse than playing games with anyone’s words, and insisting on precise communication is better than insisting you know another person’s mind.

And that’s the only real rule you can have.

In light of your thesis, would you agree that your posts in this thread were intellectually dishonest? It is an instance where you (and others) hijacked a thread because you disagreed with the topic. I agree with your thesis. I just wish your rules of honest debate had been followed in the aforementioned thread.

Scylla, I disagree with you to a limited extent. I think that the kind of semantic arguments you describe are inevitable if both parties are not clear from the get-go concerning how they are using words. You and I have both found ourselves on the wrong end of this.

For example, when I use the word “Christian,” I am referring to anyone who believes that Jesus Christ is God and the savior of mankind. But when Wildest Bill uses the word “Christian,” he is referring to a non-Mormon, non-Catholic, mainline Protestant or evangelical born-again Christian. Obviously, if we don’t know that at the outset about each other, we’ll be talking past each other.

When I had my go-round with you and Milo in the vegetarian thread, I was forced to point out that “vegetarian” and “vegan” mean very different things and refer to very different philosophies, whereas Milo and to some extent you were using them interchangeably.

More recently, you and erislover differed on who was using what meaning of the word “pedophile” in what points in the thread. (I don’t want to get into whether he was being deliberately deceptive or not–I don’t think he was, but that’s neither here nor there.) You claimed that “everyone knew” how you were using it, but I, for one, never read the thread using the concepts “pedophile” and “child molester” interchangeably.

When IzzyR uses the word “Bible,” he’s referring to the Old Testament. When I use the word “Bible,” I’m referring to the Old and New Testaments.

You see what I’m getting at? If someone is honestly using a word in the only sense that they know it, I don’t think it’s right of you to accuse them of misdirection, or dishonesty, or quibbling. If anything, I think the burden is on you (or anyone who finds himself in that position) to say, “I seem to be missing something–are we using this word the same way?”

No. I would not agree. Since you correctly interpreted the sarcastic tone of my and other’s posts, there was no deception.

I don’t see what semantic dishonesty you are referring to. Subtlety and sarcasm aren’t synonymous with dishonesty. Seeing as their was no semantic confusion in that thread, I don’t see how it applies to my thesis at all. If you care to explain, I’ll be glad to address it.

If your point is merely that it wasn’t merely nice, that’s a different thing all together but hardly germaine to this debate.


Yes obviously semantic confusion can occur. My point is that among honest debaters this gets cleared up pretty quickly.

If I recall correctly in both threads you refer to: The Child molester, and vegetarian rant we experienced semantic which were cleared up quickly.

If for example, in the Vegetarian thread, I had had second thoughts and tried to revise my thesis to say that I was only talking about Peta style militant vegans I would have been guilty of weaseling.

So I agree that semantic differences do occur, and when it happens it’s a good thing to stop and clear them up so understanding is achieved. This is different then making them the focus of the debate though.


A fair point fairly put. I also notice that you follow it through to it’s logical conclusion. A pattern of semantical arguments might be an indication of dishonesty, whereas a pattern of semantical clarifications within the context of debate would be an indication of a desire for precision and understanding.

I figure it’s pretty easy to tell when something becomes a semantic debate.

Everybody leaves.

I’d tend to agree.

A further point:

One type of semantic dispute is when the semantic issues concern the meaning of words used by the posters themselves. I think this has been the primary focus of this thread. But there’s also another type which occurs when one or both debaters reduce the issues themselves to matters of semantics, and obscure the actual issues. (Example: "X can’t be true because X really means Y, and Y isn’t true). I suffered through an example of this in a thread about The ‘Liberal’ Media, in which the primary focus - which dragged on for several pages - became whether the direction of media bias (i.e. mainstream Democratic Party) should really be called liberal.

This is not dishonest in manner of the other type of semantic disputes, but it is unproductive nonetheless.