To be more specific, for a long time, it's seemed to me that a lot of open questions in philosophy, such as "What is consciousness?" or "What is truth?" come down, in large part, to simply defining the key term. And, to me, word meaning is determined by common usage -- words mean what we use them to mean. And that surely has to play at least some role in attempting to answer such questions, as answering the question in a way that's completely contrary to how most people use the word and think about the concept would most likely just not be useful and would be likely to cause miscommunication. But there surely has to be more to answering such questions than just trying to find the common thread in how the relevant word(s) is/are used, right? But I'm unsure where to even attempt to draw the line.

I guess maybe what I'm getting at is, where is the line between semantics and ontology? But that's a really broad question. Is there some specific more term/concept I can look up that would help me understand this better? Or a particular philosopher who's written about it?

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    The term you are looking for is Quine's "semantic ascent", "the shift from talking in certain terms to talking about them... it carries the discussion into a domain where both parties are better agreed on the objects (viz. words) and on the main terms concerning them". Semantic ascent underlied the so-called linguistic turn in 20th century philosophy. Alas, it did not live up to the hopes, see Willard, Why Semantic Ascent Fails.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 23:20
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    this is largely the question posed by the linguistic turn. Russell first thought they had dissolved a puzzle in ontology via analysis of language (Russellian descriptions). The verificationists believed that meaning- or lack thereof- finished debates in ethics, theology, etc. Later Witt was a proponent of OLP- philosophers puzzles came from bending terms out of ordinary context.
    – emesupap
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 4:36
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    Every major philosopher of language- Dummett, Frege, Davidson, Quine, Wright will say something different about how meaning informs ontology and vice versa.
    – emesupap
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 4:38

3 Answers 3


"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings."

-Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations

Investigating and clarifying definitions is an essential step toward having a productive discussion, by making sure the parties involved are using the same terms for the same things, and investigating internal contradictions and inferences. But that is just one step. Crucially, context is important. And science and society and even philosophy change, so our understanding of some terms must shift.

Consciousness is a good example, because our understanding of mechanisms is jumping forward all the time due to better ways to look at and act on the brain, plus insights from computational work like image processing, and natural language processing and approximation. But there are huge gaps, like minimal understanding of how our memory works, a remarkable lacuna in progress, as I understand it. Clarifying definitions can only pen-in edges for the task of understanding consciousness, they can't do the unfinished work of learning how we do what we do.

Wittgenstein saw philosophy as primarily a kind of 'linguistic therapy' in the way you describe. He understood it as 'shewing the fly out of the bottle', of our contradictory uses of words:

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

-Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations

So for him, the work of understanding what Chalmers calls 'the easy problems of consciousness' is for science. And the Hard Problem of consciousness is just a failure to understand we can't have a Private Language, that is it results from linguistic confusion.

Living well, meaningfully, authentically, virtuously, or by other standards, points to how there is a side of philosophy about a personal practice, of self-knowledge and skillfulness in how to be, where philosophy can be more of a toolbox we bring to bear on our own personal problems. And that is the thing about Wittgenstein's austere interpretation of the job of philosophy: you don't just clarify a definition forever, problem solved. Ambiguity, confusion, speaking at cross purposes, implied context or subtext not all parties are aware of, and a million other issues can reoccur in literally every conversation.

So we aim to develop skills. Like identifying formal and informal fallacies, helps conceptualise identify and avoid, things that come up in debate and discussion that tend to mislead or derail conversations, that may indicate bad faith in one party towards honest pursuasiin or sincere commitment to finding an answer or agreement or determining what is true.

Philosophy aims to help us think clearly and consistently, to have priduxtive discussions, and so to live well as individuals, and together. That must require an active practice, honed skills. It is an unfashionable term in philosophy, but in this answer I relate these skills to wisdom: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? Clear definitions for a given discussion, is surely the beginning of wisdom; but by no means the end of it.

