Steven Pinker on the Consequences of Semantics in Politics

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President Obama and VP Biden await updates on bin Laden. Photo by Pete Souza.

Semantics is about the reaction of words to thoughts, to human concerns, to reality, to community and to emotions.  We describe this process as conceptual semantics. In other words, conceptual semantics are the language of thought.

This concept is distinct from language in itself.  If it were not, “…we would have nothing to go on when we debate what words mean,” says Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought.

Using his expertise in the topics of language and cognition, Steven Pinker sets out some key theories to help us to understand how we communicate.

Incompatible Ways of Framing Our Thoughts

“We frame our thoughts in different and sometimes incompatible ways. This can be good for the richness of our creativity and intellectual pursuits… humour and drama.”

But the downside of the stuff of our thoughts can have devastating effects on our lives.  Pinker gives some examples of incompatible ways of framing our thoughts:

“Does stem cell research destroy a ball of cells or an incipient human?

“Does abortion consist of ending a pregnancy or killing a child?

“Are high taxes a way to redistribute wealth or to confiscate earnings?”

Pinker quotes other, and regular, everyday ways of framing, for example, describing an activist judge as a freedom judge, or taxes as membership fees. We might think of many other areas of our regular lives where this happens.  Here are a few from The Stuff of Thought, showing attractive, neutral and offensive ways of looking.

“I am slim; you are thin; he is scrawny;” “I am a perfectionist; you are anal; he is a control freak;”  “I am exploring my sexuality; you are promiscuous, she is a slut.”

However, there are even more deep and disturbing elements to the ways in which semantics works with the thoughts in our heads. The following are two examples from recent history.

World Trade Center and Semantics: The Seven Billion Dollar Insurance Payout

The importance of semantics is regularly demonstrated by its impact on political disputes and outcomes.  An example given by Pinker in his book is the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the subsequent battle for billions of pounds between the leaseholder of the World Trade Centre, Larry Silverstein, and the insurance companies.

The problem was that the leaseholder’s insurance policies “…stipulated a maximum reimbursement for each event.”  However, the opposing parties could not reach an agreement on what constituted an “event.”  The two towers, the north tower and the south tower, were destroyed in two separate attacks.  So was this one event, or was it two?

 “The lawyers for the leaseholder defined it in physical terms (2 collapses) while the lawyers for the insurance companies defined it in mental terms, (one plot.)”

For one event, the leaseholder would receive 3.5 billion dollars. For two events, the payout would be 7 billion dollars.

(The issue was further clouded by a third “event,” that of a third plane that was hijacked, thus preventing it from reaching its proposed target in Washington.)

What, Exactly, is an ‘Event’ in Semantics?

We use words to represent reality inside our heads.  As Pinker says:

“As we shall see, the categories in this dispute permeate the meanings of words in our language because they permeate the way we represent reality in our heads… An event is a stretch of time, and time, according to physicists, is a continuous variable – an inexorable cosmic flow in Newton’s world, or a fourth dimension in a seamless hyper space in Einstein’s. But the human mind carves this fabric into the discrete swatches we call events.”

As far as conceptual semantics are concerned, we believe and understand that it was the action of bin Laden that caused the terrible destruction of 9/11.  In other words, there is a causal connection between bin Laden and this particular object (or objects.)  Pinker describe this as “…an inventory of concepts and schemes that combine into conceptual semantics.”

Let’s look at the second example, based on the indeterminacy of a single statement.

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