Semantics: The Study of Implication (A Dramatic Reframing)


In this essay, I would like to make a formal submission to the semantics community to retrain its focus on what I believe is the root interest in the field.  I speak here of the field of semantics, not the field of general semantics.  While I talk in this forum usually of general semantics, I pause that discussion in light of some ideas that have surfaced in general semantics to apply them to the field of semantics, and thereby transform the focus of the semantics field.

I submit, in the form of a thesis, the proposition that semantics is the study of implication.  This idea, albeit relatively uninformed by actual professional or academic semantic study, I divine as new, a characterization of which I may be mistaken.  However, I take as lightweight but inspiring support a recent search of the Wikipedia page for “Semantics,” and I don’t find to date the use of the word “implication,” except in a citation pointing not to a study of implication.

Herein, I aim to persuade the reader that semantics deals primarily with implication, and not primarily with definition, signification, or some other more mechanical, mathematical, or otherwise deterministic interpretation of definienda.  By dealing primarily with implication, semantics is properly viewed as a behavioral science, and lexicons like dictionaries are viewed as historical documents telling the general implications of words in their time and times–historical documents of human mental behavior–and not listings of definitions per se.  This is to say that definitions are simply kinds of implications.  To study definitions in the field of semantics is to take merely a special interest inside the overarching field, and insofar as that special interest is rigid, that special interest is a fetishization of definitions.

“The Study of Meaning”

Many sources, whether they be periodical or human, will cite that semantics is “the study of meaning.”  I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden point out in their famous The Meaning of Meaning that the word “meaning” has a number of different definitions.  Their point demonstrates that the word “meaning” and its counterparts (“mean,” “means,” “meant,” “meaningful,” etc.) have a level of genericity that complicates their absolute and definitivie interpretation in the contexts in which they appear.  That is, the words “meaning,” etc., are generic, and in being generic, they aren’t specific, and in not being specific, they are open to interpretation, and in being open to interpretation, they are plagued with the potential for misinterpretation.  That they are misinterpreted is illustrated by academic and philosophical discussion of meaning throughout civilization, having an undercurrent of the unfamiliar despite being such a familiar, everyday concept.

This is to say that to say semantics is “the study of meaning” is to open up for interpretation what exactly the study of semantics is of.  “Meaning” means what?  What kind of meaning?  Is it the study of words and their definitions?  Is it the study of literary symbols and their interpretations?  Is it the study of terrestrial events and their possible consequences?   Is it the study of the relevance of activities in time toward the achievement of particular goals?  If it is but the study of words and their definitions, why is it not the study of these other events, which are situations in which the word “meaning” is also pragmatically used?


When we ask the question, “What does that mean?,” in most cases but the truly exceptional, we are asking the question, “What does that imply?”  If we ask that of a word, someone else may follow with a definition, but she may also follow with a synonym, a translation, a photograph, a non-verbal referent like an actual thing, etc.  That is, definitions are not the only answer to that simple question of meaning, and meanings aren’t always definitions.  In fact, a number of referents can meet the criterion we naturally have for calling something “a meaning.”  The word “semantics” and the word “meaning” do not exclusively cover definitions.

Definitions, as well as those other referents, are formally classed as implications.  Lest you think of “implication” as a highfalutin concept, instead it is a simple idea, a cognitive response the human body has to a stimulus.  That is, first there is some sort of stimulus, followed second by neural responses that construct what that stimulus implies to the human.  Meeting in nature a growling wolf with snarling teeth and dripping saliva implies you’re about to be attacked.  Meeting the word “Enter” on a door implies you can pass through and into a store.  There really is no difference between these two stimuli, one non-veral, one verbal, each neurological.  Semantics, I argue, may study both.

But implications manifest in the human body in ways other than because of non-verbal or verbal stimuli.  Reading the news, an editor may posit, “What do the events in Egypt mean for the stability of the Middle East or North  Africa?”  To ask that question is to get one wondering about the implications of the events, to think about consequences.  The events are not language–they are empirical events–but they can still imply things to people, mainly because they can stir implications in people.  For people with no grasp of the happenings in that region of the world, the implications may be few–for example, a 2-year-old experiences few implications in light of the news.  However, a scholar in Egyptian political science may experience countless implications as a result of the news.  If semantics is the study of implication, a subfield of semantics studies the meaning (implications) of world events.