  • "Clarifying definitions can only pen-in edges for the task of understanding consciousness, they can't do the unfinished work of learning how we do what we do." But is "the task of learning" how memory works even a philosophical issue at all? It sounds more like a question for neuroscience and/or psychology. Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 1:06
  • "Wittgenstein saw philosophy as primarily a kind of 'linguistic therapy' in the way you describe. He understood it as 'shewing the fly out of the bottle', of our contradictory uses of words." Hmm. What about philosophers who disagree(d) with that view? Where can I read about the arguments they made against it? Like, what's the term for that view he held so I can search for arguments for and against and get a better understanding? Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 1:10
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    @MikaylaEckelCifrese: Penrose in 'Emperor's New Mind' & 'Shadows of the Mind' illustrates how the mechanics of brains & philosophy can converge - he proposes a mechanism for memory that can account for it's apparently distributed storage. It's like in physics, if everything is steadily progressing, fine. But get stuck for 70+ years on reconciling QM & GR, then you need to rexamine framing assumptions, ie, do philosophy. If the Hard Problem exists, is philosophy. Look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_turn It's not all neat opposing camps with opposite commitments though you know..!
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 7:29

Some (hint, my bias) might argue there is no clear line between language and ontology. Outside of demonstrative definitions, definitions include words, words are subject to the regularities of linguistics, and linguistics, like the recognition of objects by intentional beings isn't the thing in itself (if you accept the general premise of Ding-an-sich at all).

As others have mentioned, the general notion of semantic ascent posed by Quine as a follow-up to the ontological reasoning of Carnap highlights a major theme in philosophy going back to the Pre-Socratics. That is, how much of 'reality' is composed of 'real things', and how much of it is merely constructed by perception and language. Duhem and others after him who advocate instrumentalism or other anti-realist positions are the later camp, and the former camp is scientific realism. Since Duhem, the conversation that transpires in philosophical circles is very much one of to what extent are things real, and to what extent are they perception, provoking an ancient question about how reliable is naive realism. If you're interested in general epistemology intersecting with the philosophy of science, it may very well be the central question.

Some answers that are known among philosophers are famously Kant's transcendental idealism popular still among neo-Kantians, constructive empiricism of van Fraasen, critical realism of Wilfrid Sellars, and the embodied realism (GB) of George Lakoff among others. What they all have in common is an attempt to craft language to address the criticisms of nominalism (SEP) against realists. The general form of the critique is that language is not a thing, that there is a difference between Word and Object, as addressed by Quine in his famous book. Since later Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and the linguistic turn a wide gulf particularly in professional philosophers has emerged between those who go so far as to make their arguments from linguistics, and those who pay lip service to the intricacies of language, but largely continue along a traditional philosophical trajectory advocating what was essentially argued by Plato 2,500 years ago.

One of the central reasons there is a divergence in philosophical positions along a realist-anti-realist axis is that there are divergent metaontological positions. If you differ on the nature of what is real and exists, then of course, you're going to differ on everything else, because a philosophical system is essentially a thesis about reality and knowledge thereof. In this way, epistemology and ontology are fundamentally linked because 'What is real?' is not that far from 'How do I know what is real?' Thus, you'll often see terms like ontological, epistemological, and methodological thrown around in philosophy to denote various flavors of thinking.

Where is the line between semantics and ontology?

Obviously, if you insist there's a line, you'll have to side with a position that defends where the line is. If you are psychologically capable of dealing with ambiguity, the better question might be, 'Where should the line between semantics and ontology be to defend a conclusion adequately?' In this way, instead of insisting that there is one-true-theory about how one can describe experience, you can admit the scary specters of falibilism and pluralism into your thinking, and see that all of philosophy is just another Sprachspiel as later LW maintained. That after all, would dovetail with Quine's notion of underdetermination and Hume's notion of inductive (un)certainty. Doing so would recognize a fundamental precept that one is free to accept or reject: language and the philosophy that we conduct with it is first and foremost a psychological disposition which allows for semantic ascent, a position, some still are hostile to, in the same way Frege was hostile to the premise in his anti-psychologism.


Words Evoke Other Items of Recognition via Associative Memories

"A Dill Pickle." by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)

"Have a dill pickle," said he, and although she was not certain what a dill pickle was, ...

The line between semantics and ontology is between the concepts of what exists and words associated with the concepts. I could multiply words concerning ontology and semantics but that would only evoke more associative memories.

  • Thoughts are made of thoughts, and words are made of words.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 11:42
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    The distinction between thoughts and words must arise at the source or origin of recognizing thoughts and words. I learned to compose this sentence in the context of forming muscle memories. I heard sounds, imitated the mother tongue in speech patterns, and I learned to type in junior high school. My mother, an excellent typist trained in the 1950s, knows where all the keys are on the QWERTY keyboard. I type without knowing the location of most of the keys at the time. I have to stop and look to find a specific key and cannot recall all key locations by memory. My thoughts are muscle memories. Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 15:21

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