Today’s rant: “that’s just semantics”

One of my biggest pet peeves goes something like this.

While talking about some complicated issue (like free will, for example), one participant makes some distinctions between words and ideas in order to elucidate some important points in the conversation.

They do so usually in response to a comment which either confuses two uses of a word, brings to mind a conceptual distinction, or otherwise indicates a bifurcation of ideas which are relevant to the conversation.

So, you articulate the relevant distinctions in order to clarify the various positions, uses, etc.  And then someone (often the person responded to) says “that’s just semantics.”

Well of course it is!  It does have to do with the definition or use of a term.  It is indeed hair-splitting of terms and ideas.  That is precisely what making fine distinctions in order to elucidate idea is about, and pointing it out is nothing but demonstrating that you are not really capable or interested in fully participating the discussion being had.

This comes up when I talk about what atheism is, especially in comparison with agnosticism.  But is happens quite frequently, and it annoys the fuck out of me.


6 thoughts on “Today’s rant: “that’s just semantics”

  1. When I point out that something is purely semantic, it’s a way of suggesting that our only disagreement is over word definitions. In other words, it’s a way of saying that we agree on the substantive points.
    As someone who frequently uses esoteric word definitions, I’d think you’d be more sympathetic to that idea.

  2. I’m about to go meta here…

    There are a couple of ways that the phrase “that’s just semantics” is used in my experience. The first is the way you referred to above. I have little to no issue with this usage, except in the rare cases where a word is defined in such a way that when used in context of some specific issue, it does not cohere with ideas surrounding it. The best example I can think of right now is the argument over the definition of ‘atheist’ to mean “to claim there is no god” rather than “the lack of belief in a god”.

    When someone says this is mere semantics, they are right and quibbling rarely helps in any way, except when being very precise and attempting to be super logically consistent. I do attempt consistency, so I do sometimes quibble in this way if I think its important and warranted.

    So yes, I am indeed sensitive to that and appreciate it.

    But the use I ran into today (via the email list for the Freethought Society) was different. It was used more along the lines of “you are distinguishing between subtly different ideas or uses of a term which have little to no difference in most cases”. It is not merely using different words for the same idea (or vice-versa) but complaining that a word or idea has been parsed beyond their desire of that person to split hairs.

    specifically, the issue was the use of “illusion” when talking about free will. I was distinguishing between the phenomenological experience, or sensation of freedom of will versus the actual freedom of said will. In response the interlocutor simply said “semantics”

    Granted, the word ‘illusion’ was originally a mere confusion of uses, but when uses were parsed for the sake of distinguishing between concepts, then semantics was brought up. I see this a lot. Parsing uses of a term in such ways is a legitimate move here, and is not merely quibbling, because the difference in concepts was specifically relevant.

    That was the point of my rant. Since I quickly composed it at the end of my lunch, I could not further explicate the issue, thus leading to a meta-issue of the quibbling of the word ‘semantic’ and my subsequent parsing of the idea. Sort of a meta-phor as it were…

    Douglass Hofstadter would be proud.

  3. I ran across this at random on Google and had to respond. If you’ve never read Wittgenstein, you might like him. He’s a bit esoteric, so it may take a couple reads for it to come together, but, fortunately, his writings are short and pithy. An important theme that comes across in his philosophy, though, is that, in a sense, everything is semantics. In fact, it was largely his contributions that provoked the analytic tradition in philosophy, as opposed to the more obscurantist style of Continental philosophy. This is entirely in my own words, but think of it in the following sense: Nobody’s definition of any word is entirely entailed by what is provided in the OED or Webster’s. That’s not how cognition works, with the possible exception of some cognitively impaired savants. Every word is surrounded by a cloud of connotations and relations that are informed by the unique contingencies of our lives, so no two people truly conceive the same word in precisely the same way. Much of these nuances of meaning do not intrude on interpersonal communication, but they certainly can. Wittgenstein made the point, and i paraphrase egregiously, that, unless we know that we agree on our signifiers, then how can we be certain what we’re even talking about? Two people can appear to completely disagree on a topic, when, under a close examination of their shared linguistic experience, agree more than they realize, and vice versa. People who dismiss semantics out of hand do not understand the distinction between sophistry, or semantic sleight of hand, which is a legitimate complaint, and the very real epistemological concerns at the nexus between the subjective, the objective, and the intersubjective.

  4. Nick,

    Yes, I have read Wittgenstein. He is among my favorites, actually. I don’t remember if I was thinking about ol’ Witty when I wrote the post, but he would probably have been lurking in the subconscious at very least.

    In any case, thanks for stopping in and commenting! Stop by anytime you want to hear more about philosophy, deviant lifestyles, or stories about toilet paper (that’s Gina’s thing).

  5. Thank you. I have been glancing at various articles and quickly scanning them. We seem to be very much of the same mind, but, more importantly, you clearly have a respect for rational/logical reasoning, which is all I really ask of anyone, agree or disagree. Trying to engage in a substantive discussion with someone who lacks those crucial cognitive skills is like trying to play the Brandenburg concertos with a fish. You may find me commenting from time to time here if something particularly catches my fancy, or I feel that some crucial point of argument has been missed.

  6. Nick,

    That means a fair bit to me. I like intelligent and rational people hanging around here. I will look forward to you adding something I miss, correcting me if I err (it happens), or pwning a commenter if I’m too busy.


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