And the answer to the question “What do the events in Egypt mean for the stability of the Middle East or North  Africa?” can lead to many different kinds of answers.  There may be social answers, political answers, geographic answers, geneological answers, cartographical answers, American answers, Libyan answers, Muslim answers, Catholic answers, U.S. Presidential answers, tourismal answers, economic answers, predictive answers, scientific answes, mathematical answers, statistical answers, and the list goes on.  In terms of society, the events imply ___.  In terms of politics, the events imply ___.  In terms of statistics, the events imply ___.  And so on.

Cassius Keyser & Alfred Korzybski

Cassius Keyser, the respected Columbia University mathematics professor whose interest also was in philosophy, covered the topic of implication eloquently in his book Mathematical Philosophy.  While Keyser does not seem to get into covering the human-behavioral component of implication, his friend, engineer and polymath Alfred Korzybski, regarded thinking as behavior, and thus would likely regard implication as behavior as well.

While not explicitly saying so, Korzybski preferred the term “semantic reaction,” which might be interpreted as “implication” given how he uses the term as referring to the reactions humans have to words and events in connection to their meanings.  Korzybski spoke of total-body (“organismal”) reactions to words and events–which is to discuss, I argue, the psychosomatic implications of words and events like “Enter” and a snarling wolf.  That is, in my opinion, when Korzybski was talking about semantic reactions, he was talking about implications.  The name of the field he developed, “General Semantics,” I argue in an earlier essay simply means “General Implications,” and his field is not so much about words but about non-aristotelian thinking, and the general implications of non-aristotelian thinking.  (His major work, Science and Sanity, is subtitled An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.)

Applying These Insights to the Field of Semantics

Any derivative field of semantics that tries to lock up absolutely the meaning (implication) of a word is on the wrong path, at least on the whole.  Given that human behavior is variable, what is implied by words varies with each individual.  Of course we know this on the whole, but semanticists (or their respective philosophers) may still not believe so.  For example, the Wikipedia entry for “Semantics” contains the phrase “the meaning of signs,” as if single meanings could be applied to signs.  A more scientific formulation would be the phrase “the meanings of signs,” which implies that signs have meanings, not some single meaning to be understood.  That is, signs imply multiple ideas, no question, so signs have multiple implications, never just one implication.

Semantics may focus itself on different kinds of implication in its division into subfields.  For the historian interested in the implications of words over time, especially as phrased into other words (definitions), that semanticist might be involved in “verbal lexical semantics.”  That is, verbal lexical semantics is the study of the implications of words as manifest as other words.  If the semanticist is more interested in the implications of words not as words but as pictures or some other more visual referent, that semanticist might be involved in “non-verbal lexical semantics.”  Non-verbal lexical semantics is the study of the implications of words as manifest as empirical entities.  To use a more korzybskian phraseology, for the semanticist interested in non-verbal lexical semantics, that semanticist studies extensional semantics, while the semanticist interested in verbal lexical semantics studies intensional semantics.

But what of the semanticist who studies the consequences of world events?  That editor who poses the question “What is the meaning of these events?” may be implying “What consequences may occur because of these events?”  That semanticist is a non-linguistic semanticist.  That is, that editor “reads” events as if they were language, and makes characterizations about what those events imply.  Many fields offer their own non-linguistic semantic account of events.  A forensic scientist (“criminal semanticist”) might say, “If the defendant’s DNA was on the victim in that manner, that means the defendant had contact with the victim.”  A meteorologist (“weather semanticist”) might offer for the viewer the implications of a cold front’s approaching the area.  A statistician (“statistical semanticist”) might offer his insights on which player to bat in light of what that slugger’s stats imply in the moment.  Excuse the exaggeration, but non-linguistic semanticists are “everywhere.”  They ask the question about meanings (implications) about given ___s.

Now, Please Inform Me

With these claims, I realize they may be misinformed or juvenile.  However, I hope they are anything but.  I hope they get you thinking about the field of semantics, and open it up away from some kind of quest for 1:1 correpondence between word and definition.  Semantics deals with implication, not just definition, and with that broad reframing I believe is the potential to open the field up for more valuable contributions to society.  As we better understand language, we better use language.  At least I think that’s what I’m implying.

Please comment below.  Again, semantics is the study of implication.

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