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Words, Bloodly Words.

In arguing for the importance of conceptual issues, I sometimes hear the reply: “Well, that’s just semantics”. The objection (if it can be regarded as such) is then generalized: “Philosophers just play with words.” To which it is sometimes added: “Scientists, on the other hand, do the real work.” Variants of these phrases include: “Why should we care?” and “Where’s the evidence?”

There are, of course, many ways of responding to these phrases. But I’ve often wondered why some people find such phrases so appealing. My impression is that these phrases beguile because they suggest a certain picture of the world. According to this picture, the world seemingly divides into, on the one hand, stuff (e.g. the medium sized entities you see around you – bodies, trees etc) and on the other, the words we use to categorise that stuff (e.g. concepts like “person”, “human being”, “oak”, “elm”). This picture looks attractive because it suggests that while you or I may disagree about how exactly to categorise the stuff we see around us, there nonetheless remains some fact of the matter that can settle our (or anyone else’s) disagreement. Hence, arguments about concepts are just so much playing with words. What really counts is the stuff.

It is worth recognizing, however, that this is only a picture, and not a very sophisticated one at that. Indeed, this picture can be replaced. For one could take the alternative view that conceptual issues matter, not because words are all there is, but rather because our concepts shape and structure our engagements with the world around us and hence investigating that world inevitably spins us back upon our own concepts. One of the advantages of this alternative view is that it regards science and philosophy as mutual (and not sparring) partners. Bad philosophy can be rectified with good science. Equally, bad science can be rectified with good philosophy. None of this is to play with words. Rather it is to take our investigative commitments seriously.

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