Semantics, General Semantics: An Attempt at Definition

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SEMANTICS. (1) The branch of historical linguistic study that deals systematically with the changes in the meanings of words, as the lexico-prapher understands 'meaning'; semasiology. (2) The study of human responses to linguistic (and other) symbols; the study of human behavior with, and under the stimulus of symbols, including the linguistic; signifies. [Originally reprinted from Dictionary of World Literature by permission of the editor, Dr. Joseph T. Shipley, and the publishers, Philosophical Library, Inc., 15 E. 40th St., New York 16, N.Y.]

Since the publication in 1923 of The Meaning of Meaning by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, interest in and controversy about semantics have become so widespread that it is possible now to speak of a 'semantics movement.' The term 'semantics,' in spite of its original use by Michel Breal to designate historical inquiries into changes in the meanings of words, is now used more frequently to refer to the kind of inquiry initiated and encouraged by Lady Viola Welby under the name 'signifies.' Signifies was to her 'the science of meaning or the study of significance, provided sufficient recognition is given to its practical aspect as a method of mind, one which is involved in all forms of' mental activity, including that of logic.' The study of 'significance' was to her far more than the study of words, it was also the study of acts and situations; 'significance' itself was more than lexical 'meaning' or 'finding the referent'; it included both insight into motives and moral judgment. The object of her study, then, was the total interpretative act, the reaction of the individual to signs and sign-situations. Out of such study, she urged, would develop general principles of interpretation and evaluation, a 'method of mind.' This 'method of mind' should be applied generally in all intellectual endeavors and especially in education, in order to escape the 'hotbed of confusion,' the 'prison of senseless formalism,' and the 'barren controversy' which are the result, first, of the defects of our inherited languages (The leading civilizations of the world have been content to perpetuate modes of speech once entirely fitting but now grossly inappropriate') and secondly, of defects in our habits of interpretation. She proposed, therefore, systematic revisions in both.

One of the central points in 'signifies' was that many crucial problems which have disturbed both practical men and philosophers for centuries are essentially linguistic, that is, they are the accidental result of the particular set of linguistic conventions one happens to inherit. They may also be the result of unconsciously held assumptions about language and its relationship to whatever words stand for, these assumptions being in turn the result of ignorance of the functions performed by language. Support for Lady Welby's contentions (which, of course, had been anticipated in part by many philosophers from Francis Bacon to Jeremy Bentham) has gathered from many and unexpected quarters since her time, and the word 'semantics' is now generally used to indicate the speculations and findings in many fields of knowledge which throw light on the problems she raised. One group, the mathematicians and philosophers of 'logical positivist,' empirical rationalist,' and 'physicalist' points of view, by making sharp discriminations between the various functions of language, has demonstrated, at least to its own satisfaction, that metaphysical problems, being by nature incapable of empirical solution, had best not be discussed at all. Other problems, they maintain, are translatable in 'analytical' form, and when translated they reveal themselves not to be problems of 'reality' at all, but merely problems of vocabulary. That is to say, the 'necessary propositions' of logic and mathematics give us information not about the universe but about our use of words. In the light of an adequate theory of signs, or semiotic, we shall have a basis, according to leading members of this group (Otto Neurath, Rudolph Carnap, Bertrand Russell, C. …