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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: September 2009

5 - Semantic instability: a containable threat


The confident assumption of semantic universality is implicit in early-modern linguistic theory. Though philosophers rarely spell it out, it is this that grounds their system of communication. They take it for granted that there is one set of meanings that underlies all languages and that, as a result, people can mean the same things and communicate with each other. Semantic uniformity is inferred from the uniformity of human understanding and the unity of the world. Philosophers take their cue from that seminal passage in De interpretatione where Aristotle declares that although languages diverge, the thoughts and, in turn, the objects they signify ‘are the same for the whole of mankind’. In his commentary on this passage, Aquinas reminds us of the reason why this is so: ‘simple conceptions of the intellect’, such as the essence of ‘man’ (while they have been actively abstracted by men) have not been ‘composed’ or ‘divided’, are incapable of truth or falsity, and therefore ‘must be the same in all’. The impression of a common semantic discourse is entrenched by the grammarians and logicians who talk unconcernedly about that res which convention has assigned to a certain verbum. A meaning is treated as though it were one unproblematic, discrete object – indeed, we have seen how this characterisation teeters on the brink between figural and real.