George Walford: The Matter with the Word

Adherents of different ideologies find themselves talking past each other. Even when sincerely doing their best to communicate, misunderstandings arise, and one reason is that they use words in different senses. For an eidostatic, profit appears as a laudable part of the producrive system, providing both the incentive and the material means to keep it functioning. For an eidodynamic this six-letter word might as well be a four-letter one; the good society will produce goods for use, not for profit. For the one, profit comes as oil on the wheels, for the other as grit in the works. In order to know the sense in which ‘profit’ is being used one needs to know to which of the two great ideological classes the speaker belongs. Words are not like the atoms of the billiard-ball universe; they are used, some more obviously than others, to express particular sets of assumptions concerning the universe, and their intended meanings change with the assumptions of the user.

David Papineau brings forward W. V. Quine’s assertion that each word derives its significance from its role in our total network of theoretical assumptions. He protests that if this be accepted it follows that to make any change in this network is to change the significance of every word in the language. [1] True enough, but it hardly seems to present a problem, being merely another version of the observation that to move a finger is to change the universe (since a full definition of the universe would include the position of that finger). One change in our network of assumptions does change all the words in the language; whether that change is significant, or even perceptible, is another matter.

The important thing here is Quine’s acceptance that the assumptions govern the words, rather than vice versa, and this view is not hard to confirm; the terms in any discourse vary in their intended meaning according to the assumptions of the speaker. ‘Atom’ carries one meaning, among classicists specialising in Democritus, another among nuclear physicists. Christians understand ‘God’ in one sense, Buddhists in another, and each of the major ideological groups gives ‘rational’ a meaning rejected by the others.

[1] TLS 3 July 92.

from Ideological Commentary 61, August 1993.