With so many threads on this forum seeming to me - from my point of view - as wars of words -can it be argued whether semantics are philosophy's oxygen? Would any philosophical debate actually take place if it were not for apparently incessant contesting of terminology?

A lot of people I meet are stuck. As self-aggrandizing as it may sound, my work focuses un-sticking them. I do this by helping them construct their own language, with which they construct their way on the basis of some facts they can rely upon.

With so many people enduring low self-esteem, I'd blame lack of clarity in language for sinking them in a soup of words with which they cannot 'correlate'. Hence, it is the fog of semantics that is usually what causes folk to get stuck in the first place. Definitive language structures and grammatical laws can help facilitate clarity and civil discourse.

Being new to philosophy and browsing many far more experienced 'philosophers' questions and answers, what I detect is that so much query/ discussion/ debate/ argument could be avoided if we stuck to the definitions.

For example, recently, I read a Forbes magazine article Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill.

Empathy is not a skill. Skills are doing words; therefore they are verbs. Apologies for being definitive and outspoken on this. But that's the nature of language. Words hold meaning. Happiness is super reliant on words possessing secure meaning. Locked-in meaning. If the meaning is down to a matter of meaning and interpretation, we could encounter conflict.

...Oh, that's where so much conflict emanates?

That last comment might read satirically for some readers. But my tonality should be regarded as conciliatory as I strive to understand. I note so much judgementalism and my heartfelt belief is understanding breeds compassion. Because there's a mountain of pain built on the back of lack of clarity. Wars are borne-out of semantic misunderstanding.

Wouldn't philosophy have so much more to offer humanity if it framed its debate with rigor? For too long, philosophy is impenetrably dense of lofty of words. At this particular moment in the history of humankind, we could all use a little straight-talk. Truth works. Anything else seems absurd.

  • "Would philosophy exist without language?" Oct 22, 2021 at 15:39
  • Absurdism? Oct 22, 2021 at 16:21
  • It is true that one of the "mainstream" movements of 20th Century Western phil is so-called Analytic philosophy whose main tool (mybe: obsession...) is with language. But language was "there" since the beginning; see Socrates in Plato's Dialogues and the basic socratic question “what is it”? Oct 22, 2021 at 16:27
  • Finding the right words, or rather concepts, is hard. Debates over competing conceptual frameworks, which are reflected in "wars of words", by their nature, cannot be "framed with rigor". And the issues they tackle are far more open ended, challenging and consequential than those so framed. "Locked-in meanings", "rigorous definitions", "straight-talk", etc., is just wishful thinking born of inexperience with the tasks philosophy faces, and superficial "wouldn't it be nice" transfer of approaches from elsewhere.
    – Conifold
    Oct 22, 2021 at 22:19

2 Answers 2


How is empathy not something that requires active doing, in the domain of feeling? Paul Bloom argues in Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion that there is a good and a bad way of doing it - so there is skill, experience, craft, in doing it. People on the autism spectrum typically don't find empathy so easy or natural, but given support & guidance typically get better at understanding mental states of others - more skillful.

Wittgenstein said

“The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.”

"What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle"

"The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work"

This has been described as the therapeutic approach to philosophy, shared with Quietism and Antiphilosophy.

It's notable that Stoicism and Buddhism aren't examples. Socrates often seems to perform a kind of linguistic therapy, this word isn't so clear, that folk-understanding doesn't work. But he firmly belonged to a tradition valuing wisdom, and that seems to go beyond only looking at word-confusion. I've argued in this answer Socrates is paradigmatic in defining what philosophy is, so is especially significant for this question: Weren't there any philosophers from Africa, America or the Middle East before Socrates?

Wisdom is very out of fashion in modern philosophy, and rarely gets mentioned. I argue in this answer that wisdom is our dilemma-solving faculty, and we have deprioritised it because science is so good at analysing, decision making is usually easy: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? But as Buddhism and Stoicism show, there are skills to wisdom, it involves scrutinising our contradictions, practicing equanimity, self-discipline, and so on. I describe these as about integrating the centre of our concerns, so for instance short term doesn't undermine long term, impulsivity and temper don't rush us to bad choices &c. It's an active process to be wise, a skill, a discipline. And circumstances, and hidden parts of us they reveal, substantially affect our ability to act wisely.

In this discussion: Why does Man ask Why questions? I made the case every discipline asks 'Why?' but philosophy is where we ask why we ask why. So we have to understand clearly, beyond everyday uses of the word, what why means, what it does. That always happens whetever philosophy goes, we need to address terminology, before we can look at dynamics.

Wittgenstein also said:

“For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” Wittgenstein, PI 43

But that mode can only look passively, not at how we should use some piece of language. When we ask why we ask why, it's not just a sociology of people doing this, it's about the purpose served, how to do so coherently and consistently.

Wittgenstein summarised his philosophy as:

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”

But that's not enough, for instance to understand Socrates. The early philosophers railed against the sophists, those seeking to pursuade without regard for truth, including that we should against our own interests eg appealing to selfishness or vanity against wider wellbeing. Harry Frankfurt called this bullshit. This points at the bigger picture. Philosophy is not just about resisting bewitchment by language, but about resisting all pursuasion to act against wisdom, whether that involves getting stuck in linguistic quagmires, or buying in to immortality through the lies of heroism, or any other mode of acting inconsistently or incoherently.

