The Necessity of Semantics
Jan 9, 2011

The Necessity of Semantics

One of the joys of being a mathematician is that the language of mathematics is very precise, allowing for clear, definitive, and unambiguous statements. Indeed, the ability to prove theorems requires just this level of precision.

The English language is unfortunately nowhere near as precise. This becomes a problem when trying to analyze political considerations as it inhibits the ability to arrive at objective and logical deductions given the lack of clarity in so many political statements.

This is where semantics comes in. The ability to state very clearly what one means by various words and phrases increases the specificity of a political statement. And the more precise and focused a statement is, the easier it is to apply logical considerations to it.

A good general heuristic from mathematics that applies in political analysis is that the more specific a claim is the easier it is to prove and likewise the more general a claim is the harder it is to prove. By focusing on semantics to narrow broad and imprecise political claims to narrow and specific ones, we can increase our chances of logically deducing them.

Previously, I brought up the analogy between political discussion and formal systems. We can extend the analogy in the following sense. A key component of a formal system is a distinct language in which the axioms, deductions and rules of inference are cast. One has an alphabet and a grammar. In math, this language is typically mathematical symbols grouped in specific ways although the terminology was of course motivated by conventional language. In politics, the language returns to the motivating case: English.  The role of semantics can be seen as creating a more precise language in our formal system.

Political debates all to often devolve into semantic quibbles, largely as we attempt to use loaded words that intrinsically emphasize our positions. While this should be avoided, we should embrace the need to spend some time worrying about semantics and being quite explicitly clear about what we mean before claiming statements. In so doing, we increase our ability to logical derive political statements from given assumptions.

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