A case can be made that many philosophers have performed a similar trick, to drop old stale debates. I would argue the focus on issues of terminology, represents struggles with whole meme-complexes, summarised in them. The real therapy of philosophy is to find a way to 'drop Wittgenstein's ladder', disengage from issues that generate 'more heat than light', and find ourselves in a place of freedom to think and help, above the quagmires. Through carefully addressing words, reframing debates, and setting aside meme-complexes that don't help us to live well - and above all to act from the integrated centre of our concerns; to know and practice, wisdom.

  • 1
    Thank you, CriglCragl and Ted Wrigley. It has taken days to even start to get my head even nearly around the implications of your responses and the ensuing dialogue. I am pleased I asked the question. Relieved, in fact. There are truths ascending. Even if some is sweet and sour in the yin and yang. The "disengage from issues that generate 'more heat than light'" is THE most helpful 'state' for now. As I say, thank you. Oct 26, 2021 at 8:45

Words have established meanings because we mutually consent to giving them a particular meaning. We consent to this — for the most part as young children — because we want to communicate with others, and giving words (more or less) firm meanings makes communication possible. We all agree that the word 'cat' refers to a particular kind of thing (more or less) because cats are interesting things, and we want to talk about them, and everyone we know uses the word 'cat' to refer to them, so it's useful and convenient to go along with it. That's pretty much all there is to it.

The fact that word-meanings are based in mutual consent implies two things:

  1. That words and word-meanings can and do change over time. The modern word 'cat' came from Middle English 'catte' from the Latin 'cattus'; but 'cattus' evolved in different ways in different languages: German 'Katze', French 'chatte', Spanish 'gato'. Likewise, the reference term 'cat' evolved to 'pussycat' (arguably from the 'pss-pss-pss' sound people habitually use to call cats), and then to pussy, which then evolved to have a completely different meaning in modern usage.
  2. That it is possible to dissent: to assert that the conventional meaning of a word is inappropriate, incorrect, unacceptable, dysfunctional, or otherwise arguable. For instance, the word for a female dog ('bitch') has traditionally been used to refer to a woman one considers unpleasant. But the mere fact of this traditional usage does not imply that women must consent to this use and meaning of the term.

Philosophy spends a lot of time discussing the nuances of word-meanings because — if I may be frank — many, many people in the world use words badly: stupidly, maliciously, arrogantly, ignorantly, egocentrically... The more abstract and complex a concept is, the more room there is for error, misunderstanding, and malign intention. Short, simple, declarative 'truths' are a liar's best friend, because short, simple, declarative 'truths' don't allow for easy dissent. The more one can force people to consent to one's language, the more one can dominate their thought. The first move of every radicalizing organization — from religious cults to political extremists to outright terrorists — is to create an internal code or jargon, redefining words and reshuffling concepts, to make communication with outsiders difficult and focus members on the group's goals. Philosophy's job, in a sense, is to burn through that conceptual obfuscation. What you call 'dense and lofty words' is mainly meant to get around the implicit prevarications of simplicity.

  • So, philosophers never start cults..??
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 22, 2021 at 23:03
  • 1
    @CriglCragl: to the extent that someone is trying to start a cult (or extremist group), they are not thinking philosophically. They are working in a different mode of rationality (in Habermas' sense). Of course, there are philosophers whose work is used by people trying to establish cultishness (arguably Nietzsche and Jesus are decent examples), and there are occasional people (like Ayn Rand, and possibly L. Ron Hubbard)) whose efforts at philosophy collapse into dogmatism within their own work and lifetime. Philosophical life is never as clean and clear as we would like it to be... Oct 23, 2021 at 1:06
  • Every church began as a cult. Pythagoras' math cult, & the Academy & Lyceum, all most certainly had internal codes of jargon. I guess you could say there was something universalising about them, along the lines of the categorical imperative. Truths for all, not just the elect or chosen..
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 23, 2021 at 13:12
  • @CriglCragl: The term 'cult' just means a group of people following the teachings of one person; in that sense what you say is trivially true. But by the same token, every cult is built around a person who is (usually) thinking philosophically. Pythagoras, Buddha, Jesus., etc., begin with a deep search for understanding/meaning in the world. When they attain it, they try to spread it to others. That begins a slow process of decay: people who don't grasp the philosophy canonize and ritualize the teachings in the hopes that it will benefit others, the whole thing slowly de-evolving into dogma. Oct 23, 2021 at 15:38
  • @CriglCragl: We can even say that someone like Jim Jones, Charles Manson, [Marshall Applewhite](Marshall Applewhite), etc began on the same philosophical quest for understanding/meaning, but that their philosophy collapsed in on itself in a kind of paranoid fugue, trying to find self-consistency by isolating itself from external reflections. but then we have to start questioning whether someone is engaged in a real effort at philosophy, or merely caught in a narcissistic fantasy of 'being' wise. Oct 23, 2021 at 15:52

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